The Atlanta Thrashers held their annual Prospect Development Camp at the training facility in Duluth, Ga. this past week. Thirty players were in attendance, including nine invitees who are not property of the Thrashers.
The players ranged in age from 18 to 25, and ranged in experience level from prep school hockey, to star in the AHL. There were former first-round picks, and those who knew they were just filling out the roster. But their paths converged this past week, providing some spirited competition.
Upcoming debutants – Brett Sterling, Jordan LaVallee and Tobias Enstrom
These three players are the closest to making the NHL, and were the measuring sticks to which others could be compared. Those who played for Chicago last season were given a choice on whether to attend camp. Most of them decided to come.
"Why am I here? To get better," Los Angeles native Brett Sterling said. "I haven’t been skating a whole lot in LA and I just want to come out here and work with [Strength and Conditioning Coach] Ray Bear and find out things I need to work on for the main camp. Basically to figure out where I need to go to have an opportunity to make the team."
It wasn’t because he couldn’t bear to be away from best buddy Joey Crabb, with whom he’s been playing for eight years? "No, I could have gone all summer without him. Well maybe not," Sterling said, leaning on Crabb beside him and laughing.
Moving to the big club could mean a change in position for him, from left wing to right wing, where there are more holes. While clearly favoring the left side, the 5’7 forward is amenable to playing right.
"I can play it, obviously it’s a little bit different," he said. "On the breakout it makes it a little bit tougher, but I like shooting from that side. It would just be an adjustment and take a little bit of time, but if that’s where they want me to be, like I said, I’ll play anywhere."
How about goal? Sterling said, "Yeah, I might not do well, but I’ll try it."
Wolves teammate LaVallee came to camp for the quality of the competition. "It’s the middle of the summer – I live in Westborough, Massachusetts, there’s not much high-level hockey I can play when I’m at home," he said. "Any chance you have to get on the ice with guys like this, guys who are at your level or near it, it’s just a good opportunity to get your game in the right spot."
This camp was a good place for him, because he still has some things that should be improved, like his puck skills and quickness. His sprint times in camp were not where they will need to be.
The 6’3 220-pounder had a good rookie year with the Wolves last year, and it’s in his hands whether he makes the Thrashers roster.
"I’m trying to, I’m trying to," he said. "Rumor has it there’s a few spots for some young guys and I’m definitely gunning for one of them."
It helps that he’s flexible about which wing he plays. "I don’t really have a preference," he said. "I played half the year at right wing, I played half the year on the left side with Johnny [Anderson], so it doesn’t really matter to me."
Like Sterling and many other players, he’ll spend part of the rest of his summer in Chicago working with [Skating and Skills Coach] Kenny McCudden, who instructed for three days at the prospect camp.
Enstrom had never been to Atlanta, but had been to the United States a few years ago with the Swedish national team, playing the US team in Lake Placid, NY. He adjusted to Atlanta very quickly. The only thing he commented on was the heat, "It’s a lot warmer here and a different air. I’m getting used to it," he said.
Enstrom roomed with LaVallee, who had helped Alex Bourret adapt to America last year. "Alex was a tough battle, but we got through it," LaVallee said. "I’ve really enjoyed rooming with Tobias, he’s a really nice kid. Speaks very good English and adapts well to the culture. We haven’t talked too much about hockey. We’re doing so much of that here in the room, we try to avoid it off the ice."
Enstrom had already asked a lot of questions before he got to Atlanta. Former Thrasher Per Svartvadet, recently a MoDo teammate, told him everything he wanted to know about Atlanta.
MoDo had a long season this year, winning the SEL championship. After the season ended, Enstrom took a two-week vacation, and before he came he was doing only off-ice training.
After camp, he will do more off-ice training and then skate with some other professionals from Sweden before reporting in for Thrashers main camp.
Both he and Sterling are late-round picks from 2003 who have a good chance of making the Thrashers roster this year. Asked how he would feel if he doesn’t make the Thrashers team and is sent to the AHL, the 5’10 precision passer sighed and said "Of course I want to make the Thrashers, but if I don’t make it, I’ll do my best to get back again and work hard like everyone does."
Happiest camper – Grant Lewis
Lewis just signed an entry-level deal with the Thrashers as camp began, so he was just excited to finally be starting his pro career. It will be a transition for him from Ivy League hockey with Dartmouth to the pros, but he looks and sounds ready. He’s building up his body gradually.
"Last year when I came to think camp I weighed in at about 194 and was about 5.9% body fat," Lewis said. "This year I weigh 200, 201 and I’m 6% body fat, so I stayed about the same, put on about 7 lbs. I don’t think I want to put on too much weight in one year, so 7 lbs is actually a pretty good amount. I think if I put on too much it will slow me down a little bit. I’m talking to Ray Bear. He’s setting up a good plan for me so I can continue to put on weight and strength."
