Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

Hockey’s Future’s Atlanta Thrashers Top 20 prospects list includes three players selected in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. All three are forwards, which has helped to balance out the strengths and weaknesses in the formerly goaltending and defensive-heavy system.

Alex Bourret, Boris Valabik, Dan Turple, Nathan Oystrick, Brett Sterling and possibly Jordan LaVallee will join the professional ranks this season. Kari Lehtonen will be the Thrashers’ starting goaltender, while Braydon Coburn, Marc Popovic and Alex Bourret compete for spots on the NHL roster.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Alex Bourret, RW
4. Ondrej Pavelec. G
5. Bryan Little, C
6. Mark Popovic, D
7. Grant Lewis, D
8. Boris Valabik, D
9. Riley Holzapfel, C
10. Dan Turple, G
11. Andrei Zubarev, D
12. Nathan Oystrick, D
13. Tomas Pospisil, RW
14. Chad Denny, D
15. Brett Sterling, LW
16. Andrew Kozek, RW
17. Guillaume Desbiens, RW
18. Michael Forney, LW
19. Jordan LaVallee, LW
20. Tobias Enstrom, D

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2nd overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Having played only 42 NHL games, Lehtonen is still a prospect by Hockey’s Future criteria heading into the 2006-07 season. Indeed, he has not yet proven himself as an NHL starter, missing half of the 2005-06 due to injury.

Lehtonen suffered a groin injury on opening night 2005 in a collision, and spent most of the season working on the underlying hip issue that has caused numerous groin injuries. He returned in late December, and played every game but one until injuring his ankle in April, again in a collision at the net.

Lehtonen’s potential remains extremely high. He will be backed up by Johan Hedberg this season, but a new contract must come first.

2. Braydon Coburn, D
8th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Coburn was expected to make the Thrashers roster last season, but only stuck for nine games before being send to the minors. His lack of readiness was apparent, but Coburn was frustrated by his reassignment and struggled in Chicago because of it. If he’s able to come into training camp with the right mindset and play well, a spot on the blue line will be his. But as was shown last season, it won’t be handed to him.

A smooth-skating defenseman with an incredibly long reach, he’s still loaded with all the right raw materials and his potential remains extremely high. But neither offensively gifted nor a physical force, Coburn’s career hinges on him being very solidly defensively, and that’s where the 21-year-old needs to improve.

3. Alex Bourret, RW
16th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Bourret will come to Thrashers training camp hoping to repeat what Jim Slater did last season — make a solid contribution as a rookie. It will be a sizeable challenge, however, being two years younger than Slater was when he did it.

Bourret has top-six potential, is a great skater, wears his heart on his sleeve, and loves to hit. He’s a complete player and shouldn’t have much trouble adapting to the professional game from the QMJHL. The 5’10 winger has improved his renowned poor conditioning, but still has room for improvement in this area.

The 19-year-old has a good chance at winning the roster spot, though spending most of the year in Chicago is a reasonable outcome as well. He will first need to sign a contract.

4. Ondrej Pavelec, G
41st overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

A rookie coming over from the Czech junior league, Pavelec was stellar in the QMJHL in 2005-06. 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.

Pavelec will be tested in a different way this season has he should see much less rubber behind an improved squad. With a full goaltending slate, the Thrashers have decided he will remain this season with Cape Breton, where will see more playing time.

5. Bryan Little, C
12th overall, 2006 NHL Entry Draft

Little is the Thrashers’ most recent first round pick, selected just a month ago. He was voted the OHL Eastern Conference’s hardest worker, best playmaker, most dangerous man in the goal area and best on face-offs in a coaches poll last year. He finished sixth in league in scoring this year with a hefty 109 points in 64 games.

He has good potential as a top-six center, but it’s very early in his development. He will almost certainly return to Barrie this season.

6. Mark Popovic, D
35th overall in the 2001 Entry Draft by Anaheim

Popovic joined the organization in a trade with Anaheim in the summer of 2005. Though high on the depth chart, he played only seven games with the team last year, due to a surprisingly low 13 man-games lost to injury on defense last season.

