Thrashers ECHL prospects season review

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers sent five prospects to the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators in 2006-07: forwards Brad Schell and Chad Painchaud, goaltenders Dave Caruso and Dan Turple, and defenseman Scott Lehman.  All were rookies, with the exception of Schell.

The 2006-07 season was not as successful for the team. After making it to the league finals last year, the Gladiators fell to the Texas Wildcatters in the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs last weekend.

Below is a review of the seasons of each of the prospects. Schell, called up to the Chicago Wolves late in the year, will be covered in the upcoming AHL review.

Dave Caruso, G

Signed as a free agent out of Ohio State University last summer, Caruso had a reasonable start to the year, but made good improvement later to end the season on a high note. One important reason for his improvement is that he started working with his old goaltending coach, Al Blevins, in January.

Before the ECHL All-Star break at the end of January, Caruso had a .893 save percentage and 3.39 GAA. But from the beginning of February on, Caruso has posted an improved save percentage of .919 and goals against of 2.68. 

Going into the playoffs, Caruso said he was focusing on not trying to do too much.  That approach seemed to work well, as he started three of the team’s four playoff games, going 1-2 with a 2.70 GAA and .925 save percentage. He went down fighting, with over 30 saves in all three playoff games. Caruso was the second best rookie goaltender in the playoffs in save percentage behind Cincinnati’s Cedrick Desjardins.

Caruso, who turns 25 in June, is a restricted free agent this summer now that his one-year contract us up. Even with top prospect Ondrej Pavelec turning pro out of the QMJHL, there should be room for Caruso in the system next year. Unlikely to beat out Pavelec or Fred Brathwaite in camp next year for a spot in Chicago, Caruso will probably begin in Gwinnett again to start the year and be the first call-up in case of injury. 

Caruso will train at OSU for the first half of the summer, then be back in Atlanta later to help with a goalie clinic at the Duluth IceForum. 

Chad Painchaud, LW

In most cases, statistics will tell you a lot about how a player is doing.  It’s not the case with Painchaud.

On one hand, he put up quite a few points, especially as one of the youngest players in the league. Painchaud finished sixth on the team in scoring, with 54 points (22 goals, 32 assists) in 72 games.

His overall point totals hide a season of extreme inconsistency, however. He was benched for parts of games several times for his lack of effort, and narrowly missed being sat out entire games.  Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle had a sit-down talk with him about effort in January, which had minimal effect, as he was still unhappy about the same things in April.

The high-scoring Gladiators almost always have several players on the league’s rookie scoring list, and this year was no different. Painchaud came in third in rookie scoring behind teammate Colton Fretter and Benoit Mondou of Trenton.  Gladiators swingman Jamie Milam was 12th, with 47 points.

Painchaud finished the season a -13, which put him in the bottom half of the team.  Defensive play was another thing Pyle felt he could improve on.

In the playoffs, Painchaud seemed to bring his ‘A’ game and led the Gladiators in scoring with five assists.

Effort will get him more ice time, and maybe a call-up to the AHL, but Painchaud’s vision probably isn’t good enough to be an NHL-level playmaker, and his shot is not good enough to be an NHL-level goal scorer.  Skating, his best-known attribute, is fast straight ahead, but lacks either the shiftiness or strength to get around defenders.  In all, he has a lot of work to do.

Painchaud, who turns 21 in May, will likely return to the Gladiators next season as well. 

Scott Lehman, D

At the beginning of the year, Lehman often made hail mary belly slides to block shots and pinched into the offensive zone almost constantly. By the end of the year, he largely stopped doing both of those things. Staying on his feet meant not giving up his position so easily, and in not pinching, he accepted that he is not an offensive defenseman. Lehman improved a fair amount over the course of the year, but still has a long road before him to even advance out of the league. In fact, two defensemen without NHL or AHL contracts were called up to Chicago instead of him this season, Jon Awe and Brian Lee (once called up, Awe was then signed to a year-long Wolves contract).