Players his age sometimes talk about gaining ‘old man strength,’ in which they are no heavier, but feel stronger. "I feel that coming on – actually just recently I started feeling that coming on," he said. "Hopefully I get a little more of that down the road. On the ice I feel much stronger and I think it’s because my core is where a lot of my weight’s been put on, which is good."
Lewis was one of the most physical players in camp, his approach to defense being body on body. Fighting is not allowed in college hockey, but given his style, it will naturally lead to some confrontations in the pro game. He seemed to welcome that, saying "I’m ready to go whenever I need to be."
Lewis has some offensive ability as well, leading the rush when he has a chance. He favors a wrist shot over a slap shot from the point, the opposite of most defenders, ones like fellow campmate Chad Denny.
"Whenever I catch the puck, I like to make sure my shot gets through on net," Lewis said. "My slap shot, I don’t think is as hard as it should be, or could be I should say, but I just feel like I can get my wrist shot through much easier and in the end, getting that puck on net’s the biggest thing. To be honest, in college I got a lot of assists off the rebound from that, so it seems to be working. I know I need to get my shot a little harder, but that’ll come."
At this point, the best thing about Lewis’ shot, other than it’s consistently on net, is that it comes from the right side, a somewhat rare but coveted commodity.
On the ice at camp, Thrashers assistant coach Steve Weeks was demonstrating to Lewis what happens when he goes down on one knee and puts his stick parallel on the ice to block passes – bad things, as it turns out since it means the defenseman is putting all his eggs in one basket.
"I’ve always been taught to ‘get big low’ – cover as much space as you can low to the ice because that’s where the puck’s coming," Lewis said. "[Weeks] said that Coach [Bob] Hartley disagrees with that and thinks that you should stay up because you can recover if the puck gets through. It’s a very good point, it’s just different techniques so I’ll try to work on that the rest of the summer so when I come to camp it won’t be a problem."
Lewis suffered an ankle injury early last season, and rehabbing took a lot of time each day, in fact he ended up being at the rink longer than his teammates. He fell a bit behind on his school work and so he still has work to do to finish his degree. Lewis ended up playing just 24 games last year, but said he was confident he could make the adjustment to the longer schedule of the AHL. He played in front of just a few hundred people some games in the ECACHL, so playing for the Chicago Wolves, usually in the top 5 in attendance in the AHL, may come as a bit of a shock to him. "Hey, I’m hoping to be there," he said, smiling.
After camp is heading out to Los Angeles to train, which he’s done the past several summers. He’ll head home to Pittsburgh for a few weeks before camp to get on the ice a bit more, then report in for the Traverse City tournament. Lewis trains with other pro athletes out in California, like the LA Galaxy soccer team. He hopes to meet recently-arrived superstar David Beckham while he’s there.
Widest eyes – Spencer Machacek
Machacek was the newest Thrasher prospect in camp, having been drafted just two weeks prior. He embraced his rank on the totem pole right away, picking up the pucks after an early practice.
"It’s a good experience," he said of the camp. "You see how hard guys have to work and the tempo’s really high – much higher than at the junior level. The fitness is really tough."
Machacek called himself a hard worker, first and foremost, and he proved that on the ice, a credit to his fitness level.
"Spencer didn’t run out of gas. He was going pretty good here," Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said at the end of the week. Machacek blended right in with the other prospects in every task, a feat given his young age of 18.
Machacek roomed with Denny for the week, whom he had played against in the Memorial Cup.
He knew some guys from the WHL as well, so he fit right in.
Machacek, a Lethbridge, Alberta native, didn’t attend the draft held in Columbus.
"It was quite a ways away so we decided to just stay home," he said. "My parents will probably come out here one time during camp, it’s better to do that. I wasn’t expected to go in the first round, so I figured I’d just stay home and watch on TV."
The Macheceks had a full house for the event. "My billets I stay with in Vancouver came down and a guy I play with in Vancouver came down, he lives in Saskatoon. I had a lot of buddies there, it was a good time. We rented a box to get the NHL Network and that was on TV. It’s hard to understand because there’s all these interviews going on so you kind of hear your name in the background so you didn’t know it was you until you see the name go up. It was exciting to see your name go up and finally get picked."
"My mom thought she heard [my name] in the background and I told her ‘Tell me if you actually hear it.’ I didn’t hear it. Then the name came up and we knew. The calls started coming in."
With an originally Czech name like Machacek, there’s always a danger that the team or announcer will mispronounce it. "Yeah, exactly," he said. "Me and Dan [Marr] at the Combine were joking around about that. We go by "Ma-hatch-ik" for the North American way."
Most serious – Arturs Kulda
Arturs Kulda came to camp stronger than he was last year, and with a purpose, saying "It’s my big chance." A late-round pick in 2006, he wasn’t someone observers were keying on early. Instead, after seeing him, they were looking at the roster to figure out who this impressive No. 58 was.
