Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

It’s a new-look list for the Atlanta Thrashers with the graduation of Kari Lehtonen to the NHL, and trades of 2003 first-rounder Braydon Coburn to Philadelphia and 2005 first-rounder Alex Bourret to the New York Rangers

With Ondrej Pavelec as the team’s top prospect, they should be set in goal for years to come.  Pavelec is the first of six prospects taken in the very productive 2005 draft who made the list.  Eight of the top 14 prospects are defensemen.

Top 20 at a Glance
1. (3) Ondrej Pavelec, G, 19
2. (4) Bryan Little, C, 19
3. (14) Brett Sterling, LW, 22
4. (5) Mark Popovic, D, 24
5. (6) Grant Lewis, D, 22
6. (7) Boris Valabik, D, 21
7. (8) Riley Holzapfel, C, 18
8. (10) Andrei Zubarev, D, 20
9. (11) Nathan Oystrick, D, 24
10. (19) Tobias Enstrom, D, 22
11. (13) Chad Denny, D, 19
12. (18) Jordan LaVallee, LW, 20
13. (12) Tomas Pospisil, RW, 19
14. (nr) Mike Vannelli, D, 23
15. (17) Michael Forney, LW, 18
16. (nr) Mitch Carefoot, C, 22
17. (nr) Joey Crabb, RW, 23
18. (16) Guillaume Desbiens, RW, 21
19. (nr) Dave Caruso, G, 24
20. (15) Andrew Kozek, F, 20

1. (3) Ondrej Pavelec, G, 19
2nd round, 41st overall, 2005

Highly decorated last year as a rookie in the QMJHL, Pavelec is having another strong year.  He struggled early this season in Cape Breton and at the World Junior Championships was only mediocre for the Czech team.  But he regained his form after the tournament, and is now ranked first in save percentage and GAA among starters with .909 and 2.58 respectively.  Pavelec was QMJHL defensive player of the month in January.

Helping to improve his numbers were the acquisitions of Luc Bourdon (VAN) and Beau Prokopetz, an excellent shut-down guy who clears the front of the net. Last year Pavelec saw a lot of shots per game, and this year fewer because he’s got a lights-out defense in front of him, clearing away rebounds of the shots that do get through.  But it’s a good sign that he can be successful while seeing a variety of shot totals.

Pavelec still needs to work on his conditioning, having put on weight over last summer but now back down to a normal playing weight. It is something he will have to keep in check to play professionally.  Also he has been easily rattled, getting the hook in several games.

Pavelec has enough talent to become a starter in the NHL, but just needs to maintain his consistency and focus.  Under a June 1 signing deadline, he’s likely headed for the AHL Chicago Wolves next season.

2. (4) Bryan Little, C, 19
1st round, 12th overall, 2006

There is not much separating Pavelec and Little, both are solid but not elite prospects, but the edge on this list goes to Pavelec for distinguishing himself by leading his league two years in a row.  Little is currently tied for eighth in the OHL in points with 90 in 51 games for the Barrie Colts.  Last year he finished sixth in league in scoring.  Little was also a member of Team Canada’s 2007 gold medal winning WJC squad, but did not see a lot of ice time.  

The question is always how will a junior player’s skill transfer to the pro game, and those questions are at the forefront for Little as well.  Given the Thrashers’ need for offensive centermen, Little will be given a chance to lay claim to a roster spot in the fall, but it’s not realistic to think he’ll step right in.  Turning 20 in November, he’s eligible to play in the AHL next year, and will almost certainly do so.

3. (14) Brett Sterling, LW, 22
5th round, 145th overall, 2003

Sterling is first among AHL rookies and second in the entire AHL in scoring, with 76 points in 59 games. The humble winger would tell you that playing on the top line for the Chicago Wolves alongside Darren Haydar and either Jason Krog or Cory Larose has helped a lot, but the fact that he leads the league in goal scoring by 10 goals means that Sterling has more than a little to do with the line’s success.   A big scorer for Colorado College before turning pro, he’s doing better than predicted this year, by him, the organization or anyone.  His accolades include being named All-Star game MVP. 

