Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

The top of the Atlanta Thrashers Top 20 list remains unchanged, with Ondrej Pavelec, Bryan Little and Brett Sterling at the top.  Defensemen make up six of the top 10 prospects. 

Six of the prospects are from the very productive 2005 draft, in which two second rounders were acquired for trading down in the first round. Pavelec, Chad Denny, Andrew Kozek, Jordan LaVallee, Tomas Pospisil and Andrei Zubarev were all taken in 2005.

Three of the 2007 draftees make the list. Spencer Machacek, the top 2007 pick selected 67th overall, debuts at No. 12.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. (1) Ondrej Pavelec, G, 19
2. (2) Bryan Little, C, 19
3. (3) Brett Sterling, LW, 23
4. (5) Grant Lewis, D, 22
5. (7) Riley Holzapfel, C, 19
6. (10) Tobias Enstrom, D, 22
7. (8) Andrei Zubarev, D, 20
8. (6) Boris Valabik, D, 21
9. (9) Nathan Oystrick, D, 24
10. (11) Chad Denny, D, 20
11. (12) Jordan LaVallee, LW, 21
12. (nr) Spencer Machacek, RW, 18
13. (nr) Arturs Kulda, D, 19
14. (nr) Niklas Lucenius, C/W, 18
15. (13) Tomas Pospisil, RW, 19
16. (nr) John Albert, C, 18
17. (nr) Alex Kangas, G, 20
18. (15) Michael Forney, LW, 19
19. (18) Guillaume Desbiens, RW, 22
20. (20) Andrew Kozek, F, 21

1. (1) Ondrej Pavelec, G, 19

2nd round, 41st overall, 2005

Pavelec won the Jacques Plante Trophy for the top goaltender in the QMJHL, measured by GAA, for two straight years.  In 43 games in 2006-07 with Cape Breton, Pavelec posted a 2.52 goals against average, 28-11 record, and a .908 save percentage, which was third among goaltenders.  And in the playoffs, Pavelec was even better, posting a 2.29 GAA and .920 save percentage in 16 games.

All of this is impressive given how much he has struggled with consistency and conditioning last year.  Pavelec still put on weight over the summer of 2006 and struggled early last season. He trimmed down by December and improved his play. It is something he will have to keep in check the rest of his career. 

Pavelec, who turns 20 later this month, has the talent to become a starter in the NHL, but just needs to maintain his consistency and conditioning.  Having signed a contract with the Thrashers, he’s headed for the AHL Chicago Wolves this season, and has the potential to not only be the team’s starter over Fred Brathwaite, but to pace rookie netminders.

2. (2) Bryan Little, C, 19

1st round, 12th overall, 2006

Little finished sixth in scoring in the OHL with 107 points in 57 games in 2006-07 for the Barrie Colts, and also played in a limited role for Canada in the World Junior Championships.   

The question is always how will a junior player’s skill transfer to the pro game, and Little is no exception.  A center with good vision and slick moves, Little’s size at 5’10 should not be an impediment provided he improve his skating, which is his weakest area.

Little suffered a shoulder injury as a result of a hit in early April and spent several weeks recovering before joining the Wolves for their playoff run.  He saw time in just two games for the Wolves, which means he has played just two professional games in his career.

Given the Thrashers’ need for offensive centermen, Little will be given a chance to lay claim to a roster spot in the fall, but would have to really surprise to step right in.  With his November birthday, Little is eligible to play in the AHL full time this year, and that is his likely destination out of training camp.

3. (3) Brett Sterling, LW, 23

5th round, 145th overall, 2003

Sterling was fourth in the entire AHL in scoring last year, with 97 points in 77 games. The 5’7 sniper led the league in goal scoring by 13 goals with 55.  A big scorer for Colorado College before turning pro, he made a bigger splash than anyone expected, even himself.  His 2006-07 accolades included being named All-Star game MVP and Rookie of the Year.

Sterling competes very hard. He’s willing to take a beating around the net and the boards, drawing penalties in doing so. His bread and butter is standing at the right post on the power play, but he can score on a rush as well.

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 scoring he can provide.

4. (5) Grant Lewis, D, 22

2nd round, 40th overall, 2004

Lewis was a rock for Dartmouth College again last year after coming back from an ankle injury.  He had 15 points in 24 games in his senior year as captain.  With a big wingspan at 6’3, the blueliner has the skating skill and defensive awareness to be very effective in the new NHL.  He has good hands, but not a very powerful shot.

Signed this summer, Lewis will play for the Wolves this year, where he should make a big contribution immediately. 

5. (7) Riley Holzapfel, C, 19

2nd round, 43rd overall, 2006

Holzapfel remains one of the youngest players on the list, having just turned 19.  A solidly built center with good skill as a playmaker, hockey sense and skating ability, he’s one of the most underrated Thrasher prospects.

Meeting and perhaps exceeding the expectations for him, Holzapfel broke out this season, especially in the goal-scoring department.  He had 39 goals, compared to 19 in 2005-06.  He finished fourth in the WHL in goals, and eighth in points.

Holzapfel, who played in all 72 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors last year, will return next season.  He’ll need to be signed next summer.