Popovic skates well, is very calm with the puck and makes a good outlet pass. The fourth-year pro shattered his career high in points in the AHL with 38 points in 73 games which Chicago, getting more power play time than he did in Cincinnati.

The 23-year-old has a good chance at a roster spot this fall. If he doesn’t make the cut, he will again be the first call-up due to injury. Re-signed this summer, he’s part of the team’s future.

7. Grant Lewis, D
40th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Lewis has turned out to be less of an offensive defenseman than the Thrashers thought when they selected him high in the 2004 draft, but his defensive game may be better than anticipated. The 6’3 blueliner has the skating skill and defensive awareness to be very effective in the new NHL. He moves the puck well, but may never quarterback the power play at the highest level.

After three years at Dartmouth Collage, Lewis is ready to turn pro, both physically and mentally, but that will wait another year. With no offer made this year, however, the 21-year-old will return to Dartmouth to finish his degree. Indeed, the last player the Thrashers brought out of college early was one Dany Heatley.

Lewis should have a relatively short apprenticeship in the minor leagues before making the big league.

8. Boris Valabik, D
10th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

A raw player when drafted, the 6’7 Slovakian has naturally improved greatly in the last two years. But it’s an open question whether he will ever be a top pairing defenseman worthy of such a high pick. An “old NHL” selection, the big blueliner will need to not only continue to improve his skating and mobility, but also adjust his game for the new rules.

Having signed a rookie contract this summer, Valabik will likely play for the Chicago Wolves this season. The 20-year-old is at least a year away from seeing time in the NHL.

9. Riley Holzapfel, C
43rd overall, 2006 NHL Entry Draft

Holzapfel won’t turn 18 until mid-August, making him the youngest player on this list. This 2006 pick has good skill as a playmaker, hockey sense and skating ability.

Last week, Holzapfel was a late add to U-20 Team Canada camp when Guillaume Latendresse (MON) was injured.

Holzapfel will return to Moose Jaw this season, and likely 2007-08 as well. He projects as a top-six forward.

10. Dan Turple, G
186th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Turple was the best goaltender in the OHL in 2005-06, leading the league with a .924 save percentage, 2.25 GAA and seven shutouts. While an impressive accomplishment, he did it as an overager, turning 21 in January. This season he turns pro and will need to prove he can continue to be one of the best even when he’s one of the youngest.

The 6’6 Turple is both big and quick, much in the same vein as Lehtonen. He will likely be the starting goaltender for the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators.

11. Andrei Zubarev, D
187th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Zubarev was picked up relatively late in the 2005 draft (sixth round) as most NHL teams stayed away from Russians due to the lack of IIHF transfer agreement. It might be something they are already regretting.

Zubarev tore up the Russian Super League this season as an 18-year-old defenseman. He had 12 points in 40 games, until his season ended in February when he broke his wrist.

Zubarev’s contract in Russia goes for one more year. He’ll almost certainly be signed and brought to North American in 2007, the Thrashers’ deadline for signing him. He will be an important part of the Russian team at the 2007 World Junior Championship.

12. Nathan Oystrick, D
198th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Though he scored at a good clip at Northern Michigan, Oystrick is not an offensive defenseman. He moves the puck, but his best feature is his defensive game, played with a strong dose of physicality.

Oystrick joined the Wolves after his college season was over in March, but played just two games. Hopefully this was enough to show him what’s expected of him this fall. The 23-year-old should be an important contributor to the Wolves this season.

13. Tomas Pospisil, RW
135th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Pospisil had a terrific rookie season with the OHL Sarnia Sting in 2005-06, finishing fourth in rookie scoring in the league with 55 points in 60 games. He did not struggle in his move to North America, as is common.

The Czech native has extremely soft hands, but needs more time in juniors to develop the strength to play against men. Pospisil will return to Sarnia next season, and will be looked to to lead the offense.

Pospisil turns 19 in August and will likely play for the Czech Republic in the 2007 WJC.

