Thrashers AHL prospects season review

By Holly Gunning

The 2006-07 Chicago Wolves had several talented rookies including Brett Sterling, Nathan Oystrick, and Jordan LaVallee.  As pointed out in the season preview, a young defense was a problem going into the season.  The Wolves made several changes at the deadline, including trying to shore up the defense with Andy Delmore and Trevor Byrne.

In the regular season, the Wolves finished second in the West Division with a 46-25-3-6 record.  In the playoffs, they made it to the Western Conference finals, losing to the Hamilton Bulldogs in five games.

Below is a look at each of the Thrashers prospects’ seasons.

Defensemen

Nathan Oystrick, 24
7th round, 198th overall, 2002

Oystrick surprised even himself this season with his offensive output.  He was third among league defensemen in points as a rookie, with 47 points. He participated in the AHL All-Star game, was named to the All-Rookie Team, along with the Second AHL All-Star Team.  A lot of his scoring was done via his 90+ mph slap shot, that he gets off quickly to boot.

Perhaps more important was Oystrick’s solid defensive play. He was second among team blueliners and shared third on the team with a +17 rating. He was also one of only two Wolves to play all 80 contests (Kevin Doell was the other), which was remarkable coming off a bout with mononucleosis.

A left defenseman, Oystrick was paired with Brian Sipotz early in the year, and Andy Delmore later.  Oystrick stayed back more when paired with the offensive Delmore, concentrated more on defense.  Concentrating on defense in the playoffs as well, Oystrick had six assists and was +1.  He maintained his position and had his stick in lanes.

A big hitter in college, he didn’t much of that this year, saying he knew he couldn’t be taking himself out of position.  But it’s a skill he has and will use when necessary.  His skating has improved, so the remaining challenge is to keep his game consistently high-tempo.

Oystrick has a chance of landing a roster spot with the Thrashers this fall.  If he doesn’t make the cut, he’ll be the first call-up on defense.

Mark Popovic
, 24
Acquired from Anaheim in August 2005

Fifth-year pro Popovic was one of the most experienced blueliners on what was a very young defensive corps this year. He missed some time with a foot injury, and a few call-ups to the Thrashers, but still ended tied for 11th among AHL blue liners with 40 points in 65 games.
 
In the playoffs, he stepped up his game and was the leading scorer among defensemen with nine points in 15 games and was a solid +5.  As usual, he stayed out of the penalty box, with just four minutes.

Popovic has good acceleration, and is very mobile. He can look like a world-beater, but in other games very average. Consistency is his greatest weakness.  Headed to Atlanta full time next season, the two-way defenseman will never likely be in the top two pairings in the NHL, though he should see some power-play time as a puckmover, not a triggerman.

Boris Valabik, 21
1st round, 10th overall, 2004

In late December, Valabik suffered a high ankle sprain. 

“I went to hit a guy, I think it was in Peoria,” he described. “I had different skates – I think I had bad skates at that time and I kind of stepped weird and sprained my ankle.  I was out for five weeks and it doesn’t help when you can’t do anything with your legs, especially for a big guy like me.  It takes a long, long time to get back.”

The 6’7 rookie blueliner returned in early February and went on to post nine points and a +12 in 50 games, and led the team in penalty minutes with 184.

The seventh defenseman on the playoff depth chart, Valabik got into eight playoff games due to a shoulder injury to Sipotz. When Sipotz returned, Valabik, who had been playing through a slight injury all playoffs long, then became reportedly “injured.” 

He had one point and 37 penalty minutes in those eight games. 

Jimmy Sharrow, 22
4th round, 110th overall, 2003

Sharrow missed 15 games with a knee injury from Jan. 13 – Feb. 11.  He returned to the lineup to play three games intermittently, but has not played since Mar. 3 when defenseman Trevor Byrne was acquired. 

With one more year on his entry-level contract, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sharrow placed in another organization next season, be it in the AHL or ECHL.

Forwards

Brett Sterling, LW, 23
5th round, 145th overall, 2003

There’s a long list of accolades next to Brett Sterling’s name this year.  He won the Dudley “Red” Garrett Award as AHL Rookie of the Year, having topped rookies and placed fourth in the league in scoring with 97 points in 77 games.  He led the league in goals with 55 and was the league’s first rookie to do so since 1989. Sterling accomplished his high output playing on a very good line with league MVP Darren Haydar and Jason Krog, but both were out of the Wolves lineup at various points and Sterling kept on scoring without them.  He was also MVP of the 2007 AHL All-Star Classic, playing with different linemates.  

The Colorado College graduate made a good adjustment to the longer schedule of the pro game.
“For a while there I struggled a little bit, I had the few slow parts in the season, but for the most part I felt like I was able to take care of my body and able to respond,” he said. “I didn’t get too tired over the season and I was lucky to have the veterans who could kind of coach me on that, let me know what I need to do to keep my body ready.”