6. (10) 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.  Just 5’10 but with plenty of offensive talent, he has played in the Swedish Elite League since age 18.  This season, he excelled among SEL defensemen in scoring and his MoDo team won the SEL championships, with Enstrom giving considerable contributions. He also played for Sweden in the World Championships.

Enstrom was signed this summer and could challenge for a spot on the Thrashers roster straight away as a power-play puckmover.  It’s unusual for players to make the NHL directly from Europe, however, so it’s entirely reasonable that he would spend a month or two in the AHL to adjust to the North American game. Enstrom will be 23 in November.

7. (8) 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 is physical, skates well and has some offense to his game. He tore up the Russian Super League as an 18-year-old, but last year played just 20 games 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.  He did have a great WJC for Russia, however.

Zubarev, who speaks reasonably good English, wants to come to North America to play.  The Thrashers hold his rights indefinitely due to Russian not signing the IIHF agreement.  Next summer, when there are fewer rookie defensemen entering the system, would be a better time to come over.

8. (6) Boris Valabik, D, 21

1st round, 10th overall, 2004

Valabik had a decent year as a rookie for the Wolves, but an ankle injury kept his games played to only 50.  He had a long rehab to get back, which was frustrating for the player.

At 6’7, Valabik’s wingspan is enormous and he’s solidly built. He is physically ready for the NHL right now, but has a hard time getting through the game without numerous trips to the penalty box.  Valabik had 184 penalty minutes last year, the most 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.

Valabik, who has little offense to his game besides a hard, but rarely-used slap shot, projects as a bottom pairing defenseman.

9. (9) Nathan Oystrick, D, 24

7th round, 198th overall, 2002

Oystrick is the oldest player on the list at 24, and was drafted a full five years ago in 2002.  He made a very smooth transition to the pro game last year, becoming the top scoring defenseman in the AHL, as a rookie, with 41 points in 61 games.  Oystrick’s offensive game features a powerful slap shot, which registered a solid 94.2 mph in the AHL All-Star game.

Oystrick showed enough poise to put himself in line for a call-up last year, and has been mentioned as one of several potential future solutions on the power play.  Oystrick won’t likely begin the year with the Thrashers, but should see time later in the year as an injury call-up.  Enstrom is his biggest competition at this point, being around the same age and also offensively oriented.  Oystrick doesn’t move the puck as well as Enstrom, but his shot is probably harder.

10. (11) Chad Denny, D, 20

2nd round, 49th overall, 2005

Another offensive defenseman, Denny finished sixth among QMJHL blueliners last regular season with 65 points in 59 games for Lewiston, and was also a solid +33. 

Denny is known for his intimidating slapshot, which has been clocked at 97 mph.  The 6’3, 227-pounder is a physical presence and throws a good hit.  He also plays good defense in his own end. But his mobility is somewhat limited and he does not have good acceleration.  He might be well served to slim down and increase his footspeed.

His skills are intriguing, but Denny’s still raw and will need some time to develop the rest of his game around his big shot.  Denny will begin in the minors this season, likely with the Wolves, but starting with the Gladiators to get more ice time would not be out of the question given what is likely to be a crowded Wolves blue line and the fact that he is the youngest of the defensive prospects turning pro. 

11. (12) Jordan LaVallee, LW, 21

4th round, 116th overall, 2005

LaVallee was a goal scorer in the Q, but he won’t be that type of player at the pro level.  The 6’3, 211-pounder scored 16 goals and 18 assists in 79 games as a rookie for the Wolves and was a -1.  He did turn on the scoring in the playoffs, however, with seven goals in 14 games.

LaVallee’s likely NHL role will be as a checker, and he does that well.  With an NHL frame, good hockey sense, grit, and no sizable flaws, LaVallee could be ready relatively soon.  With a terrific training camp, he could earn a spot this October, but a more likely scenario is joining the team partway through the year.

12. (nr) Spencer Machacek, RW, 18

3rd round, 67th overall, 2007

Machacek drove the net hard for 21 goals and 24 assists in 63 games last season for the Memorial Cup-winning Vancouver Giants. Machacek made a better playoff contribution for the Giants, collecting 20 points in 22 games.  The Lethbridge, Alberta native already has 40 WHL playoff games under his belt along with nine Memorial Cup game appearances over the past two years.  His junior numbers may be a bit inflated as one of the older players within his draft class, born one month into the cutoff.  But make no mistake, he’s a player.  Machacek doesn’t project as a high scorer at the NHL level, but he has a tenacity and drive that will earn him a spot.

Because the Giants graduated many of their veterans in the offseason, Machacek will find himself in a leadership role this year.

13. (nr) Arturs Kulda, D, 19

7th round, 200th overall, 2006

Kulda moved across the pond from the Russian leagues to play for the OHL Peterborough Petes last year.  He posted just 11 points in 58 games, but offense is not his best asset, though he does possess a rather hard slap shot.  Instead, Kulda plays a physical brand of defense, in which he challenges forwards to cross him. 

Kulda played for Team Latvia in Pool B of the 2007 WJC and had two points in five games.  He’ll play for the team again this year, with the Pool B tournament held in his native country.