Kulda, who played in the OHL last season, laid out one of the biggest hits in camp a few days into it. The drill was one in which two defensemen start along the boards at the blue line, and a forward starts from center ice with a puck. The defensemen converge and try to stop the forward from coming up the middle. Most of the defensemen tried to chase the forward, but Kulda found a better way – lay them out at the blue line. Mike Hamilton was the recipient of such a check. Kulda showed excellent positioning in drills and a good hard shot as well.
It was Kulda’s first time in Atlanta, but he had met a lot of the players last year when he took part in the Traverse City tournament. Kulda roomed with Riley Holzapfel in camp, and is one of the few people to be able to pronounce the WHLer’s name correctly, which, as it turns out, is due to having taken 12 years of German in school. Kulda was actually born in Germany when his father was in the Soviet army, but spent just a couple years there before his family moved back to Latvia.
Kulda was a rookie with Peterborough last year, which he enjoyed. He said he "learned how to play more physical, positionally, to make more shots." He took more penalties in the OHL than in Russia, and got into three fights this year, which he said he won. One of them was against friend and fellow Latvian Kaspars Daugavins. Kulda enjoyed retelling the story.
"We played together on the Latvian national team, I’ve known him maybe nine years. He asked me if I wanted to fight with him. I said ‘yeah OK, let’s go.’ It was a great fight. We were on TSN for best fight of the night and then Top 10 fights of the week. After the game we took photos and then the Latvian newspapers showed the big fight in the OHL."
While that story was very smooth likely from retelling it many times, Kulda’s English is a work in progress. "I learned English a little bit in school, plus internet, music, movies," he said. "I came to Canada and after maybe one week I started to remember words and start to speak."
Kulda, who won’t be 19 until later this month, attended the local high school with his teammates to improve his English. He was in regular classes. When he got back home to Latvia, he finished up via the Latvian system just before coming to camp, so he is a new high school graduate.
During the rest of the summer, he will practice with the Latvian national team and then go to Toronto for a month to a camp run by his agent that will have other CHLers from the former Soviet Union. He is looking forward to the WJC this winter, which will be held in his hometown of Riga. He pointed out that when his age group was in the U18 tournament, they won the championship, so he likes the U20 team’s chances.
The Thrashers medical trainers had a light load this camp, with only Crabb and Hamilton missing time for medical reasons. Crabb experienced blurry vision after taking an unexpected hit from teammate Colton Fretter, while Hamilton missed a couple days with a minor injury. Hamilton will likely turn pro on an AHL Chicago Wolves contract this fall.
In the only "transaction" in camp, Andrew Kozek was loaned from Team Blue to Team Red to even out the numbers. He put on Crabb’s red jersey for the duration of the Monday 4 on 4 scrimmage, and then getting his own red jersey (No. 38) the next day. Kozek made it back to Team Blue by the end of camp, when Hamilton returned to the ice.
With only eight defensemen in camp, Myles Stoesz took some drills at D, the position at which he started his career.
Best fitness: Bryan Little and Brett Sterling. Marr said, "They were prepared for here, and it’s not September yet. Brett, compared to last year, is coming in as a professional. I think he took some time off [after the long season], which was the right thing. But last year before he came here I think the university guys went out on a beer pub trip or something (laughs). He was at his low last year. Now, this year, he’s at his high.
"[And] Bryan learned a lot this year. He’s ahead of where I thought he’d be."
Most improved fitness: Arturs Kulda. Marr said, "In this environment last year, he’d end up on the ice all the time. In Traverse City, we had to be careful when we played him because he was getting run over. He’s got better strength, better balance, stronger play. It’s made a big difference from one year to the next. Chad Denny‘s improved again, every year Chad’s improved, but Arturs has made the biggest difference."
Honorable mention, most improved fitness: Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec had some considerable fitness issues in the past, but Marr said "Ondrej’s where he needs to be."
Equipment manager’s award for ‘most professional and organized’: Dan Turple. Thrashers assistant equipment manager Joey Guilmet gave this to , saying "He’s got a year under his belt at the pro level so he understands how important it is for the players to help us out."
The 6’6 Turple, who was meeting with Guilmet at the time, raised his arms in victory, which given his wingspan meant scraping the ceiling. Guilmet added about all the campers, "They put their stuff where it needed to be, they were all clean, they recycled — that’s all I ask for."
Not in camp
It was decided that defenseman Boris Valabik should not come over for the camp, as he "tries to get ahead of" his ankle problems earlier in the year, according to Marr. The ankle is fine now and he’s working it hard in Slovakia, but contact drills weren’t the appropriate thing for him right now. "Boris only knows how to work hard and we just didn’t want anything to happen," Marr said. "He’s always at the top in fitness, so we’re not worried. He’s going to come over here earlier, that’s how we worked it out with him. He wants to come over by Aug. 1 and start working out."
Defenseman Mike Vannelli, who is in negotiations with the Thrashers on an entry-level contract after his career at the University of Minnesota, also did not attend camp. It’s not likely the two sides will come to terms, making him a free agent on Aug. 15.
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