True to their acknowledged organizational needs, the Atlanta Thrashers stocked up on skilled centers in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, taking four pivots with their eight picks, along with two defensemen, a winger and a goaltender.
And true to usual form, they showed a preference towards college-bound players. Three are headed to the WCHA. Michael Forney, the highest of the three selections in the third round, will be one of three Thrashers prospects on the University of North Dakota roster this fall (along with Andrew Kozek and Rylan Kaip). Jesse Martin is headed to Denver University in 2007 and Alex Kangas to the University of Minnesota in 2007.
The Thrashers took their normal European quota of two, including their first Latvian in Arturs Kulda.
One thing that was different this year was the size of the draftees. After years of drafting with an eye towards size, 2006 was the smallest Thrashers draft class ever, averaging just 72.1 inches (just over 6’0). The biggest players were Forney and Kulda both at just 6’2, and the smallest is first-rounder Bryan Little at 5’10.
Bryan Little, C
12th overall – Barrie (OHL)
Asked just after he was selected how he felt wearing the Thrashers’ true blue threads, Little said ”I kind of like these jerseys. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before but they’re real nice.”
Get used to ‘em, kid.
Little brings some much-needed offensive flair to a system lacking that up the middle. The Thrashers were very interested in him going into the draft, and Little knew that as well, the only problem was waiting to see if the match would be made. Other teams had their own favorites, so Little indeed went to the team at 12th overall who could use him the most.
Describing himself as “a goal scorer and playmaker,” Little was voted the OHL Eastern Conference’s hardest worker, best playmaker, most dangerous man in the goal area and best on faceoffs by OHL coaches for the 2005-06 season.
He finished sixth in league in scoring this year with a hefty 109 points in 64 games. A former OHL Rookie of the Year, he captained the Barrie Colts to the OHL Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to the eventual league champion Peterborough Petes. Barrie steamrolled over the favored Brampton Battalion in the playoffs and Little was one of the biggest reasons.
An ultra-competitive player, Little makes for a great playoff performer. This year he scored eight goals and 15 assists in 14 games, and in his two previous playoff appearances Little had 10 goals and six assists in a total of 16 games played.
Cut from Team Canada’s World Juniors camp last year, Little has another year of eligibility left. He has played for Team Canada at the U-17 and U-18 age groups.
Playing alongside free agent right wing Hunter Tremblay for the past two years, Little continually brings the crowd to its feet with his explosive rushes. He dominates with his playmaking ability, quick feet, and cannon-like shot, and he continually shifts the momentum of the game with his seemingly boundless energy. Little works out relentlessly and has a strong build which allows him to mix it up physically.
The native of Cambridge, Ontario is a proven game-breaker for his Colts team. When an opponent tries to shift the momentum of a game Little often seems to turn it back around with his ability and work ethic when he steps on the ice. His explosive speed even appears intimidating to opponents at times. For someone with so much offensive upside, Little can play defense and his plus/minus stats attest to that.
One of the few knocks on him is his size at 5’10. But in the new NHL, it’s less of a disadvantage. Having been drafted by the Thrashers, he’ll be given every opportunity to thrive in an open system.
“They’ve got a lot of skilled forwards in Atlanta and down the road if I could learn a few things from them it’d be awesome,” he said.
Little will attend Thrashers training camp, but probably return to Barrie in 2006-07. With the new rules governing NHL free agency, the team is unlikely to burn a year off of the youngster’s service if he can’t contribute at a high level just yet.
Riley Holzapfel, C
43rd overall – Moose Jaw (WHL)
The Thrashers continued keying on centers with their second-round pick, this time from the WHL.
A native of Regina, Saskatchewan, Holzapfel was selected out of bantam to play for archrival Moose Jaw. From the day he arrived at his first Warriors training camp, Holzapfel has earned everything through his hard work and persistence.
Warriors GM Chad Lang said of Holzapfel, “Riley is an individual who never seems to get the breaks, but really works hard to make things happen for himself. He never played midget AAA hockey, but just continues to excel here. There has been a lot of NHL interest in Riley. The scouts I’ve spoken with like his hockey sense and skating ability. He has a very strong shot for a guy his size and really plays with determination. He’s a guy who competes hard and does the little things right.”
