Only two rookies played any games for the Atlanta Thrashers this season, Braydon Coburn and Mark Popovic. Neither began the season on the roster. But that low number is likely to change in dramatic fashion this fall. The Thrashers were the third oldest team in the league in 2006-07 behind the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders, with an average age of 29.7. The Thrashers will have to get younger, both because there’s nowhere else to go, and because younger means cheaper, and that’s key for a team that again spent more than it brought in.
Injuries on defense opened up the playing time for both Coburn and Popovic last fall. Andy Sutton lost time to a broken foot, Garnet Exelby to mono, and Steve McCarthy to a shoulder injury. Popovic was recalled from the Chicago Wolves and played Nov. 22 for Nic Havelid then again on Nov. 28 for a newly-injured Sutton. In that call-up, Popovic earned his first NHL point, an assist. He was called up again for one game later in the season as Coburn recovered from a fight, and averaged 10:14 minutes of ice time over those three games. With just 11 NHL games to his resume, he will still be considered a rookie next year, and is one of several in the mix for a spot.
Below is a look at the contenders who may make the team in 2007-08 out of training camp, in order of decreasing likelihood.
Brett Sterling, LW — On a Thrashers squad in need of secondary scoring, there’s a spot for a sniper like Sterling. Generously listed at 5’7, he competes very hard. He’s willing to take a beating around the net and the boards, and in fact drew many penalties for the Chicago Wolves this year in doing so. His bread and butter is standing at the right post on the power play, but the ever-smiling 23-year-old can score on a rush as well.
This summer, Sterling said he plans to go back home to California for a while to train, "then I’ll be back here [in Chicago] working with [skating and skills coach] Kenny McCudden, basically working on my skills, just trying to get my body ready for next year," he said.
Sterling’s skating is not a deficiency, but he could stand to gain another step as he moves into the NHL. Having won AHL Rookie of the Year, is he going to try to go two for two next year?
"I don’t know," he said laughing. "We’ll see what happens, hopefully I can get an opportunity, but if not and I’m back here, it’s a great organization, I love being here. Hopefully I’ll get my shot up, but all in good time."
Mark Popovic, D — Popovic, who will be 25 in October, has been knocking on the NHL’s door for several years, first with Anaheim, then with the Thrashers. He played seven games with the Thrashers in 2005-06 and three games in 2006-07. But with a lot of turnover likely in the Thrashers defense corps, there should be a full-time spot for him. If there’s not, Atlanta will still be paying him an NHL-sized paycheck. Popovic’s contract is one-way for 2007-08, meaning that he’ll be paid $535,000 next year even if he plays in the minors. If he does play in the minors, the money wouldn’t count against the salary cap, however.
Last season Popovic was diagnosed with a hairline fracture in his foot in training camp, and should rightfully have started the year in Atlanta on the IR. Instead, he was reassigned to Chicago and healed up for a few more weeks there. But it meant that he didn’t get off to the start he wanted to and his game suffered for it. He’s in top form now, however, as the Wolves move into the second round of the playoffs.
Popovic has excellent mobility and acceleration, is extremely calm with the puck and makes a good first pass. He may never be more than a third pairing defenseman, but he’s quite serviceable. Without a big slapshot, he isn’t a triggerman on the power play, but he can be used to move the puck around. Popovic got lots of coaching attention while he was up with the team last year, so he should know what is expected of him in training camp.
Nathan Oystrick, D – A pro rookie last fall at age 23, Oystrick had an immediate impact offensively for the Wolves, despite just coming back from mononucleosis. With his 92 mph slapshot, he can be quite useful on the power play. His scoring prowess placed him third in league scoring among defensemen and earned him a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team. But what’s most impressive is that he combines this offense with a very solid defensive game, which has improved as the year’s gone on. Picked late in the draft, he’s turned out better than hoped. The now 24-year-old will need to have a good camp to make the team this year, but it’s not out of the question.
Tobias Enstrom, D – Enstrom’s MoDo team won the SEL championships, with him having an outstanding playoff. The 22-year-old is now playing for Sweden in the World Championships. A good skater and puckmover, he was quite a steal in the eighth round of the 2003 draft, likely due to his size at 5’10. Small defensemen are now making it in the NHL these days, so there is a real chance for him. Enstrom turned down a contract offer last year from the Thrashers, so there’s always the possibility he will again, but he is expected to sign this summer. He’s listed just behind Oystrick here though, due to the possibility of needing time for adjustment to the smaller North American rink.
Ilja Nikulin, D – In terms of talent, Nikulin would almost certainly make the NHL roster if he came to North America. It’s getting him here that has been the problem. Nikulin is making a lot of money playing in the Russian Super League, and is content to continue there. The now 25-year-old will get another contract offer from the Thrashers this year, but it’s not likely he’ll take it. A 2000 second-round pick, the Thrashers would have lost his NHL rights last year, but they continue to retain them for now since the Russia has not signed the IIHF agreement regarding player transfers.
Bryan Little, C – Little, the team’s first rounder in 2006, is quite talented, but probably not ready for primetime just yet. The offensive center will probably play some games with the Thrashers later in the year, but not out of camp. He should be a very good player for the Wolves in 2006-07.
Boris Valabik, D – Valabik played only 50 games with the Wolves this year as a rookie, due to an ankle injury. It took a toll on him physically and mentally.
"Right now it’s OK," he said on Saturday. "My season did definitely get affected by it. It was a real disappointing season for me. Hopefully we’re going to go far in playoffs and I’m gonna forget about it, the whole season. It definitely makes me more motivated for next season and [I’m] definitely thinking about working hard in the summer. I played 50 games this season which is not enough at all."
The 6’7 blueliner, who still struggles with mobility and keeping a cool head, has also had trouble staying in the Wolves lineup when relatively healthy. He did not play in the third period of the team’s first playoff game last Friday. Asked the next day if he was hurt, he said it was a coach’s decision. He was a scratch in Game 2, returned to the lineup in Games 3 and 4. The 21-year-old will need another year in the AHL, at minimum, before he’s ready for the NHL.
Jordan LaVallee, LW – LaVallee has quietly turned in a very strong season in Chicago. He’s young, turning 21 next month, but there are no flaws in his game. He has NHL size at 6’3, 210, with good instincts, hustle, physicality. He would fit well on a fourth line at the NHL level to start with, and work his way up from there. The main issue in doing so is if he’d see enough ice time. The organization might want to keep him in Chicago for another year where he’d get more playing time.
Colin Stuart, LW – Stuart skates extremely well, but his hands aren’t quite up to NHL standards and his decision-making is sometimes suspect. He has decent size at 6’2, but is not very physical. All in all, there are probably better options out there for the same price. He’ll be 24 in July, so his window of opportunity is starting to close.
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