Kulda will return to the Petes this season. 

14. (nr) Niklas Lucenius, C/W, 18

4th round, 115th overall, 2007

Lucenius scored 28 points in 33 games in the Finnish junior league last year, playing on the top line. He saw a little bit of action with the Tappara senior team as well. He hopes to make that lineup this season. Interestingly, he will compete with fellow Thrashers prospect Jonas Enlund for ice time. 

Lucenius could end up as a scorer or a checker, it’s too early to tell.  He is strong and gritty at 6’0, 189 lbs and can play any forward position.  Like Machacek, he’s known for crashing the net.  Skating is something Lucenius said he is working on with skating coaches.  He has a bit of a choppy stride, but he gets around fine.

Lucenius has an agreement for two more years with Tappara and will return there this fall.  He’ll be a candidate for the Finnish junior national team as well.

15. (13) Tomas Pospisil, RW, 19

5th round, 135th overall, 2005

Pospisil has a lot of talent, but whether it will translate to the pro level, let alone the NHL, is an open question.  He had 67 points in 55 games for the OHL Sarnia Sting last year, which was less than expected given that he played with talented rookie center Steven Stamkos.  In 2005-06 he was the team’s second leading scorer, but this year Pospisil was only fifth on a much improved team.   He struggles a bit defensively and ended -1, while his teammates were generally plus. 

The 6’0 winger has extremely soft hands, but he doesn’t do well in traffic because he’s light and not strong on his skates.  The opening up the game came at a good time for him, but he will likely struggle against more physically developed players in pro hockey, at least to start.

Pospisil, who will be 20 next week, will be a top six forward if he makes it, but that seems a long way off at this point.  He joined the Wolves on an amateur tryout contract after his junior season was over but did not play games. He’s likely to play there full time next season, but a stint with the Gladiators wouldn’t be out of the question.

16. (nr) John Albert, C, 18

6th round, 175th overall, 2007

Albert was on the silver medal-winning team at the 2007 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, during a year played with the USNTDP.  A 5’10 ½ offensive-minded forward, he had 33 points in 47 games last season.

During the 2005-06 season, his first in the program, he recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 55 contests for the U.S. Under-17 team, which placed him second on the squad in scoring. 

Albert will attend The Ohio State University in the fall, and his outlook will become much clearer at that point. 

17. (nr) Alex Kangas, G, 20

5th round, 135th overall, 2006

Kangas started off the season strongly, but had a tougher time later on, finishing with a 19-19-5 record, .899 save percentage and 3.31 GAA. He was back to top form in the playoffs, with a 6-1 record, 2.49 GAA and .919 save percentage. 

In 2006, his draft year, Kangas helped the USHL‘s Sioux Falls to an Anderson Cup title.

The 20-year-old Kangas will begin play at the University of Minnesota in the fall, where he will compete with rising junior Jeff Frazee (NJ) for ice time.

18. (15) Michael Forney, LW, 19

3rd round, 80th overall, 2006

A highly successful high school player, Forney saw very little ice time as a freshman for the University of North Dakota, getting into less than half of the team’s games.  It was a lineup that needed scoring and he is supposed to have the talent to do so.  He scored just two assists in 16 games.  He did have some shoulder issues, which led to him having surgery at the beginning of the offseason.

Forney, who did come in as a true freshman, will need to step up in a big way as a sophomore.  He is still very young at 19.

19. (18) Guillaume Desbiens, RW, 22

4th round, 116th overall, 2003

Desbiens played his first year in the AHL in 2006-07.  To try to stay in the lineup, he amped up the enforcement side of his resume, but he has the hands for scoring a bit as well.  He had nine points and 118 PIMs in 54 games played.

The 6’2, 210-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.

With Braydon Coburn and Jimmy Sharrow now out of the organization, Desbiens is the highest 2003 pick remaining, though Sterling and Enstrom will likely outpace him. 

Desbiens will continue with the Wolves in 2007-08.  He’s in a contract year, so he needs to prove his worth to earn another contract.

20. (20) Andrew Kozek, F, 21

2nd round, 53rd overall, 2005

Typically NCAA prospects show a jump in production in their sophomore year, but it didn’t materialize for Kozek.  The 21-year-old had just five goals and six assists in 41 games for North Dakota last year, a scoring rate slightly down from 2005-06. The 5’11, 185-pounder played often on a checking line, which is not his strength, but his play didn’t earn him scoring line minutes.

Kozek has some talent, but his game is very uneven.  He has good velocity on his shot, but doesn’t protect the puck well and isn’t fast.  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 put his game together in a hurry to remain a viable prospect.

Notes

Mark Popovic, Colin Stuart, Jesse Schultz and Chris Thorburn are no longer prospects by Hockey’s Future criteria.

Graduating senior defenseman Mike Vannelli was offered a contract by the Thrashers, but the two sides were too far apart on money to come to an agreement.  Vannelli, drafted in the fourth round in 2003, joined 29 other collegians not signed by their NHL teams.  Mitch Carefoot and Mike Hamilton were let go by the Thrashers, though Hamilton will likely be offered an AHL deal.

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