Thrashers 2005-06 rookie review

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers had eight rookies who spent time with the team this season, three of them goaltenders. Kari Lehtonen and Jim Slater were full-time Thrashers, while Michael Garnett, Adam Berkhoel, Mark Popovic, Derek MacKenzie and Karl Stewart got chances due to injuries. Braydon Coburn started the year with the team, but spent the majority of it in the minors.

Below is a review of each rookie’s season and the outlook for each player heading into the new year.

Kari Lehtonen, G

Lehtonen suffered a groin injury during training camp, missing 10 days of preparation and incurring the wrath of Head Coach Bob Hartley for poor conditioning. He recovered just before the start of the season, but suffered another injury in the first period of the first game when Florida’s Nathan Horton crashed into him. The injury was originally thought to be his groin again, but was determined to be a deeper issue that caused additional strain on his groin, a problem with the muscles attaching more on top of the leg, which kept him out until January.

“Kari’s injury wasn’t his groin, it was more his core muscles,” General Manager Don Waddell explained recently. “The way he was training was improper. Going back to October, if we had taken care of his injury the way it was going at that point, he probably would have played in December sometime. Probably a month earlier. But to get him throughout the year, they felt they needed a good eight weeks with him to really strengthen those core muscles and that’s what we gave him.”

Lehtonen explained that he had been arching his back too much when he did his exercises, which the specialists he saw helped him pinpoint.

“It’s kind of like stretching, but the big thing is moving stuff, like walking lunges and stuff like that. I used to do them all wrong and arching my back. I wasn’t balanced, I was sideways usually. That’s what I used to do on the ice and that’s how we can get it out, to do walking lunges and stuff like that. He knows when I’m doing something wrong and he corrects me. I had no clue what I was doing before. That’s going to help me on the ice.”

Changes he said he had to make were to “my starting position. I used to be kind of sideways in net, but we’re trying to correct it. It’s the only thing I’ve changed. I haven’t changed any other things.”

When Lehtonen returned, he played well, though not brilliantly. He finished 18th in the NHL in save percentage at .906, just behind Carolina’s Martin Gerber. His record was 20-15-0 in 38 games, never losing past the end of regulation.

The team began the “rally helmet” tradition at the same time as Lehtonen came back from his groin injury. While some might attribute the team’s success with the backwards helmets to good luck, it’s clear that the intervening variable was Lehtonen. He was a perfect 5-for-5 in the shootout, while Dunham, Garnett and Shields combined won none. Lehtonen’s .850 shootout percentage was the best in the NHL.

Lehtonen was invited to play for Finland in the Olympics in February, but opted to use the time to continue his rehab. After the break, his rebound control continued to improve. With the introduction of the trapezoid, he was also much less adventurous when it came to stickhandling, and that may be a good thing.

On Apr. 6, he was injured again in a collision at the net, this time by Tampa Bay’s Chris Dingman.
He suffered an ankle sprain, which kept him out the remainder of the season.

“Fortunately his second injury wasn’t anything to do with [his core muscles]. He needs to spend the summer continuing to strengthen those muscles and it’s how he conditions. That’s why he’s going to stay here with (strength and conditioning coach) Ray Bear.”

The idea is to “try to do some preventative medicine and maintenance before we get into the season. Injuries are part of the game, but I think you can also prepare for seasons in different ways and try to avoid some of these.”

At the end of the year, Hartley reiterated that Lehtonen is a franchise player for the Thrashers, along with Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. He thinks this year was one that will mature the 22-year-old.

“There’s a time in life where you have to make the step between being a player and a chance to become a pro. That’s what Kari really figured out. Kari Lehtonen is a tremendous goalie with tons of talent. He has added big experience. The year that he just went through, I think that’s going to be a great experience, a great turning point in Kari’s career.”

The long-term prognosis for his health is good. And while he showed flashes of brilliance, but was not yet the player he’s expected to become.

One silver lining to his season for the team is that re-signing him to a contract should be easier than it otherwise might have been.

Lehtonen said his plans were to “rest and work hard. Get my mind off hockey for a little bit, then get ready for the next season.”

Jim Slater, C

A former first round pick in 2002 at No. 30, Slater was everything you want a rookie to be, exuberant with positive contributions to the mood of the team as well as the scoresheet.

After playing in the season opener, Slater was sent down to Chicago on Oct. 6, played four games with the Wolves and returned Oct. 22 when Eric Boulton received a suspension. Slater’s willingness to go to the net was something that was really lacking on the team at the time, so he carved out a job for himself, especially after J.P. Vigier broke his foot.

Slater played in 71 games, a big increase from the 41 games he played as a senior with Michigan State in 2004-05. He was really wearing down just prior to the Olympic break, and was scratched in order to give him a rest.