A fifth-round pick made good, Sterling will be penciled in for the big club next year, with a spot on a scoring line being his to lose.   He has nothing left to prove in the AHL, and the Thrashers will need the secondary scoring he can provide.

4. (5) Mark Popovic, D, 24
Via trade.  Originally selected 2nd round, 35th overall, 2001 by Anaheim

Popovic is getting long in the tooth as a prospect at age 24, but management continues to project him in the team’s future lineup.  He has played 46 games for the Wolves this year and three for the Thrashers as an injury call-up.  Popovic passed through waivers at the beginning of the last two seasons in 2005 and 2006, but clearing this past year could have been affected by possession of a one-way contract in 2007-08. 

Popovic skates well, is very calm with the puck and makes a good outlet pass.  He’s eighth on the defensive depth chart right now, and if injuries hit, could see some time up with the team during the playoffs.  Popovic will not be more than a No. 5 or 6 defenseman, but is a fairly safe bet to make it at this point.

5. (6) Grant Lewis, D, 22
2nd round, 40th overall, 2004

Lewis gets very little press playing for an Ivy League school, but he’s been a rock for Dartmouth College again this year after coming back from an ankle injury.  He has 12 assists in 20 games in this, his senior year.  With a big wingspan at  6’3, the blueliner has the skating skill and defensive awareness to be very effective in the new NHL.

Lewis’ shortened season could have him turning pro as soon as the Big Green’s season is done in order to get some more games in.  But that could be a little while, given that Dartmouth recently won a share of the ECAC regular season title.

6. (7) Boris Valabik, D, 21
1st round, 10th overall, 2004

Extremely raw when he was drafted in 2004, it’s not a big surprise that Valabik has improved greatly in the last few years.  He has had a decent year as a rookie for the Wolves, recently returning from an ankle injury that kept his games played to only 38 this year. 

At 6’7, his wingspan is enormous, but has a hard time playing defense without doing something illegal.  Valabik has 163 penalty minutes to show for it, the highest rate on the team. The big blueliner will need to not only continue to improve his skating and mobility, but also keep himself more under control.

That said, he is physically ready for the NHL and could see some call-ups next season.  Valabik, who has little offense to his game besides a hard, but rarely-used slapshot, projects as a bottom pairing defenseman.

7. (8) Riley Holzapfel, C, 18

2nd round, 43rd overall, 2006

Holzapfel is the youngest player on the list, barely eligible for the 2006 draft having turned 18 last August.  A solid second-round pick with good skill as a playmaker, hockey sense and skating ability, he is probably the most underrated Thrasher prospect. 

Making and perhaps exceeding the progress expected of him, Holzapfel has drastically increased his goal scoring for Moose Jaw of the WHL and ranks 10th in the league in points with 74 points in 64 games, which includes 35 goals. 

Holzapfel has another year of junior eligibility and does not have to be signed until 2008. 

8. (10) Andrei Zubarev, D, 20
6th round, 187th overall, 2005

Taken in the sixth round in a draft in which most NHL teams were leery of taking Russians, Zubarev was a bargain.  He got a fair amount of press this year for an incident during the Canada/Russia Challenge. He and forward Andrey Lange were suspended for the duration of the series as a result of an altercation with on-ice officials after he was high-sticked in the face by a Canadian player.  He sat out the rest of that tournament, but went on to have a great WJC for Russia.

Zubarev is physical, skates well and has some offense to his game. He tore up the Russian Super League last season as an 18-year-old.  This year he has played just 18 games this year for Ak Bars Kazan, with no points in the low-scoring league.  He has had trouble getting ice time because he did not get along with the coach in the beginning of the year, and because Kazan is a very deep team, tops in the league.  The upside is that his struggles for ice time may make him even more eager to sign with the Thrashers than he was before.

