Thrashers CHL prospects season review

By Holly Gunning

The CHL was a showcase for Atlanta Thrashers prospects this season. Two goaltenders led their junior league in goaltending categories this year, Dan Turple and Ondrej Pavelec. The past two first round picks also played here, Alex Bourret in the QMJHL, and Boris Valabik in the OHL. Two Chads had breakout seasons, Chad Painchaud and Chad Denny.

With their seasons ending, many will make the transition to professional hockey late this year or over the summer. The announcement of signings are imminent.

OHL

Dan Turple, G
Kitchener Rangers (OHL), Age: 21
6th round, 186th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Turple was the best goaltender in the OHL this season, whose .924 save percentage led the league as did his 2.25 GAA and seven shutouts.

Steve Spott, the Kitchener Rangers Assistant General Manager and Associate Head Coach, told Hockey’s Future in January that “[Turple] is very quick and his ability to make the big saves at crucial times in the game is what separates Dan from other goaltenders at this level.”

The 6’6 Turple was named the OHL goaltender of the Month for both January and February, with a record of 17-3-1-0 over that span. He was also named the Jim Malleck Memorial Trophy winner as the team’s Most Valuable Player, posting a 40-win season (40-15-1-1).

Turple must be signed by Jun. 1 and there’s little question it will happen. The 21-year-old would have turned pro last season if not for shoulder surgery over the summer.

Kitchener trails Owen Sound 2-1 in their first-round playoff series. Turple made 45 saves in their game three overtime victory.

Boris Valabik, D
Kitchener Rangers (OHL), Age: 20
1st round, 10th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Boris Valabik had a good, but not outstanding, season with Kitchener. He was part of the Rangers top-ranked penalty-killing unit, and even received the second most votes in the best defensive defenseman category in the OHL Western Conference in the Coaches poll. He was third on his team in plus/minus at +18.

In the same poll, he came in tied for second behind Rob Schremp (EDM) for hardest shot. He also won the hardest shot competition in OHL All-Star Skills Competition at the end of January with a 96.3 miles per hour blast. If he used the shot more often, he might have more than the one goal on the season. In total, he had 10 points in 52 games. He had six points in six games at the 2006 WJC, skating for Slovakia.

Valabik has little offensive upside and still needs to work on his mobility, but he’s big and has a mean streak. He brought his penalty minute rate per game down from 5.37 last year to 4.15 this year. He led his team in PIMs with 216.

In his third year in the OHL, he took on a leadership role.

“Not only a guy like Jakub Kindl (DET), but I see guys come up to me and ask about things, you know like, ‘Boris, that’s not right and what do you think if this.’ It feels good that guys trust you enough to come to you to talk about their problems. And the team trusted me enough to put an ‘A’ on my sweater. It just shows that they feel I have done the right things over the past two years.”

Valabik is looking forward to Thrashers training camp in the fall, something he didn’t get to participate in this year thanks to a torn muscle in the Traverse City tournament.

“It [was] frustrating, because I want to show that I belong with the team. But I had the muscle tear and, well, at least I had a chance to talk with a few of the guys. [Marian] Hossa and [Andy] Sutton were good to me. They told me not to worry because I am young, I will have lots of time.”

Valabik has been signed to an entry–level contract this week.

Tomas Pospisil, RW
Sarnia Sting (OHL), Age: 18
5th round, 135th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Tomas Pospisil had a terrific rookie season with the OHL Sarnia Sting, finishing fourth in rookie scoring in the league with 55 points in 60 games. It was a surprisingly easy adjustment for the 18-year-old Czech native, who spent last year with Trinec, skating for both the junior and men’s teams.

Playing on a skill line for Sarnia, sometimes with Chad Painchaud, he showed some impressive moves. He was stationed along the half wall on the power play and retained control of the puck very well when pressured in the offensive zone, and his defensive play was good as well. Going through traffic in the neutral zone is one area where he struggled.

Sarnia Head Coach Shawn Camp described Pospisil as a streak scorer, with flurries of points, but said he was as good late as early in the season. He was able to maintain his play despite the increased number of games for him, the high amount of travel, and the more physical play.

Pospisil will almost certainly return to Sarnia next season, but he’ll have a new coach as Camp was fired at the end of the season. The good news is that Sarnia has the first overall pick in the bantam draft, so they will have a chance to improve in a hurry. Pospisil will be looked to as a veteran to lead the offense.

Chad Painchaud, RW
Sarnia Sting (OHL), Age: 19
4th round, 106th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Chad Painchaud set career highs in all offensive categories this season, playing on the same team as Pospisil. He was sidelined with a torn knee ligament on Feb. 7 as the result of a knee on knee collision.