Averaging 10:05 in ice time, this number will surely go up as he acclimates to the long NHL schedule. He saw some time on the power play this year, an average of :39 seconds per game, but in the future will likely be a penalty killer as well. Slater scored 10 goals and 10 assists in 71 games and was +1.

Slater’s highest moment this season may have been on Mar. 21 when he had the winning goal in the shootout on Tim Thomas to vault the team briefly into the eighth spot in the playoffs. He also scored two points in the team’s come from behind victory against Boston on Apr. 15.

Playing both center and wing, he played with just about every forward on the roster from a scoring line with Slava Kozlov and Hossa to a checking line with Scott Mellanby and Bobby Holik. He was solid on faceoffs, at 56.4 percent. Prone to the occasional rookie mistake, he did sometimes take the wrong player on defense, which led to scoring opportunities for the opposition.

It was revealed at the end of the year that Slater had been suffering a painful hip injury, which he played through. Hartley couldn’t say enough nice things about the rookie.

“Slater was a great player for us. It’s pretty unbelievable, especially coming out of a college schedule, where you play around 40 games a season to be able to compete in a full NHL season. He had ups and downs, like we were expecting. We even sent him to Chicago at one point in the season to kind of give him a little reminder that in NHL hockey you have to be consistent and you have to work. I don’t regret our decision. Talking to Slats yesterday, he feels it was the right thing for him to do also. A ‘wake up call’ is not really the right term, but it was the right message. He went there and saw the difference, and wanted to come back right away. I think that the Olympic break was very helpful for Jimmy. It gave him a chance to take a couple of days to rest and to refuel. From the Olympic break to the final game of the season, he was dominant. He skated very well. The last two games he played with lots of pain but he kept going. He wanted to be in the lineup. There was no way we would pull him from the lineup, he wouldn’t let us. He told the team doctors ‘I’m going to go.’ Just to show what kind of young leader that he is. As an organization, a young man, former captain of Michigan State, to step up and already assume some leadership, I think it’s great news for now, and especially for future years.”

One area Slater provides leadership is in response to a goal against. He shakes it off by adding additional energy on the next shift. His speed and hard work leads to chances. Sitting next to captain Mellanby in the locker room this year was surely a great apprenticeship as well.

It’s remarkable that a player whom Waddell had penciled him in for Chicago before the start of the season could make such big contributions so quickly.

“When he came to training camp, he was pretty close, he was a pretty determined player, so what you worry about is that if I sat here last year and said ‘Slater will make our team’, that they don’t turn out as well. You want to light a fire under these guys, give them a challenge. He’s here for one reason, because he deserves to be here. But yeah, I think he played better than what we expected initially. He hit a little bit of a wall, went to Chicago and then came back and did a great job for us.”

Slater will also be suiting up for Team USA in the World Championship. He played for the USA as a junior aged player, but this is his first stint with the national team since turning pro. The tournament will be held from May 5-21 in Riga, Latvia.

Mark Popovic, D

Popovic was the one and only call-up on defense out of Chicago this season. He saw just seven games with the team, thanks to a very healthy defensive corps.

“This year we were very fortunate, we had very few injuries on defense all year and that’s why (Braydon) Coburn and Popovic didn’t play as many games as we thought they would play,” Waddell said.

In fact, only 13 of the Thrashers’ 245 man-games lost to injury were at defense. The longest injury was Shane Hnidy out with a dislocated shoulder in October, missing just six games.

The salary cap also played a part in limiting the time of Popovic and Coburn. With the many goaltender injuries counting against the cap, they could not afford to carry any extra players on the squad.

Popovic was recalled on Oct. 15, Dec. 13, Mar. 10 and Apr. 14. He averaged 11:04 in ice time, which was more than his frequent partner Hnidy’s 10:14. Popovic saw some power play time, averaging :53 seconds per game.

A good skater, Popovic is one to jump into the play once he feels comfortable with the situation. He didn’t play enough NHL games for this tendency to be displayed at this level, though, and instead just kept his game simple. He went scoreless in his seven games, but he had 12 goals on the season in Chicago, best among defensemen. Seven of those goals came on the power play. In total, he had 38 points in 73 games there, a career high. His plus/minus was also solid, at +8.

Wolves Assistant Coach Marty Howe talked about what Popovic brought to the table.

“His work in the corners, he anticipates the plays. He’s a great skater. The only weakness he really as, as far as a player, is sometimes he’s a little soft on his stick. He’s got great speed, better than many.”

Popovic, a 23-year-old alternate captain, had a role teaching some of the younger defensemen on the team.