Sterling had 56 points in the first half, compared to 41 the second half, which he felt was due to being more tightly defended.
“I think the dropoff in points a lot of it came from the fact that when I came in, no one really knew who I was, I hadn’t proved myself at all.  So I was able to score real quick.  I think I was on a goal a game pace for the first 35 games and teams started to key in on that.  They really started to play us a lot tougher and I wasn’t getting as many chances as I had.  So it was a dropoff, but in the same respect, relatively consistent.”

Sterling certainly had plenty of ice time, sometimes double-shifting on the fourth line. He missed only two games with injury, a hip, in late November/early December, an injury he had during last year’s Traverse City tournament as well.

In the playoffs, Sterling had seven goals and five assists in 15 games.  Normally drawing more penalties than he takes, in the playoffs he had a surprisingly high 24 penalty minutes.  Sterling takes a lot of abuse for staking out his territory at the right post, but pops back up quickly, ready for more.

Sterling can stand to improve defensively.  He was a decent +14 in the regular seasno, but a –2 in the playoffs, tied for worst on the team. If he doesn’t make the NHL roster next year, his defensive play will likely be the reason since if you score 50 goals but give up 60, you’re not helping the team.  But he’ll probably do that improvement with the Thrashers, not the Wolves.

Jordan LaVallee, LW, 21
4th round, 113th overall, 2005

LaVallee had an excellent rookie season, though it was overshadowed by the play of Sterling and Oystrick. LaVallee played most of the year on the third line, but was moved up to the second with Cory Larose and Niko Dimitrakos when Alex Bourret was traded to the NY Rangers.  He had 16 goals and 18 assists in 79 games.

The most striking thing about LaVallee is that he makes not only the second effort, but the third and fourth as well.  He hits as a regular part of his shift, and has NHL-caliber hand-eye coordination.  Being such a well-rounded player, bringing offense and physicality, will help him find a spot in the NHL sooner rather than later.

LaVallee had an excellent playoffs with seven goals and one assist in 14 games.  Just two of his goals were scored on the power play, demonstrating an ability to get chances when fully defended. He missed the second playoff game with the flu.

Like most 21-year-olds, LaVallee needs to improve his defense.  He was -1 during the regular season on a very plus team, and was +1 in the playoffs.  He could steal a spot on the Thrashers roster with a terrific training camp, but most likely he’ll return to Chicago next season, where he’ll be expected to work on his defensive game in particular.

Colin Stuart, LW, 24
5th round, 135th overall, 2001

Stuart played on the Wolves third line, which late in the year consisted of Kevin Doell and Andre Deveaux, and was on the first penalty kill unit.  He had a career high in points with 29 points in 67 games (including 18 goals) and was third on the team with a +17 rating.  The 24-year-old had seven points in 15 playoff games, but four of those points came in a blowout win over Iowa.  The 13 games he missed during the campaign were due to a broken jaw at the beginning of the season.

Stuart is a good player to have in your system – a solid AHLer and good locker room guy.  But his upside is not very high with hands that are not NHL-caliber.  Though a fast and agile skater, he’s neither a good passer nor shooter, has little offensive vision, and also is not very physical.  Stuart has Jim Slater’s problem — a mismatch between hands and feet. Stuart has more size and is better defensively, but his mismatch is more pronounced. 

Joey Crabb, W, 24
Signed as a free agent, 2006

Coach John Anderson benched Crabb in December, saying he needed more out of him. Crabb continued to have trouble staying in the lineup in the second half though, and also went 22 games without a goal between the end of November and early February.  Crabb was playing on the fourth line with Desbiens before he injured his knee at the end of March.

“I went to hit a guy and he jumped out of the way and his stick hit my foot somehow and I felt my knee twisting,” he explained recently. “I tore my meniscus a little bit and got it scoped.  They cleaned up some of the cartilage that was torn. The doctor did a pretty good job, from what I hear at least.  And it feels good.” 

Crabb missed the last eight regular-season games with the injury. He made it back into the playoff lineup on May 6, taking the place of Desbiens.  Crabb was scoreless and even in six playoff games, but it was a good sign that he was even in the lineup, given that the coaching staff had several other choices at that point. 

Crabb will need a huge year in 2007-08, the second in his two-year contract.

Guillaume Desbiens, RW, 22
4th round, 116th overall, 2003

A rookie at the AHL level, Desbiens continued to struggle for ice time throughout the season. When he did play, it was on the fourth line, posting nine points in 54 games. He was scratched for much of the playoffs, playing in only six games with one assist. Notably he had just two penalty minutes in the playoffs, in contrast to the 118 penalty minutes he had in the regular season, much of this fighting majors. Desbiens fights for the team, not for himself, so when he is told to stay out of the box, he follows directions.

