Thrashers busy with contract negotiations

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers got the ball rolling on prospect signings for the year when they signed two defensemen at the end of March, first-rounder in 2004 Boris Valabik and 2002 late-rounder Nathan Oystrick, when their respective seasons were over.

At the June 1 deadline for CHL players, goaltender Dan Turple, forward Chad Painchaud and defenseman Scott Lehman were all signed from the 2004 draft. Forward Juraj Gracik, drafted out of Europe, remains Thrashers property for another year. He will return to Slovakia to play for Nitra next season.

Today was a deadline for 2000 second-rounder Ilja Nikulin, though only for the 2006-07 season. When June 1, 2006 passed without the Russian Federation signing on to the IIHF transfer agreement, the Thrashers’ rights to the defenseman continued until next year.

General Manager Don Waddell said today that he had talks with Nikulin’s new agent Scott Lites, but was less hopeful as the deadline neared.

“The ball’s in his court. He’s supposed to call me back. We have a deadline of 5:00 pm today. I’m thinking it’s a long shot,” he said around noon.

After today, Nikulin can’t come over this season unless released from his contract by his Russian club. The Thrashers will own his rights until June 1, 2007, an extension since Russia is not part of the current federation agreement, according to letter agreements contained in the last section of the CBA.

“We’ve always been interested in bringing him over,” Waddell added.

The 6’3 defenseman had 20 points in 49 games this season for AK Bars Kazan in the Russian Super League.

First rounder from 2005 Alex Bourret will attend the team’s July development camp, and may or may not have a pro contract by that time.

“We know one thing, he’ll come into camp in better condition,” Waddell said, referring to his shape in 2005 training camp.

Earning a contract for Bourret won’t depend on camp, however. He’ll be signed sometime this summer, and compete for a job with the Thrashers this fall. With an early-season birthday, he can play with the AHL Chicago Wolves if he isn’t ready.

Bourret had 114 points in 67 games with Shawinigan of the QMJHL last season.

Ondrej Pavelec, the Czech netminder who paced the QMJHL last season will be returning to do it again. The team had debated what to do with the player, who is very talented, but perhaps needs more time to adjust to the North American rinks and wouldn’t see as much playing time as a 19-year-old in the AHL.

“He could go pro this year and play in Chicago because he was drafted as a European, but I think right now it’s probably better for him to stay one more year in junior,” Waddell said. “For him to stay there and play 60 games again, versus try to come out and play maybe less games, and in particular because he’s only been here one year, I think might be better for his development.”

Pavelec was named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Best Goaltender, Defensive Rookie of the Year and overall Rookie of the Year for 2005-06. He posted a 27-18 record, a 2.51 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 47 games with Cape Breton, leading all QMJHL rookies in wins and save percentage. He also finished second among rookie net minders in GAA.

Tobias Enstrom, an undersized defenseman selected 239th overall in 2003, is going to remain in Sweden for another year as well. He had 11 points in 47 games for MoDo last season.

Winger Jordan LaVallee will likely turn pro, but since he was drafted in 2005 as a 19-year-old, could return to junior if a deal can’t be worked out.

“My hope would be he would [turn pro],” Waddell said. “We don’t have a deal done with him, but his agent recognizes that it’s probably best for his career, so if we can get a deal done, we would, otherwise he would go back to junior.

“He’s played four years of junior. He went there as a young kid. So it’s time for him to come out. He had a great second half and I watched him during the Memorial Cup. He had a very, very strong Memorial Cup. I think he’s ready to turn pro.”

The 6’2 goal scorer had 37 points in 37 games last season with the Quebec Remparts after suffering a back injury in Thrashers camp last fall.

Brett Sterling, a 2003 pick who was near the top of the college scoring race the last two seasons, is in the mix for a contract as well.

“We’re going to try to sign him, if it’s reasonable, “ Waddell said. “He’s a prospect, a player we like.”

The 5’7 winger had 54 points in 41 games as a senior for Colorado College in 2005-06. August 15 is the deadline for graduating seniors.

Colton Fretter, the small but clutch scorer drafted late in 2002 who just graduated from Michigan State, will get a chance to earn a contract.

“We’re going to bring him in and then I’m not sure we’re going to sign him,” Waddell said. “We’re actually in communication with him right now. We’d like him in our system. We’d like to do what we did with Pat Dwyer last year. Pat Dwyer was a guy that we drafted, then signed to a two-way contract with Chicago and he played all year in the American League. To me, he got an opportunity and he took advantage of it. I think Colton Fretter falls in that same mold.”

The 5’10 Fretter had 10 goals and 29 points in 45 games. At 24, the winger needs to make a very smooth and quick transition to the pro game to make it to the next level.

Dwyer will remain on proving ground as well, without a Thrashers contract.

“We’re going to monitor it again next year,” Waddell said. He had a “pretty good year for them.” Dwyer was Chicago’s fifth leading scorer in 2005-06 with 45 points in 73 games.

Prospect Camp

The Thrashers’ annual Prospect Development Camp will run from July 7-13, with around 25 players expected to take part.

“We have a big number that have responded that they are coming,” Waddell said. “A lot of them have to come on their own nickel because of all the college players, we can’t pay their way. Almost every one of our college players have responded that they want to be here for it, which is incredible, I think.”

The prospects will hit the ice right away because teams are now restricted to keeping such camps to only seven days.

“We used to have them here for longer so we could do more things. They’re going to be on and off [the ice] every day. The first weekend is all skating, we’ll have our skating coach (Kenny McCudden) come in and work with them that first weekend. The following week we’ll do more off-ice, but they’ll still be on the ice every day.”

Scouts Marcel Comeau and Mark Dobson will run the on-ice portion of the camp. New 2006 picks who are available to attend will be invited as well.

Right now there is one free agent invitee planned, Bryan Dobek, who recently graduated from Bowling Green State University. Waddell described the 23-year-old as a “small forward, with skill, can skate.” The 5’8, 175-pounder had 10 points in 36 games last season.

The Thrashers will return to the Traverse City Rookie Tournament this September. Detroit, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and a new team, the New York Rangers, will also take part.


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