The 19-year-old finished with 31 goals and 34 assists in 49 games, and led the Sting in goals, assists and points, despite his season ending early. He came in third in voting for best shot in the Western Conference in the OHL Coaches poll behind Rob Schremp (EDM) and Mike Blunden (CHI).

“Chad’s really figured out what it takes to be a player,” Sarnia Coach Shawn Camp said in February. “He was a committed player, but he’s learned there’s a lot more to the game than just playing the game itself. His off-ice preparation, how he trains, using weights, using the bike, getting proper rest, making sure that he’s up for every game. Those kinds of things really helped his production this year.”

Camp projected that Painchaud would have a pretty smooth transition to pro hockey.

“He’ll go through the growing pains that most young players do. Just adapting to how quick everything happens. He’s certainly fast enough to play at that level. He needs to continue to be physical, like he has been at our level. He needs to be using his speed. He has good instincts, he sees the ice very well. We think that he’ll be a good pro because spatially he sees everything happening. It slows down for him nicely so the game isn’t too rushed for him. I think that playing with skilled players, he sees the ice so well, he’ll be a nice fit.”

One of Painchaud’s best attributes is great wheels, putting in the best lap time in 14.255 seconds in the OHL All-Star Skills Competition at the end of January. Winning that contest didn’t surprise Camp at all.

“He’s extremely quick, he’s quick off the mark, and he’s fast over the long haul too,” Camp noted. “He’s got speed to burn and he uses it well, wide speed on defensemen. He’s embarrassed a number of players this year by how quick he can move in and out.”

With his speed by far his best asset, the knee injury is a concern, but it won’t stop the Thrashers from signing the winger by the Jun. 1 deadline.

Scott Lehman, D
Toronto St. Michael’s Majors (OHL), Age: 20
3rd round, 76th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Lehman more than doubled his point production rate in 2005-06, to .81 points per game from the back line with 55 in 68 games. He spent most of the year partnered with the underrated 19-year-old Ryan Wilson, who himself had 61 points in 64 games. Lehman ended the regular season tied for eighth among OHL defensemen in points.

Lehman participated in the 2006 OHL All-Star game along with Valabik. His St. Micheal’s Majors were swept 4-0 in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series versus Barrie on Tuesday.

Drafted in 2004, Lehman will now turn pro and must be signed by Jun. 1.

QMJHL

Ondrej Pavelec, G
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL), Age: 18
2nd round, 41st overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

A rookie coming over from the Czech junior league, Ondrej Pavelec was stellar in the QMJHL. He led the league with a .929 save percentage and his 2.51 GAA was second overall during the regular season, first among regulars. The next highest save percentage was a distant .914. He had a 27-18 record for the Screaming Eagles, and his 27 wins led all rookies. There are several pieces of hardware he could take home at the end of the season. NHL GM’s were leary to select Europeans in the last draft due to the lack of an IIHF agreement. Pavelec is a player who will have them second-guessing themselves.

Pavelec did not slow down at all with the large number of games he played — if anything, he got better. He was Rookie of the Month for February and was named QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season for Feb. 20 – Mar. 2 after registering a 2-1-0 record, one shutout, 1.34 GAA and .963 save percentage in three games during that span.

Cape Breton is playing St. John’s in the first round of the playoffs. Pavelec has a .932 save percentage after three games.

Alex Bourret, LW/C
Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL), Age: 19
1st round, 16th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Bourret’s move to Shawinigan paired him with one of the league’s better playmakers in Boston prospect Benoit Mondou. He led the team in points with a career-high 114 in 67 games, and was second in goals with 44, but was also fourth on the team in PIM. He finished the regular season eighth in scoring in the QMJHL.

He started slowly and was not invited to the final camp of the Canadian Junior Team in December. He played very well in December and was once named the Offensive Player of the Week. He didn’t have a great month of January, but came out strong again in February. On one night he recorded six points in a single game and was again named the QMJHL Offensive Player of the Week. He is recognized by the observers across the QMJHL to be one of the best when he decides to show grit and heart, but he lacks consistency in his efforts.

Bourret played mostly wing this season and alongside center Mondou, with different right wingers. He also played center himself once in a while. Bourret scored 10 game-winning goals, tied for second in the league. A tireless worker in the corners, who elevated his play in crunch time, Bourret is one of the better leaders in the league.

Drafted for his physicality as well as his offense, the 5’10 Bourret has improved his renowned poor conditioning. He also brought improved discipline to complement his intense, in-your-face physical play.

When a player is scoring at a 1.70 points per game pace, it’s probably time to move them to higher competition. The Thrashers told Bourret last month to finish his season well if he wishes to be signed this year, and he responded very well to this encouragement. He will have a decent chance at making the NHL roster in the fall. With an October birthday, he will be old enough to play in the AHL if he does not make the team.