Beyond hockey sense and skating ability, Holzapfel has good skill as a playmaker. In 64 regular season games, he scored 19 goals and 38 assists and was a solid +35 centering a line of Troy Brouwer (CHI) and Blair Jones (TB). Holzapfel said he enjoyed playing with these two great players, but is “looking forward to taking on a bigger role next year with Moose Jaw.” Brouwer, who had 102 points for the Warriors, will turn pro in the fall.
Holzapfel won’t turn 18 until mid-August and has plenty of developing still to do in the WHL. As far as making it to the NHL goes, he said, “It’s going to take a lot of work and I’m looking forward to that.”
Michael Forney, LW
80th overall – Thief River Falls (USHSW)
The Thrashers originally held the 75th pick in the third round, but the temptation to acquire another pick later in the draft was too great for Waddell. The 75th became the 80th in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers in which the Thrashers picked up a third seventh-round selection.
Forney was highly-ranked by draft pundits, but it might have been the uncertainty of judging his skills against high school competition that lead teams to pass on him until this point.
The left winger played a few games with Des Moines of the USHL at the start of his season, and then returned to his hometown Thief River Falls team and ranked among the state’s top point scorers his senior year with 68 points in 25 games. The forward was a Mr. Hockey finalist and was named to the AP All-State Team after being named an honorable mention in 2004-05. Forney has been one of the top offensive players in his age group, and was named to the US U-18 Team in 2005 after leading the USA Hockey Select 17 Festival in scoring.
Forney is a decent skater, but his strength is in his stick-handling and playmaking ability. He needs to add some size to his frame and improve his explosiveness. Forney played in all situations for Thief River Falls and has a knack for finding his way to the front of the net.
Forney is headed to the University of North Dakota this fall.
Alex Kangas, G
135th overall – Sioux Falls (USHL)
With no fourth round pick, it would be a bit of a wait for the next Thrashers pick. Though fairly well stocked with goaltending prospects, the team added another in Minnesotan Alex Kangas.
Kangas is the oldest player taken by the Thrashers in the 2006 draft, having turned 19 in May. He went unselected in the 2005 draft, though he had had a great year playing for Rochester Century in the Minnesota high school hockey league.
Kangas played for the USHL Sioux Falls Stampede in 2005-06, and won his first eight starts with the team, breaking former Stampede netminder Kellen Briggs’ record of seven. In December, Kangas went 5-0 and saved 161 of the 166 shots he faced. The USHL, in conjunction with Goalie’s World Magazine, named Kangas the USHL Goaltender of the Month. The USHL also selected Kangas to play for Team West at the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game in February.
Kangas told Hockey’s Future in April, “The competition is great and there’s no bad players here. In high school, there’s not a lot of depth. Playing 30 or 40 games a year doesn’t hurt either, you get a lot of experience. So, I think it’s a good step along the way.”
Splitting time with John Murray, Kangas compiled a USHL second-best .930 save percentage and a third-best goals-against average of 2.15 in 1733 minutes over 29 games. In recognition of his excellent regular season, the USHL named Kangas to the All-Rookie Team. Kangas started the playoffs as Murray’s backup, but played more and more as time went on. Kangas got both of Sioux Falls’ wins against the Des Moines Buccaneers in the Clark Cup Finals, including a 42-save 3-1 victory in Game 4 of the five-game series.
Kangas is an extremely technical goalie who is calm and collected in net. His work ethic and methodical approach should also ensure some level of success in the future.
In May, Sioux Falls traded Kangas and the sixth overall pick in the 2006 USHL Entry Draft to the Indiana Ice for fifth overall pick and the rights to Cushing Academy forward Brad Malone.
Kangas will play for the Indiana Ice in 2006-07 and will likely be their starting goaltender. In 2007-08 he will begin play with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, ready to battle rising sophomore Jeff Frazee (NJ) for playing time. Long term, Kangas as the potential to become an NHL starter.
In the meantime, he will continue to work on what he was focusing on last year. “Just staying up when I’m supposed to,” he said. “I’m not going down on every shot, staying out, playing the puck, just getting stronger in the weight room.
“Hopefully I can raise my game a few notches as well and, you know, when I go there, hopefully I’ll get my shot to play and I can prove to the coaches at Minnesota that I’m worth bringing in.”
