On opening night, just one Atlanta Thrashers prospect will be in the line-up: goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Defenseman Braydon Coburn will be on the roster, but begin the season on the shelf.
Coming into training camp, the expectation was that Lehtonen, and one or both of Mark Popovic or Coburn would make the team. There was an opportunity for winger Alex Bourret as well given the turnover at forward, but he was a long shot coming straight out of juniors.
Thrashers GM Don Waddell reiterated this year that he and head coach Bob Hartley would keep the best players regardless of contract situation. The players would decide their fate themselves by their play. Below is a review of the prospects who were in training camp.
Popovic back to Chicago
Even with Coburn lost to injury, it wasn’t enough to help Popovic capture a top six spot. A training camp injury of his own didn’t help matters.
The 23-year-old suffered a bone bruise on the top of his right foot in the morning skate before the team’s first preseason game against Dallas on Sept. 18. Popovic played one shift in the game, but could not continue.
“It happens, it’s part of the game, especially when you’re doing game-like situations. It’s just unfortunate that it happened during camp,” he said later.
Thanks to the late acquisition of Vitaly Vishnevski, there were nine defensemen vying for spots. Still, Popovic’s confidence was very high coming into camp.
“Oh, extremely high,” he said. “I came here with one mission, to be in the top six. To impress Bob (Hartley) and the rest of the coaching staff to make sure I earned a spot. The injury was a little bit of a setback in terms of it’s a short camp this year and I missed nine or 10 days, but we’ll see what happens,” he said the night before the last preseason game.
That top six may have been on his mind when he chose his new jersey number as well, going from #39 (now worn by Niko Kapanen) to #6.
Traded from the Anaheim Ducks in 2005, who originally drafted him in the second round in 2001, Popovic had a chance to make the Thrashers roster last year, but was a long shot with just one NHL game played. This year was his best chance so far to make an NHL roster, having added seven games of experience to his resume last year over several call-ups. But he was not making any assumptions about the short-term outcome.
“I think I’ve always been at the edge, even my first year pro I’ve kind of been that player who is right there,” he described. “This year the chances are there and I feel really confident that I’m going to be a good National Hockey League player.”
The Thrashers re-signed Popovic to a two-year contract this summer, the second year of which is one-way — a vote of confidence in the blueliner.
“That’s great that they had that kind of confidence in me this summer, and hopefully I’ll prove them right and end up being the player they expect me to be,” he said.
In preseason play, the smooth skating puckmover was paired with Garnet Exelby on the 27th at Florida, Vitaly Vishnevski on the 29th against Nashville, and Shane Hnidy on the 30th. Popovic had no points in preseason, was –3, and stayed out of the penalty box.
Not wanting him to spend his time idling in the press box, the Thrashers are sending him to the AHL, where he will see top minutes. Having already cleared waivers, Popovic will return to the Chicago Wolves, where he had a career year in 2005-06.
He’s the last person likely to sulk at his demotion, however. Popovic wore an A on his jersey because of what he brings to the locker room. A good attitude and confidence is a key part of his game.
“That’s the biggest things in sports – if you don’t believe in yourself, who is going to? You can’t do things if you don’t believe you can do them. For myself, I always try to be positive, go into every game thinking ‘play as good as you can making the plays’ and that’s part of being a pro — showing up every night and believing you can do it.”
Sterling made a quick impression
Brett Sterling began training camp with a hip pointer suffered in the 2006 Traverse City Prospects Evaluation Tournament. On the third day of camp, a wrap still on his hip, he summed up his situation saying “I’m just glad to be here.”
Simply being there was not what he accomplished in camp, however. The 5’7 left winger made more than a few people learn his name by scoring on his first shot in the first period of his first preseason game.
“I was really nervous coming into it, and it just worked out,” he said after the game. “Niko (Kapanen) made a great pass to break in. I was able to get a shot off and it happened to go in,” he said laughing. “It felt good though.”
Sterling was fortunate to get to play with former Colorado College linemate Joey Crabb, who was signed by the team over the summer as a free agent. The two had Kapanen between them on that night instead of Hobey Baker winner Marty Sertich, now with Dallas.
“It’s tough to replace Marty,” Sterling said, never wiping the smile off his face. “But Niko is a great player. It’s a privilege being out there playing with these guys and playing with a guy like that.
“We were driving down here [to Philips], [Crabb], myself and Scott Lehman, looking at each other going ‘Alright, what are we doing here? This is awesome,’ and to go out there and both of us, Joey and me to get a goal, after everything we’ve been through together — it’s a special night.”
Crabb may have felt a little too much like he was back at World Arena with Sterling next to him on the bench. After he scored from the slot on a pass from a falling Sterling and did an identical knee pump, Crabb skated the length of the ice to tap goalie Michael Garnett on pads, a college tradition of team-building. Sterling didn’t follow him as he had at CC. But the true friend that he is, he was supportive of Crabb’s lonesome skate afterwards.