Shawinigan is trailing Rouyn-Noranda 3-1 in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs.

Chad Denny, D
Lewiston MAINEiacs (QMJHL), Age: 19
2nd round, 49th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Denny has been a surprise to many this season, most everyone except the Thrashers, who took him in the second round of last year’s draft.

Among Denny’s many good qualities: broad skills with the puck including a howitzer of a slapshot, hockey smarts, and the ability to play forward as well as defense. His best attribute is his willingness to mix it up physically. His big frame at 6’2, 210 pounds and great mobility allow him to throw some truly devastating hits. He led the team in hits by a large margin.

Denny took on a greater offensive role this season, putting up 47 points in 62 games for Lewiston, including 19 goals. He plays on both special teams and led his team in plus/minus with +16. He finished third on the team in shots, using his big point shot on the second power play unit for eight power-play goals.

When he’s on the ice, he’s in control of the game. In one game earlier this year, Lewiston was down 5-1 to Moncton and he led the charge back for his team, scoring a wicked point shot goal. He was determined, swatting opponents away like flies as he moved through. Lewiston won 6-5.

Lewiston is playing Halifax in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs, and Denny has elevated his game even further in the playoffs, playing big minutes in key situations, even though Lewiston has great defensive depth. The series is tied 2-2. While he’s arguably ready for pro hockey already, he’ll probably play one more year in the QMJHL.

Jordan LaVallee, LW
Quebec Remparts (QMJHL), Age: 19
4th round, 116th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

After scoring an impressive 40 goals in 2004-05, Jordan LaVallee had just 18 on the season, in a year shortened by a nagging back injury. After missing nearly three months of action to start the season, he had 37 points in 37 games. He did finish strong, with 14 points in his last 11 games.

Luckily for his team, LaVallee did not need to play as key an offensive role for this year’s Remparts, who had three deep scoring lines. He was a valuable power-play contributor and strong in front of the net, but tended to shy away from the physical side of the game, which was one of his biggest strengths, playing more tentative as a result of his back issues. His penalty minutes dropped significantly, from 1.69 per game last season to .92 this year, vividly showing how the injury took away the edge in the power forward’s game. No one watching him this year would describe him as a banger or crasher.

One very good asset LaVallee does display is his skating. He seems to have an extra gear that surprises defenders as he comes into the zone. He has a smooth stride and can dangle the puck as he moves through traffic. LaVallee’s skill managed to still stand out even on a team with offensive dynamos like Alexander Radulov (NAS) and Angelo Esposito.

LaVallee does not have to be signed until June 1, 2007, but drafted a year older than most players, he will more than likely be signed this summer in order to move him on to higher competition. He’ll have something to prove when he does turn pro — that his 2004-05 season was a sign of things to come.

Quebec is playing Val D’Or in the first round of the playoffs and is up 3-1. LaVallee has just one point in four playoff games.

WHL

Myles Stoesz, RW
Spokane Chiefs (WHL), Age: 19
7th round, 207th overall 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Stoesz, who began his career as a defenseman, had been used as a winger a bit last year, but was fully converted to one this season. Ironically though, his scoring dropped from nine points to two points. The 6’1 197-pound Stoesz will never be known for his scoring prowess, racking up 260 penalty minutes in 56 games instead. He finished second in the WHL in penalty minutes.

The toughest guys on the ice are also usually the nicest ones off the ice. The pattern holds true with Stoesz, selected as humanitarian of the year on his team.

Stoesz will continue with Spokane next season. The team did not qualify for the playoffs this year.

Juraj Gracik, RW
Tri-City Americans (WHL), Age: 19
5th round, 142nd overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Compared to his rookie season in the WHL, 2005-06 was a big success for Gracik. He had 45 points in 53 games, 22 of them goals. He also played in the WJC for Slovakia along with Valabik.

Tri-City Head Coach Don Nachbaur spoke well of Gracik’s development in January.

“Well, a good kid, number one. Last year he really felt his way around the league and really when he just started learning how hard to compete he got hurt. So he spent the first part of this season kind of re-learning the game here and I think he’s really come into his own. His play away from the puck, he’s not your typical European, he’s really dedicated to being a good defensive forward and he’s got skill to compliment Ian MacDonald and Jason Beeman. And he certainly brings enough creativity to be an offensive guy for us.”

Gracik’s season was cut short again this year when he sprained his knee on March 11, in a knee on knee hit with Spokane’s Adam Hobson.

Gracik was named Most Gentlemanly on his club. He had just 36 penalty minutes all season.

Drafted out of Slovakia in 2004, the Thrashers would have until this summer to sign Gracik. With so many rookies coming on board in the fall, however, there won’t be a place for him.

Glen Erickson, Phil Laugher, Kevin Forbes, Glen Jackson, and Simon Richard contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.