Turning 20 years old today, Zubarev, who speaks reasonably good English, must be signed by June 1 if Russia agrees to the IIHF agreement and will almost certainly be. 

9. (11) Nathan Oystrick, D, 24
7th round, 198th overall, 2002

The Thrashers didn’t have lofty expectations for Oystrick, selected in the seventh round of the 2002 draft, even heading into this season.  He has exceeded their expectations, however, to the point of being in line for a call-up.  He’s the top scoring defenseman in the entire AHL, as a rookie, with 41 points in 61 games, and registered a solid 94.2 mph slapshot in the AHL All-Star game. 

It’s deceiving since he’s a rookie, but Oystrick is the same age as Popovic.  Oystrick has quickly put himself in a similar situation, knocking on the door for a chance, and been mentioned by management recently as one of several potential future solutions on the power play.  Oystrick won’t be penciled in for a spot next year, but if he impresses in training camp, things could change.

10. (19) Tobias Enstrom, D, 22
8th round, 239th overall, 2003

Enstrom may be the best value of any prospect on the list, having been taken in the eighth round in 2003.  Small at 5’10 but with a lot of offensive talent, he has played in the Swedish Elite League since being drafted, while most players spend time in the Swedish junior leagues at that age.  This season, Enstrom is eighth among SEL defensemen in scoring with 27 points in 53 games at age 22.

The Thrashers made an offer to Enstrom last summer, but he decided to stay in Europe another year. He will likely be signed this summer and could challenge for a spot on the team straight away as a power-play quarterback.

11. (13) Chad Denny, D, 19
2nd round, 49th overall, 2005

Yet another offensive defenseman, Denny continues to rack up the points for Lewiston in the QMJHL and sits seventh among league defensemen in points with 54 in 53 games.  His scoring intriguing, but it’s wise to remember that he’s still raw and will need some time to develop the rest of his game around his big shot.  In that way, his development will likely be similar to that of former Thrashers prospect Kurtis Foster, now with the Minnesota Wild.  
Denny has a many good qualities: a howitzer of a slapshot, hockey smarts, and a physical presence. His big frame at 6’2, 210 pounds allows him to throw some truly devastating hits.  He is currently +28, which puts him second on his team.
Denny will be 20 at the end of March. He must be signed this summer and will play for either the Wolves or possibly the Gwinnett Gladiators in the fall.

12. (18) Jordan LaVallee, LW, 20
4th round, 116th overall, 2005

LaVallee was a goal scorer in the Q, but his offense hasn’t translated to the pro level.  The 6’3, 211-pound LaVallee has 11 goals and 13 assists in 60 games as a rookie for the Wolves and is a +3. 

But that doesn’t mean LaVallee isn’t a good prospect.  He’s been playing on the third line and projects as a good third liner at the NHL level as well.  With an NHL frame, good knowledge of the game, and no obvious flaws, LaVallee could be ready relatively soon.

13. (12) Tomas Pospisil, RW, 19
5th round, 135th overall, 2005

Pospisil has a lot of talent, but whether that will translate to the pro level is an open question.  He got off to a good start this season and co-lead his team in the early going, but his play has slipped of late. He has 24 goals and 32 assists in 47 games for the OHL Sarnia Sting, which is good, but less than expected given that he’s playing with talented rookie center Steven Stamkos.  Last year he was the team’s second leading scorer behind Chad Painchaud, but this year Pospisil is only fifth on a much improved team.   He struggles a bit defensively and is -1, while is teammates are generally plus.  He played with the Czech WJC team this year as well, which caused him to miss some games.

Pospisil has extremely soft hands, but he doesn’t do well in traffic because he’s light and not strong on his skates.  Opening up the game came at a good time for him, but he will likely struggle as a pro with the physicality, at least to start. 

Pospisil will be a top six forward if he makes it, but that seems a long way off at this point.  Like all 2005 picks out of Europe, he’ll need to be signed by June 1.

