Thrashers 2006 Prospects Development Camp review

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers held their annual Prospects Development Camp July 7-13. Twenty-seven players participated in the camp. Below is a review of the skaters who took part.

Forwards

Former first-rounder Alex Bourret had a good camp, what you’d expect from a prospect who will challenge for an NHL job this fall. He showed he can find the net with little space to shoot at, and did a lot of little things very well. He has good acceleration, but still needs to work on endurance. Bourret was a player who others could and should have measured themselves against.

Riley Holzapfel’s To Do List:
1. Put in good showing at first Thrashers camp: check!
2. Teach new organization, including teammates, how to pronounce last name: still working on.

Asked who he was rooming with at camp, Bryan Little said “Riley…I forget his last name” and then leaned forward to have a look at the nameplate on Holzapfel’s locker. He gave the name a whirl, but demonstrated that Riley still has work to do here.

The youngest player in camp, you wouldn’t have known it by watching him. With good speed and skill, Holzapfel looks like a very promising second round pick. He has some moves and was not afraid to give them a try against his elders this week. He will return to Moose Jaw this season.

Bryan Little impressed a lot of people in the OHL last year, but did not stand out at camp. Only rarely did he show flashes of the talent that got him drafted in the first round this year. But camp is not games, and Little’s comments on the camp support a theory that he is simply not a good practice player.

He said the camp was going “pretty good. It’s hard to really compare yourself to others because it’s practice. Yesterday we only had a 25-minute scrimmage. But I feel pretty good.

“I don’t feel out of shape or anything so that’s good. I’ve been skating twice a week so I’ve been on the ice, but I think everyone’s legs are pretty stiff being on the ice so much. You’re not used to it.”

Little’s stiff legs may not have effected him as much as others. He did poorly in short-range timed trials, yet “climbed the mountain,” a lengthy skating drill, in under 45 seconds. He also said he felt more comfortable as the week went on.

“Yeah, I’d say the first day, the first time around the ice it was really fast-paced and I think everyone was a little nervous, but the longer you stay here and the more you get to know everyone, the more confident you feel on the ice.”

A chance to meet and get to know the staff was important. “They do a good job of making you feel at home here,” he said.

Little was struck hard in the right cheek by a deflected puck on Monday, but downplayed the injury the next day.

“I got a puck in the face yesterday sitting on the bench. It stung a bit, and ruined my day a bit. It looked like I had a golf ball in my mouth, but it’s gone down today.”

The Thrashers took a few of the newest prospects downtown to see Philips Arena on the last day of camp. Little said he was looking forward to seeing it.

Jared Ross, who played for affiliate Chicago Wolves last year, was a free agent invitee to camp, but it only took one session to see that he wasn’t invited to camp just to fill out the roster. He was there to earn a contract.

“Yeah, they’re talking,” he said of the Thrashers and his agent. “Basically they want to keep an eye on me next year and maybe sign me halfway through the year. I guess that’s what they’re saying. Right now everything is just with Chicago and they invited me to this prospects camp. Hopefully I showed them that I could do well at this level. I’m pretty sure I can, it’s just a matter of staying strong all year and that kind of stuff.”

Ross, a small center listed at 5’9, was undrafted and was brought into the system by Gwinnett Gladiators coach and director of hockey operations Jeff Pyle signing him to a contract. But Ross played just one game with the team, sticking instead in the AHL.

“Last year [the Thrashers] said I did well in Chicago, but they said I kind of faded out after the halfway point, got tired,” Ross explained. “They want to see the durability this year. I know I can do it. Last year I just had a little slump maybe, ice time down a bit. But the last eight or nine games I had a lot of points.”

Ross is an Alabama native, where his dad coaches the college hockey team at University of Alabama-Huntsville (which Jared attended) and his mom teaches dental hygiene.

“It would be great to be here,” he said of Atlanta. “It’s a great organization, close to home and everything.”

In camp, Ross climbed the mountain in under 45 seconds, putting him at least in the top four skaters. The 23-year-old continued to show excellent hands in both passing and shooting. He’ll be back with the Wolves in the fall as he continues to try to impress.

Brett Sterling demonstrated some good sniping at camp, and the ability to pass and shoot all in full stride. The 5’7 winger has good, but not outstanding, speed. He had not just the scouts eyeing him up, but a potential linemate as well.

“It would be great to play with Brett,” Ross said. “I think we play a similar style of game so I think we’d move the puck well together. We can pretty much read off each other. Just watching him play I can see we’d get along together on the ice.”

Having recently signed a contract, Sterling will almost certainly join the Wolves, and be a key piece of the offense.

Andrew Kozek was a pleasant surprise in camp. After struggling to score with the University of North Dakota last season as a freshman, he showed a lot of the talent that got him drafted in the second round last year. It’s a very unpolished talent, however, which is why it’s good that he’s in a college program where he has a long time to develop. Kozek has good speed and hands.

Colton Fretter is property of the Thrashers until August 15, at which time they will likely let him walk, but not too far. GM Don Waddell said last month “We’re going to bring him in and then I’m not sure we’re going to sign him. 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.”

Fretter showed off his good speed all week and even climbed the mountain in under 45 seconds.

There is little not to like about Fretter’s simple, solid game that includes an accurate shot. At 24, he’s not likely to improve much further, but he’s certainly a good depth player nevertheless.

Tomas Pospisil had the longest journey to get to camp, coming from the Czech Republic. His trip from Prague to Frankfurt to Atlanta was 12 hours, and he also hadn’t skated in four months, so his early struggles at camp were a bit understandable. But as the intensity rose later in the week, although he said he felt more and more comfortable with the speed, it became clear that he has a lot of work to do before he can turn pro. Very talented, he is not ready to play against bigger and stronger players at this time. His talent is evident, however, in the feathered passes he sometimes connects on and ability to score in tight.