“If you lead by example, work with the guys, we’ve got different breakouts that and things that we use that a lot of teams don’t, so it takes guys a little bit of time to adjust to it all. You need veteran guys to work with guys, not just the coaches,” Howe said.

Popovic and Travis Roche were the two the Wolves depended on to do this.

“Both of those guys are my top two guys, and those are the guys that are working with the young guys the most.”

Popovic ended the year up with the Thrashers due to an injury to Jaroslav Modry. He came up as insurance as the seventh man, but did get into the final game.

Waddell described the kind of defensemen who thrive in today’s NHL by saying that “There’s no doubt that puckmovers, which were always at a premium before, guys that can jump up in the play and join the rush, are showing to be pretty valuable now.”

As a puckmover who can jump into the play, Popovic overtaking Hnidy for a spot on the team in the fall is certainly a good possibility.

Braydon Coburn, D

In his nine games with Atlanta to start the year, Coburn averaged just 7:43 in ice time, posting one assist. The writing that he was not yet ready was on the wall when he played only 1:53 on Oct. 22 after being on the ice for the first goal against. He took just three shifts all game.

Having been told to find a place to live in Atlanta, he was sent to Chicago on Oct. 26 and lived in a hotel for an extended period. The 21-year-old would not return to the team all season, as the only call-up on defense was Popovic.

In Chicago, Coburn had six goals and 20 assists in 73 games and was a +12, tied for second among defensemen. The 6’5 blueliner had 136 penalty minutes.

Coach Howe talked about his development in Chicago and whether he met expectations.

“He’s probably behind on the expectations factor. He’s a big kid, strong kid, probably takes too many penalties because he knocks guys down. He gets a bad rap for that sometimes. His decision-making, when he goes to get the puck, I don’t think he sees the ice well enough. I think he goes back, gets the puck, then looks around. Whereas he’s got to get in the habit of going back and looking before he gets the puck and then making plays. When he keeps it simple like that he’s good defensively, he’s OK offensively, I think that will improve with time. We had him on the power play probably, at least, the first two-thirds of the season and we decided when we got Bob Nardella to let him kill more penalties and play even-strength and not so much on the power play. I think he’s a better player at that than playing up on the power play. When he gets the chance, when he gets a little older and looks around a little bit better and gets more poise, he’s going to be a good player.

“We always say, ‘If you go back to get the puck, if you don’t know what you’re going to do before you get it, don’t even go,’ because you’re going to screw up. You might get lucky, you’ve got a 50/50 chance. Whereas if you have an idea, whether you’re going to freeze it, you’re going to chip it, you’re going to play it to the forward, if there’s a guy long, you’ll know all those things before you get the puck if you take a look. Young guys, that’s probably the hardest part of the game, to have that composure to take the look and take the time. It doesn’t matter how fast you get the puck if you don’t know where it’s going. He’s learning that slowly, unfortunately, I wish he’d pick it up quicker, but that’s the way it goes.”

Coburn will be in contention for a job with the Thrashers in the fall, but it will be far from a slam dunk with what is right now a crowded blue line, especially with the deadline acquisition of Steve McCarthy.

“Well, training camp is there for one reason — to let young players show us what they can do,” Hartley said. “People don’t realize how tough it is to break into the NHL and especially at the blue line position or in goal. I really believe it’s a maturing process, as we learned with Kari Lehtonen this year. You have to give those young guys time to feel their way, to feel comfortable. I have no doubt Braydon will make a big push. We’re going to evaluate him on the ice when training camp comes.”

Michael Garnett, G

Garnett was one of three rookie goaltenders who played for the Thrashers this season. He made his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 12, stopping 29 of 30 shots. Though he had some very good games, he was very inconsistent in net, and in fact played better when he didn’t start, but came in in relief. He ended up playing 24 games to the oft-injured Mike Dunham’s 17.

In Chicago, Garnett played in 35 games, the most of any of the nine goaltenders to don a Wolves jersey (Tuomas Tarkki, a Wolves-contracted player, played in 31). Garnett was 15-12-4 with the Wolves, with a 3.36 goals against average and just a .881 save percentage. The numbers don’t tell the story of inconsistent play there either, however, a very bad stretch when he returned from Atlanta, and a good run late in the year.

Coach Howe discussed Garnett’s troubles and development.

“He was playing back on his goal line too much. Guys were beating him with the first shot. I always say, ‘Come out and play the first shot and let the defense clear the rest of it.’ At the end of the year he was playing great. If he plays tonight [elimination by Iowa], it’s a different game, I think we would have won. But, that’s just the way it goes.

“When he’s on his game, [he] makes things look easy. He had the last 13 starts, or whatever he had there, he played really well, he was making saves. He’s fast enough to do those reactions when he has to, but if he comes out for that first save, then he doesn’t have to. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do.”