14. (nr) Mike Vannelli, D, 23

4th round, 136th overall, 2003

Vannelli is enjoying a successful senior year as captain of a powerhouse University of Minnesota team.  He’s scoring at a good clip, 27 points in 35 games. Playing in all situations and a staple on the power play, Vannelli is good all around, but not gifted in any area. 

He’ll be turning pro this summer after what will likely be a deep run by the Gophers. 

15. (17) Michael Forney, LW, 18

3rd round, 80th overall, 2006

A highly successful high school player last year, Forney is seeing very little ice time as a freshman for the University of North Dakota, getting into less than half of the team’s games.  This is concerning, given that it’s a lineup that needs scoring and he is supposed to have the talent to do so.  He has scored just two assists in 15 games. 

Forney, who did come in as a true freshman, will need to step up in a big way as a sophomore.  He is the second youngest player on the top 20  list, still 18, so he has a greater likelihood of improving rapidly. 

16. (nr) Mitch Carefoot, C, 22
8th round, 237th overall, 2004

Solidly built at 6’1, 210 pounds, Carefoot is a top penalty killer for the Cornell Big Red and he can also score goals. He has nine on the year and eight assists in 25 games. Carefoot missed some games in February due to injury, but is back in the lineup. 

Currently a senior, he’ll look to turn pro after this season.  Carefoot projects as a third or fourth liner at the pro level. 

17. (nr) Joey Crabb, RW, 23

Free agent, 2006

Originally drafted by the New York Rangers and picked up by the Thrashers as a free agent last summer, Crabb is a defensive forward with some offensive ability.  The rookie needs to make a statement soon, however, having had trouble staying in the Wolves lineup since December. He recently went 22 games without a goal, and now has a total of 20 points in 52 games.  Also concerning is that he is only +1 on a very plus team.

Unlike Sterling, with whom he played on a line last year at Colorado College, Crabb is struggling with finding a place as a professional. He will need a much better second season with the Wolves.

18. (16) Guillaume Desbiens, RW, 21
4th round, 116th overall, 2003

Desbiens excelled last year with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators, and is playing his first year in the AHL.  To try to stay in the lineup, he’s amped up the enforcement side of his resume, but he has the hands for scoring a bit as well.  He has six points and 90 PIMs in 35 games played.

The 6’2, 205-pounder plays a physical brand of offense and his attitude is top-notch. But his skating must improve significantly for his potential as a fourth liner to be realized.

19. (nr) Dave Caruso, G, 24
Free agent, 2006

Undrafted, but a veteran of Thrashers prospect camps as a local product, Caruso was signed to a contract following a four-year career at The Ohio State University.  Relying mostly on his athletic abilities, he has good positioning and at 6’1 is not at a size disadvantage in net.

Caruso has gradually improved over the season for the Gladiators, playing behind a team that is porous defensively. His numbers, a 3.28 GAA and .898 save percentage, are substantially better than partner Dan Turple‘s, also a Thrashers prospect.  While the two have been splitting time fairly evenly thus far, it will likely be the more mature Caruso who is relied upon more in the playoffs.

20. (15) Andrew Kozek, F, 20
2nd round, 53th overall, 2005

Typically NCAA prospects show a jump in production in their sophomore year, but it hasn’t materialized for Kozek.  The 20-year-old has just five goals and four assists in 33 games for North Dakota, a scoring rate slightly down from last year. The scoring prowess he displayed in the BCHL in his draft year has not yet translated to the college level. Lately the 5’11, 185-pounder has been playing on a checking line, which is not his strength, but his play hasn’t earned him scoring line minutes.

Kozek has some talent, but talent is worthless if it can’t be put it into production, and that seems to be a problem.  Of the three second rounders the Thrashers had in 2005 (including Pavelec and Denny), Kozek is the furthest behind in development.  He’ll need to turn things around in a hurry next year.

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