Pospisil had played for the organization in the 2005 Traverse City tournament before reporting to the OHL Sarnia Sting for the season, but this was his first time in Atlanta.

“It’s hard, but it’s good for us,” he said of the camp. “It’s great here. I’m very glad to be here.”

Chad Painchaud tore his MCL in February also playing for the Sting, so this camp was the first real test of his right knee.

“It feels pretty good right now,” he said. “I’m wearing a brace. It’s all healed, but just in case I get hit or anything like that.”

Painchaud’s speed did not seem to be impacted by the injury, for which he did not need surgery.

The winger was signed over the summer and will start in the minors this fall. With good speed and a good shot (even winning a shootout), he has some assets to build around, but has some work to do.

Jordan LaVallee was drafted in 2005 as a 19-year-old, so he could return to junior if a contract can’t be worked out with the Thrashers.

“My hope would be he would [turn pro],” Waddell said last month. “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.”

LaVallee, who had finished his season later than anyone else in camp, did not stand out, and indeed lagged in puck skills, especially for a scorer. Returning to junior would not be out of the question for the winger.

Matt Siddall was more impressive the closer the drills were to game action, where he could use his very good strength. He fights hard to gets shots away, but isn’t a scorer. He is a promising checking line player, especially for a former ninth round pick. He will need to fully adjust to the new rules, however, with less reliance on his stick and more on his skating and body position. He can also stand to work on conditioning. He will return to Northern Michigan University where he will be a junior.

Rylan Kaip is much improved over two years ago, and in fact, improved as the week went on as well. He’s quick and scrappy, with endurance something to work on. He has some potential as a checking line player, with two more years to go at North Dakota.

Mitch Carefoot showed good skating ability, but less than average puck skills. A potential checking liner, he will return to Cornell this season, where he will be a senior.

Myles Stoesz does not have the puck skills of the other prospects, but as a fighter, has enough for his role. He minded his P’s and Q’s very closely and didn’t even come close to starting scuffles with the other campers, as Boris Valabik had done in past years. Stoesz worked very hard on improving his skills, which is what he was there for.

Mike Hamilton probably had the worst showing of all players except free agent invitees. To be fair, however, he did have postseason knee surgery. He has another year of college at Maine, but he needs to have a terrific year to remain on the radar.

Defensemen

Grant Lewis shined more and more as the week went on. It was his first time in Atlanta, but he looked extremely comfortable from the very start. His skating is suberb, both in speed and mobility, as is his defensive work.

“I feel like it’s going pretty well,” Lewis said of camp. “It’s been a lot of skating and skill stuff. We’re all just getting back on the ice. It’s been a lot of fun so far -– I think they’ve done a great job. Ken (McCudden) the skating instructor has been great and really helped us out.”

Lewis will return to Dartmouth with little to work on in his game except gaining strength and power.

Mike Vannelli had an understated, but good camp, which describes his game well all the time. He’s never going to wow anyone with his shot or a huge hit, but he’s solid defensively, skates well, and moves the puck. That’s just what he did this week, looking better as the week went on. Vannelli will be a senior this fall at the University of Minnesota.

“I’m looking forward to that, taking a leadership role on that team,” he said. “I’m really going to work hard and try and get that much better so I can come in next year with a chance to play.”

A fourth round pick in 2003, Vannelli really put game together last year.

“Yeah, I felt like I took a lot of good steps in development last year and really felt like I progressed as a player offensively and defensively. I felt like I got a lot stronger in my own end. Felt good.”

More than anything technical, it was poise and confidence that seemed to make the difference.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I think I gained a lot more confidence throughout the season and it’s a lot easier to play when you have that.”

Weighing in at around 190 right now, Vannelli wants to gain about 5 or 10 more pounds before the season because of the weight he’ll lose in Minnesota’s training camp. “Last year I played at 188 and I felt pretty good playing at that weight,” he said.

With Phil Kessel (BOS) expected to return and Erik Johnson (STL) joining the team, Minnesota is poised for a good year.

“We have a good core group of guys coming back and a lot of returning goal scorers,” Vannelli said. “Both our goaltenders coming back. With the guys we have coming in, there’s a lot of high draft picks and hopefully they’ll join the team and help us out as well.”

Chad Denny showed good skill in camp, especially his powerful slapshot. He even won a shootout competition, the only player to beat Dan Turple.

“I think it’s a pretty good camp – one of the best camps I’ve been to since I started playing hockey,” he said. “The atmosphere, the guys are a lot older and stronger. Everything is professional.”

Denny will need to continue to work on skating, especially backwards acceleration, in Lewiston this season. Both speed and mobility will need to improve to make it as a professional.

Boris Valabik showed considerable improvement in straight-line skating since 2005 training camp, doing very well in time trials including the mountain, but his mobility, balance, and reaction time are still issues. Straight-line skating could also be improved by staying consistent low to the ice. He’ll turn pro this year, but his ice time could fall dramatically from what he had in Kitchener, which will be a challenge for development. But Valabik does seem to have a real commitment to improvement.

Jimmy Sharrow had a pretty good camp, but you’d be concerned if a player who played professionally last season didn’t look a bit more polished than the rest. This is the second prospects camp for Sharrow, who attended the 2004 camp as well.

Scott Lehman had some good defensive play, but his basic skills are behind other skaters. He was one of the very worst in time trials, both forwards and backwards. The smallest defenseman in camp at 6’1, he turns pro this fall and will likely play for Gwinnett.

Nathan Oystrick was diagnosed with mononucleosis when he arrived, and was sent back home. The long-term illness could potentially effect the start of his first full pro season.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.