Next year it will be critical that he stay in the lineup and put some points on the board as well. 

Brad Schell,
C, 22
6th round, 167th overall, 2002

Having played 10 games with Chicago in 2005-06, Schell was called up for another look-see the weekend of Feb. 17.  That went well, and he was called up to stay when Crabb injured his knee.
Schell played on the fourth line most of the time, but saw time on the third and second when various players were out, and saw regular PK time as well.  Thanks to Derek MacKenzie (who’s on his way out of the organization) not being sent down after Thrashers season was over, Schell was able to maintain a roster spot and play at his natural center position most of the time.

In 12 regular season games, Schell had two goals and two assists. He had two points in 15 playoff games and was even. In the ECHL with the Gladiators, where he spent most of the year, Schell won the ECHL MVP award, having led the league in scoring with 110 points in just 63 games. He was the first player to top 100 points since the 2002-03 season.

Schell is less effective in the faster AHL, but his reads are still good and his ability to play on both offensive and defensive lines helps him. He should be a decent AHL player next year, but it will probably with another team.  Given the accolades he earned this season, he will likely have several AHL offers from which to choose this summer.

Andre Deveaux, RW, 23
Acquired from Tampa Bay, Feb. 2006

Deveaux was acquired by Atlanta from Tampa Bay on Feb. 1 along with Andy Delmore for Stephen Baby and Kyle Wanvig.  Delmore was what Chicago was looking for – a veteran defenseman.  Two players were sent each way in the deal to even out the contracts, and Deveaux came along in the deal because he was disgruntled at the ECHL level in Johnstown.  This makes Atlanta his third NHL team, having been drafted, but unsigned, by Montreal.

Deveaux sat out the first two games with the Wolves, but went on to play on the third line with Kevin Doell and Stuart. He ranked third on the Wolves with 113 penalty minutes. He had 11 points in 36 regular-season games, and five points and 48 penalty minutes in 14 playoff games.

Deveaux stands out on the ice, but that’s mostly because he’s 6’4. He does have a bit of goal-scoring ability as well. He’s at the end of his entry-level contract, and if he’s retained it will be to play in Chicago.

Bryan Little, C, 19
1st round, 12th overall, 2006

Little joined the Wolves for the playoffs on an amateur tryout contract after he also signed an entry-level contract with the Thrashers.  In the weeks between his Barrie Colts’ playoff exit and joining the team, he healed up from a shoulder injury suffered on a hit.

Little was inserted into the lineup for Chicago during Game 6 the second round of the playoffs against Iowa to take the place of Andre Deveaux, who served a one-game suspension which resulted from an altercation in Game 5. Little played on the fourth line with Joey Crabb and Matt Anderson. In his second game, he played with Brad Schell and Crabb.  Little had no points and was –1 in those two games.

Tomas Pospisil, 19
5rh round, 135th overall, 2005

Pospisil joined the team on April 4 on an ATO when his junior season was complete. He was there to watch and learn, and did not play in any games.  He described what he had learned already by watching.

“In juniors, there’s not a lot of systems, players are going everywhere.  Here, they are more patient.  And of course players are stronger and smarter and skate harder, I think.”

A 2005 draft pick, Pospisil must be signed by June 1. This summer he needs to get stronger to play in the AHL.

Goaltender

Michael Garnett, 24
3rd round, 80th overall, 2001

The decision on Garnett’s future with the organization was made last summer when both Fred Brathwaite and Johan Hedberg were given multi-year contracts. The priority is developing Ondrej Pavelec, the organization’s best prospect, and keeping Garnett in the system does not further that goal. Pavelec will need a mentor in the AHL next year, but Garnett is not mature enough, regardless of age, to play that role.

Garnett actually has good skill, and is very quick in net, but he’s wildly inconsistent. More importantly, he suffers from catastrophic overconfidence.

Garnett caught fire in playoffs this spring, which helped the Wolves go farther than most predicted.
Wolves Coach John Anderson was very pleased with his performance after Game 1, but was tellingly cautious with his praise: “He played great, but I don’t want to compliment him too much.  I don’t want him to get too confident.”

In a predictable denouement, after two rounds of good play, Garnett hit a wall and was replaced by Brathwaite. 

Outlook

The outlook for the Wolves next year is good, as this year’s rookies will have some experience, including important playoff experience, under them. There should be another good rookie class coming in, with goaltender Pavelec, defenseman Grant Lewis, and forwards Little and Pospisil.  A key will be finding the right veteran players to guide them. 

Notes

Gwinnett Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle will lead the on-ice portion of the Thrashers prospects camp in July at the Duluth IceForum.  The plan is to make the camp more integrated with the teachings at the September rookie tournament the team attends in Traverse City, Michigan.  Pyle coached the Thrashers entry in that tournament last year, and will do so again in 2007.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.