14. Chad Denny, D
49th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Drafted in the second round in 2005, Denny has some intriguing potential, but he’s far from a finished product. The 19-year-old is coming off a great year for the Lewiston MAINEiacs in the QMJHL, putting up 47 points in 62 games, including 19 goals.

Denny has a many good qualities: broad skills with the puck including a howitzer of a slapshot, hockey smarts, and a physical presence. His big frame at 6’2, 210 pounds and good mobility allow him to throw some truly devastating hits.

Denny will return to Lewiston for the 2006-07 season.

15. Brett Sterling, LW
145th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Sterling came along at just the right time, finishing college as hockey opened up the game for small players like him.

The 5’7 winger’s scoring prowess cannot be argued. He had 55 points in 41 games for Colorado College last season and his 31 goals were third nationally. In 2005 he was a top-three finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given yearly to college hockey’s top performer. Last year he was a top-ten finalist.

As he turns pro this year, Sterling will need to work harder when he doesn’t have the puck. It will also be more difficult to remain elusive on a smaller ice surface amongst bigger players.

If he makes a quick adaptation, he’ll bring some much-needed scoring punch to the farm club.

16. Andrew Kozek, RW
53rd overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Kozek possesses a lot of raw talent, but the scoring prowess he displayed in the BCHL in his draft year has not yet translated to the college level. Last year he had just 13 points in 45 games for the University of North Dakota.

The challenge for him will be to turn the talent into production, first in the NCAA, and then professionally. The 20-year-old winger will be a sophomore at UND this season. Having seen low amounts of ice time last year, he should get more opportunity going forward.

17. Guillaume Desbiens, RW
116th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Desbiens brought his power forward game from the QMJHL to the pro level and was one of the best rookies in the ECHL last season. In fact, Desbiens had even better production professionally than he did in junior, scoring 60 points in 65 ECHL games, compared to 43 points in 56 games for Rouyn-Noranda in 2004-05. His 187 penalty minutes are down from the year before as Gwinnett looked to him more for scoring than enforcement. A bit streaky in scoring, Desbiens finished tied for ninth in the ECHL amongst rookies with 60 points in 65 games, was tied for first in goals among rookies with 33.

Desbiens will almost certainly play in Chicago this season, where he got his feet wet with three games last year.

18. Michael Forney, LW
80th overall, 2006 Entry Draft

Forney was a high-risk, high-reward selection. It’s agreed that he has a lot of talent, but it’s unclear what kind of professional he’ll be since he hasn’t been tested often against top competition.

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 high school 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. But he was criticized for not moving to the USHL at the end of the year, instead choosing to practice with the USNTDP.

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. He is headed to North Dakota this fall.

19. Jordan LaVallee, LW
116th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

LaVallee’s 2005-06 season was shortened by a back injury. He played 37 regular season games, scoring 18 goals and 19 assists. He almost got a full season’s work in, however, since his Quebec Remparts went deep in the playoffs, winning the Memorial Cup.

Next year, LaVallee needs to show that he can build on his breakout 2004-05 season.

Drafted at age 19 after going unselected in the 2004 draft, LaVallee is now old enough to turn pro, but under no immediate deadline to do so. No contract has yet been signed with the Thrashers. There may not be room for him in Chicago as a rookie, but moving up to the ECHL would be more of a challenge to him than remaining in the Q.

20. Tobias Enstrom, D
239th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

The Thrashers made the 5’10 offensive defenseman a contract offer this summer, confirming that there is a now place in the NHL for small defensemen. Enstrom declined, however, deciding he wanted to get in another year in Sweden.

Enstrom will again get a lot of ice time in Modo and hopefully get a chance with the Swedish national team in the World Championships. The 22-year-old was invited at the end of last season but had to decline since he was injured.

Missing the Cut

Chad Painchaud, LW
Michael Garnett, G
Mike Vannelli, D
Jimmy Sharrow, D

No longer a prospect: defenseman Ilja Nikulin and forward Stephen Baby due to age.

No longer part of the organization: defensemen Brian Sipotz, Jeff Dwyer and goaltender Adam Berkhoel. Dwyer and Berkhoel were not given qualifying offers, while Sipotz declined his offer.


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