All eyes will be on Kari Lehtonen as the Atlanta Thrashers open training camp this week. The talented netminder had trouble with his groin in last year’s camp, then re-injured it on opening night. His absence from the lineup was a major factor in the team missing the playoffs by just two points.
Lehtonen, who will be 23 in November, now gets a fresh slate as the team’s starting goaltender. Having seen specialists who corrected his training habits, he spent most of the summer following their prescriptions in Atlanta.
The 2002 first rounder gains a quality backup in Johan Hedberg, who previously played in Dallas and Pittsburgh. Any potential problems of partners from rival countries Finland and Sweden is probably alleviated by the easygoing nature of both netminders.
Lehtonen’s health and quality play will be critical for the team’s success. He has the talent to be one of the best netminders in the NHL.
Defenseman Braydon Coburn, the team’s 2003 first round pick, was expected to make the roster last season, but instead spent most of the year with AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves. Management believes the 21-year-old could be ready this season, but grabbing a spot has only gotten tougher with the addition of veterans Steve McCarthy last spring and Vitaly Vishnevski in August.
Mark Popovic faces the same crowded blue line. Popovic, who will be 24 in October, would again have to clear waivers to be sent to Chicago. If he doesn’t earn a spot in the top six to start the season, he’s more likely to be sent down at the beginning of the year than later, since as the reasoning last year went, he’s less attractive to other teams when there are many players on waivers at the same time and few injuries so early in the season.
Neither Coburn nor Popovic are likely to be kept on the roster in a seventh-man capacity, as this would stunt their development.
Trading away one of the more expensive defensemen like Greg deVries or Andy Sutton seems likely. Salary is a big reason, but the team is also pressing up against the 50-contract limit. Such a move won’t happen though until the Thrashers see what they have in camp.
Last year, one was hard-pressed to find an extra body around the team since it was so close to the salary cap. This year, with the cap raised and the budget steady, expect more extras, especially to start the year. It’s not unreasonable to think the Thrashers would hold onto eight defensemen and three goaltenders to start the year.
Alex Bourret, Atlanta’s first rounder in 2005, has an opportunity to make the team, since he brings some needed offensive replenishment.
The soon to be 20-year-old looked good at development camp in July, but has not stood out at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, and left Game 2 halfway through complaining of a head injury.
In main camp, Darren Haydar, Jason Krog, and Jon Sim are all newcomers who will be competing against him for spots, but if Bourret is ready and can help the team immediately, a spot will be made for him. But it’s seeming more and more like a longshot as camp nears.
With some still-lingering issues of conditioning and work habits, Bourret also still needs to be signed to a contract. All in all, it’s likely that he begins the year in Chicago and sees only spot duty in the NHL this season.
One prospect who played NHL games last year will likely not see those again this year, barring a repeat of the 2005-06 goaltending fiasco. Michael Garnett, who will be 24 in November, was forced into the lineup due to injuries to both Lehtonen and Mike Dunham last year. In the offseason, veteran Fred Brathwaite was added to the goaltending depth chart to ensure that the team is not put in that situation again.
Another prospect who saw time with the club last season (8 games), agitator Karl Stewart was traded to Anaheim in the Vishnevski deal.
Traverse City Prospects Tournament
Thrashers prospects are competing in a tournament Sept. 8-12, coached by Jeff Pyle, the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Thrashers’ ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators. Notable for his participation is first-year pro Nathan Oystrick, who is still recovering from mononucleosis.
Forwards: Alex Bourret, Joey Crabb, Colton Fretter, Riley Holzapfel, Jordan LaVallee, Bryan Little, Chad Painchaud, Tomas Pospisil, Brett Sterling, and Myles Stoesz, along with free agent tryouts Justin Azevedo, Jean-Philip Chabot, Bryan Dobek, and Scott Tregunna.
Defensemen: Chad Denny, Arturs Kulda, Scott Lehman, Nathan Oystrick, Jimmy Sharrow, and Boris Valabik, along with free agent tryout Brian Lee.
Goaltenders: Ondrej Pavelec, Dan Turple, David Caruso.
Other faces to expect
Main training camp will be very down to business again this year, perhaps even more so following such a narrow playoffs miss. Just a few junior players, such as 2006 first rounder Bryan Little, can be expected to receive invites at the end of the prospects tournament.
Twenty-three-year-old former Colorado College winger Joey Crabb was recently signed to a two-year deal. The former New York Rangers pick was unable to come to terms with his former team and became a free agent. He is a former teammate of Brett Sterling and will likely play for the Chicago Wolves this season.
On-ice workouts begin on Sept. 15 at the IceForum in Duluth and are open to the public. First cuts will likely come on Monday the 18th, before the first preseason game at Dallas.
Mon. Sept. 18 @ Dallas 8:30 p.m.
Wed. Sept. 20 Florida 7:00 p.m.
Sat. Sept. 23 St. Louis 7:00 p.m.
Sun. Sept. 24 @ St. Louis 8:00 p.m.
Wed. Sept. 27 @ Florida 7:30 p.m.
Fri. Sept. 29 Nashville 7:30 p.m.
Sat. Sept. 30 @ Nashville 8:00 p.m.
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