Recalled to the Thrashers on Apr. 10 when Lehtonen sprained his ankle, Garnett replaced a poor-starting Dunham in the most important game of the year – the second to last of the year, which the team had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The 23-year-old had a chance to be an enormous hero, but fell to a groin injury after playing just a part of a period. It was the second groin injury for Garnett, who suffered one last year in Chicago as well.

All in all, Garnett showed at both levels that he still has some work to do in the minors. He has another year remaining on his contract, and will likely spend most of the season in Chicago.

Adam Berkhoel, G

Of the Thrashers’ 245 man-games lost to injury this season, 101 were at the goaltender position. That gave Berkhoel, who began the season fourth on the depth chart, a chance to play in nine games.

A late cut from camp because of Lehtonen’s groin injury, Berkhoel was involved in the most transactions, recalled to the Thrashers seven times this year: Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Nov. 9, Nov. 26, Dec. 22, Apr. 8, and Apr. 18. The rest of the season was spent playing in 11 games for Chicago and 15 games for Gwinnett.

Berkhoel made 24 saves in his NHL debut against the New York Rangers on Oct. 15. His first NHL win on Oct. 22 against New Jersey marked the end of a long losing streak for the Thrashers. He posted a 2-4-1 record, with a save percentage almost identical to Garnett (.882 vs. .885). Berkhoel had the exact same save percentage in the NHL as in the AHL this year at .882, and a .909 in the ECHL.

Lehtonen’s ankle injury brought Berkhoel back up in early April. The soon-to-be 25-year-old was recalled to Atlanta for one game before going to Chicago (in a swap for Garnett), then to Gwinnett to begin their playoff run. He was recalled to Atlanta one more time for the last game of the year due to Garnett’s groin injury. Berkhoel started the last game of the season simply because he wasn’t Mike Dunham, and earned a point by taking it to overtime.

Though he filled in adequately as a depth goaltender needs to do, Berkhoel’s contract is up at the end of the season, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be re-signed given younger talented goaltenders entering the system.

Karl Stewart, LW

Stewart had a chance to make a case for himself when he was brought up once in December and twice in January, but did not stick with the team. One of the returns to Chicago was purely for salary cap reasons, however.

With Chicago, Stewart had 22 goals and 18 assists in 71 games, with a team-leading +17. Six of his goals came shorthanded. His 40 points were a return to 2003-04 scoring rates, after scoring only 24 points last year. The agitator brought his penalty minutes back down as well, though he was still second in penalty minutes with 184.

Stewart played eight games for the Thrashers, having spent five with the team in 2003-04. He averaged only 5:40 in ice time, virtually all at even-strength on the fourth line, went scoreless and was –3. He took 15 minutes in penalties.

Derek MacKenzie, C

MacKenzie suffered a broken ankle early in the year and returned to play only 36 games for the Wolves. In those games he had 22 points and was –3.

MacKenzie was recalled to Atlanta at the trade deadline under emergency conditions in case the team became short on bodies, but did not play and was returned. He was recalled a second time when Serge Aubin was out with a sprained knee and remained on the roster until the end of the season. He played on the fourth line, mostly with Eric Boulton and Brad Larsen. MacKenzie scored just one assist, but worse, took too many penalties and was generally ineffective. Though he took only eight penalty minutes in his 11 games, they were unnecessary and ill-timed.

Averaging 6:32 in ice time, :30 of that shorthanded, MacKenzie went 55.9 percent on faceoffs and was even on the year.

His 11 games were enough for the organization to be able to get a good final read on the player heading into the summer. Lacking in size and without the speed to compensate, MacKenzie’s contract is up and it’s unlikely he’ll be re-signed. There will be a general housecleaning of personnel as lots of contracts come up for renewal both at the NHL and minor league levels, and MacKenzie will be just one victim.

MacKenzie was one of the longest-tenured players in the organization, having been selected in the team’s first NHL Entry Draft in 1999.

Notes

The Thrashers will continue with the Wolves as their primary affiliate at least through 2006-07.

“We have another year with Chicago, when we did the extension it was through next year,” Waddell said.

Normally spending more time than most GM’s on scouting amateurs for the draft, both because it’s important and because he enjoys it, the Team USA Olympic GM admitted he hadn’t spent a lot of time personally preparing for the draft this year. He and his staff will have their annual scouting meetings the second week in May in Atlanta. He’ll spend a lot of time in the coming weeks preparing for the draft, in which the team will pick 12th.

“The good thing is that we’re in a spot with our franchise where we can pick the best player, we don’t have to necessarily take a positional player,” he said, happy that the team no longer has to draft for need.


Kevin Wey contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.