Lehman finished the year playing with Awe, and had a plus/minus of -20, the worst on the team. He had 14 points in 72 games.

Lehman did prove himself durable, as he was one of only three Gladiators, including Painchaud, to play every game. But one of the main things that Lehman will need to improve is his skating.  With poor balance, he ends up on his backside a lot during battles.  And on rushes, fast wingers can get around him as well.

Lehman, 21, seems a virtual lock to see another year at the ECHL level.  Chicago’s blue line will be full with names like Boris Valabik, Grant Lewis, Mike Vannelli, and Andrei Zubarev.

Dan Turple, G

From the penthouse to the outhouse is the only way to describe Dan Turple’s recent seasons. In 2005-06, Turple was the best goaltender in the OHL — his.924 save percentage led the league as did his 2.25 GAA and seven shutouts. In 2006-07, he had the worst save percentage in the ECHL (minimum 1440 minutes played), with .879, and the third-worst GAA at 3.77.  In Kitchener, he benefited from having Matt Lashoff (BOS) and the Thrashers’ own Valabik on the blue line in front of him.  The Gladiators blue line was not stocked with such defensive-minded players.

Turple, who covers a lot of net at 6’6 and has quick reactions, suffers from a couple issues. One is that he doesn’t react well when he’s scored on. Pyle said near the end of the year, "Turps is just all or nothing. That’s his problem. A goal gets in and he gets rattled. The guys in front of him too, they see it and go ‘oh no.’ If he makes some big saves early, then you know it’s good." 

While mindset can potentially be solved rather quickly, he has a more fundamental issue that will need to be addressed — following the puck, especially as it pinballs around the crease area.  It’s something that he’s worked on with Blevins a bit this year.

Turple played just one out of four games in the playoffs, an overtime loss.

Currently the third goalie on the roster for the Wolves, Turple, 22, seems destined for another year with the Gladiators as well.

Colton Fretter, W

A Thrashers 2002 draft pick, Fretter was under Chicago Wolves contract this season. 

Sent to Gwinnett, he did nothing less than win ECHL Rookie of the year. Despite missing seven weeks with a broken ankle, he finished 12 points ahead of the next rookie with 68 points in just 51 games.  Fretter finished tied for fifth in goal scoring in the league with 36 and was tied for second in power play goals in the league with 18.  He was also +3, one of only six positive skaters on the team.

Injured on Feb. 14, he returned for the last two regular season games of the year, scoring four points in two games.  In the playoffs, he had three goals in four games, which led the team.

Interestingly, most of this was accomplished using Thrasher J-P Vigier’s sticks.  Fretter had been trying to get his own sticks made for a while.  In December, the Thrashers needed extra players at practice and he got to go.  He was sitting on the bench with his former Michigan State teammate Jim Slater and he mentioned he was having trouble getting what he wanted in sticks.  Slater, remembering what he liked from MSU, said ‘you should try Vigier’s, they’re like your old ones.’  Fretter liked them so much that Vigier gave him some of his.  And he’s been scoring more goals than Vigier has with them.

Fretter will spend the summer training at MSU with other alumni, including Slater.  He said that he and Slater had agreed that they wanted to do more on-ice training this time around.  Fretter said he also wants to work on his control and stickhandling.

A former kinesiology major at Michigan State, he’ll be taking a test in July to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist so that someday he can be a strength coach for sports teams. He’s been studying for the certification since around Christmas, a little bit each day.  An ever-conscientious student, he seemed confident that he would pass. 

Right now, Fretter is a black ace for Chicago, an extra player during their playoff run.  He’s unlikely to see playing time because he isn’t on the pre-determined playoff roster.

It’s too early for NHL teams to be making free agent moves for next season, but the Chicago Wolves have expressed interest in him again for next year, along with one other AHL team.

The past three ECHL Rookies of the Year have gone on to NHL contracts the next year – Kevin Doell with Atlanta, Joey Tenute with Washington and Alex Leavitt with Phoenix (in March 2007).  So history says that Fretter should as well, especially given his skill level and goal-scoring prowess.

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