Jonas Enlund, C
165th overall – IFK Jr (Fin Jr)
Enlund made a name for himself early by setting scoring records in the Finnish Jr C playoffs in 2003, in which he won gold with IFK Helsinki. He has been one of the best and earliest developed players of his age group. In the 2005 U18 World Championships, he was Finland’s leading centerman. Due to his tricky fall birthdate, Enlund was left without a major international appearance in his draft year, but he finished third with 42 points in 37 games in the Finnish Jr A league.
Enlund may be smallish and he isn’t known to be a particularly high-energy player, but he is effective in corners and small spaces, also able to fend for himself. His moves aren’t flashy, more like small and skillful. He has a good scoring instinct and is adept at short passes, which has kept his development on pace with the best of them. Enlund’s two-way game is impressive as well, as are his consistency and work ethic.
Thrashers European scout Bernd Freimueller said Enlund is a “Two-way center with an excellent work ethic, never takes a night off although his effort up to now has not always translated into results. Really good at helping out his defense and taking care of business in his own end while at the same time being able to chip in. Ended up as second best goal scorer of Finnish junior league. Not a banger by any means but plays a good positional game. Good skills in close quarters. Has to work on his stamina and acceleration. Excellent off-ice work ethic, that’s what attracted me to him. Hope he can develop into a center for the lower lines who shuts down opponents and chips in a little bit.”
Enlund left his native IFK and transferred to Tappara this offseason in search for more room for a pro debut in 2006. He is signed for two years with Tappara and should have a chance to crack the third line if he performs well.
Jesse Martin, C
195th overall – Spruce Grove (AJHL)
The fourth and final center taken by the Thrashers, Martin is another one with skill.
The youngest player in the group of eight, he won’t be 18 until September. If he had been born just eight days later, he would have been eligible in 2007 instead.
Having battled various injuries throughout the year, Martin managed to finish third on Spruce Grove with 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) last season. He suffered a concussion early in the year on a dangerous hit from behind by Fort Saskatchewan defenseman Ian Barteaux. Martin also had a groin injury that prevented him from participating in the league’s annual All-Star game. He did play in the first-ever CJAHL Prospects Game, however, as well as the Viking Cup.
Martin is headed to Denver University in 2007, which gives him a chance to work on improving his quickness and strength on his skates before he gets there.
Arturs Kulda, D
200th overall – CSKA 2 (RPL)
The Thrashers didn’t start taking defensemen in this draft until the event drew to a close.
Kulda, a Latvian, played in Russia for the CSKA Moscow second team last season, scoring five goals and 12 assists in 44 games. He missed some games midway through the season due to some visa problems, and also due to playing both for Latvia’s U20 and U18 teams. With the U18 team, he had three points in five games, while with the U20 team he had one assist in six games.
Freimueller said of Kulda: “Defensive D who plays a rather mistake-free game. Quite physical, ran into penalty problems with U18 team at times but that was due to the level of refereeing. Does not get into trouble with puck and due to a heavy shot looked OK on the power play. OK size but not projected to become a behemoth. Skates well, good positional game.”
On Wednesday Kulda was selected by OHL league champion Peterborough Petes in the CHL Import Draft, for whom he has committed to play next year.
Will O’Neill, D
210th overall – Tabor Academy (USHSE)
O’Neill was the fourth from the last player taken in the draft, with a pick acquired from the Dallas Stars.
Ranked 173rd among North American skaters by Central Scouting, O’Neill cannot count ISS amongst his fans. The scouting service wrote for Hockey’s Future in February, “A weak skater with slow feet. He has a weak, awkward stride at full speed. He lacks balance, mobility and agility. While he possesses good hands, he doesn’t have the skating ability needed to rush the puck or make offensive moves. O’Neill takes the body when he has the opportunity, but he doesn’t look to make an impact with his physical play. He has poor gap control. He needs to step up and play the man at the blue line one-on-one. He seems to be poorly coached defensively. His skating ability will hold him back at higher levels.”
If nothing else, the Thrashers will get the benefit of time to decide on this high school selection. O’Neill has not yet committed to an NCAA team.
Glen Erickson, Dustin Nielson, Eric Vegoe, Kevin Wey and Pekka Lampinen contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.