“I don’t know if he’ll stop either, I think he’ll keep it going. He’s one of those guys who likes to set his own trends.”
Quick faceoffs in the NHL might cause his coach to say otherwise. But as for this game, Hartley noted afterwards that Crabb and Sterling were both on the puck and called the line “really refreshing.”
Crabb was sent down to Chicago following that game, but was recalled along with Derek MacKenzie for the last preseason game to replace Steve Rucchin and Glen Metropolit in the lineup. He has since been returned to the AHL.
Sterling stuck around for two more games after the one in which both he and Crabb scored. There was no shot this sniper didn’t like, taking 10 in his three games played. Waddell said that Sterling, who was a fifth round pick of the team in 2003, had a tremendous camp.
Early scoring success is the kind of thing that gives a player good confidence to start the year. Sterling may get chance for real later in the year on what may be an offensively-challenged team.
Lehtonen and Coburn
Twenty-two-year-old Lehtonen solidified his position as the team’s No. 1 netminder, without incident. This was how things were supposed to go last year, before he was struck by groin trouble.
After his first preseason game on the 20th against Florida, Lehtonen talked about a goal he wanted back, but said “It was great to be out there and everything felt good. The only hard part was getting used to the action again.”
The only evidence that there had ever been anything wrong with him was that he was taken out of a game after 40 minutes in which there was a planned shootout. Hartley said after the game, “Once we found out that there was going to be a shootout at the end of the game no matter the outcome of the game, we just didn’t want to expose Kari to shootouts right now. (Brian) Boucher in Phoenix pulled his groin in a shootout and that wasted him for the entire season. So knowing our history with goaltenders and groins, we felt we were happy with what Kari did in the 40 minutes he played.”
Lehtonen stopped 76 of 81 shots over 160 minutes in preseason play, for a very solid .938 save percentage.
Defenseman Braydon Coburn was doing fine in camp until he separated his shoulder in the fifth preseason game. He’ll begin the season on the IR, and it stands to reason that he’ll be sent to Chicago to ramp back up into game shape. Once there, he could find it difficult to get back in the mix if there are no injuries or trades. Now that Popovic has been reassigned, there is one less competitor, but Coburn is still the eighth defenseman on the roster.
Others who saw game time
Right wing Alex Bourret got a late start to camp due to a concussion suffered at Traverse City. Putting him on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk in his first preseason game, who was already at a full gallop, was probably too much. The next night, he played with Marian Hossa instead, and later Bobby Holik and Scott Mellanby. Management’s refrain in regards to Bourret making the team has been, “it’s in his hands.” The 20-year-old played a total of four preseason games, scoring just one assist and taking six shots. But he did not look nearly ready for this level and has been assigned to Chicago.
Other prospects getting into preseason action were Boris Valabik, who played three games, and Colin Stuart, Jordan LaVallee and Lehman, who each played one game. Goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Garnett each played half of one game. Center Bryan Little, the team’s top pick in 2006, was sent immediately back to the OHL Barrie Colts without playing any preseason games. Pavelec was the only junior player who saw time.
Valabik showed that at 6’7, he’s physically ready for at least preseason play, but took 22 minutes in penalties and was rough around the edges. He was sent to Chicago in the last group.
Defenseman Jim Sharrow missed all of training camp due to a broken bone in his hand, suffered at the Traverse City tournament. First-year pro Nathan Oystrick participated in camp practices, but was not 100 percent due to his recovery from mononucleosis. The defenseman did not play in any preseason games.
The standouts statistically in preseason were Sterling and Lehtonen. Sterling led all prospects with three points and was +3.
Four players under Thrashers contract were not invited to main camp, sent instead directly to Chicago’s camp: forwards Stephen Baby, Brad Schell, Adam Smyth, and defenseman Lane Manson. All but Baby spent last year in the ECHL, and all but Smyth are in the last year of their contracts.
Kevin Doell was to be among that group going directly to Chicago, but was a late add thanks to injuries at Traverse City. He was sent down in the first batch of cuts.
Only non-contract player invited to camp this year was 26-year-old defenseman Jon Awe, who played last season with the Gwinnett Gladiators, a late add along with Doell.
For the first two days of camp, the players were divided into Teams A and B, that really were A and B. This division made for less interaction between veterans and prospects. While prospects who played preseason games did later mix, the very young were sent back to juniors having had only one day with a few veterans on their sheet of ice. It will remain to be seen if there is any long-term effect of not getting to measure themselves against NHLers and experiencing first-hand exactly how far they need to go.
Today the Wolves assigned Schell, goaltenders Dave Caruso and Dan Turple to Gwinnett, along with Thrashers pick Colton Fretter.
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