Thrashers 2007 training camp preview

By Holly Gunning

Teams that give away ice time to rookies are teams in a rebuilding mode. They give them experience, keeping payroll way down, so that five or six years down the road, the core is built and the team is ready to compete.  The Thrashers are no longer in a building mode – they are in competing mode.  As such, only the rookies who are going to help the team win will get spots on the roster out of camp. 

Because rookies are very hard to predict, a smart team will have other options if they are not ready. They can hope they take a spot, but should plan for them not to.  That means having some depth players around who can fill spots until prospects are ready.

Will there be surprise rookies?  Development issues, roster management issues, and camp organization would say no. 

Every year around the league, a rookie comes on so strong in camp that a team is forced to keep him on the roster.  Last year’s best example was Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. Other years it was Patrice Bergeron or Sergei Samsonov.  Those Cinderella stories aren’t likely to happen in Atlanta, however.  The current coaching regime is less open to surprises, and team management may still feel cautious of rushing players because of their experience with Patrik Stefan.  There’s far more danger in rushing a player than benefit in having him join the team early.

Another important point is the fact that those on entry-level deals don’t have to clear waivers, so if push comes to shove, a rookie usually gets sent down over a veteran so that no one is lost to the waiver wire and the team maintains the depth it built over the offseason.  

And as if there didn’t need to be another systemic factor working against rookies – there’s also the structure of Thrashers training camp. Last year at camp, prospects were largely segregated from veterans from the start – Team A really was the A team. This may have helped veterans get up to speed more quickly in a year with a singular purpose of making the playoffs, but didn’t help the young players learn.  The pressure to win has eased ever so slightly this year, but the training schedule shows a similar setup this year.  And with the first preseason game just two days into camp on Sept. 16, there’s not much time for teaching systems to the new players.

On the other hand, there are a few factors that could work in rookies’ favor.  Namely, injuries, and the existence of open roster spots – there’s no particular guy to beat out of his position. 

As sure as the sun shines, players always gets hurt during camp and begin the season on the IR.  If a couple players go down in any one position, it really opens the door. 

All that said, there are several prospects who are ready to compete for spots.  Judging them based on preseason games can be dangerous, as preseason games have strange patterns.  This is the first competitive hockey most have played in months, there are lines who’ve never played together, players outdoing themselves to make the team and veterans trying not to get hurt.  As such, scoring and performances should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  If anything, look for the little things that separate the true professionals – like positioning and anticipation.

Forwards

Brett Sterling has the lowest hurdle to clear to make the Thrasher roster.  Essentially, all he needs to do during training camp is play his normal game and he’ll earn a spot.  He has already proven himself last year, earning the AHL Rookie of the Year.  Like the veterans, the 23-year-old should concentrate on not getting hurt – specifically don’t stand in front of Ilya Kovalchuk’s slap shot during preseason games.

Last year, Sterling scored on his first shot in the first period of his first preseason game, a mark of what GM Don Waddell called "a tremendous camp" for the winger.  The former fifth-round in 2003 can simply build off that experience.

Sterling has played mostly left wing lately, but there are more spots open at right wing, particular on scoring lines. But Sterling said he was fine with switching to right wing.

"I can play it, obviously it’s a little bit different," he said this summer at prospects camp.  "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."

Sterling should see time on the power play, likely camped out near the doorstep, where he has had much success.  Being in the race for the Calder Trophy is not out of the question if he gets significant power play time. 

Last year during training camp, Bryan Little was sent immediately back to the OHL Barrie Colts without playing any preseason games, and having been segregated from the veterans during practices. Little, who will be just 20 in November, also has only two pro games to his name.  It seems unlikely that Little will be able to catch onto the NHL with such a short on-ramp.  He’s coming off a stellar performance at Traverse City, but the tournament is of course not NHL level.
 
Another factor going against Little is the NHL CBA rule about years of service.  The age for free agency is 27, but moves down if the player has put in seven years of service in the league.  The rule now prevents all but the very best 18 and 19-year-olds from making the NHL because making the team as a youngster would cut a year off his years of service. A team would rather have its seven years be in a player’s prime, which does not include the teenage years.

Little is much more impressive in games than in practices, so making his argument in camp will likely come in preseason tilts.   For him, the schedule of early games may be a benefit.

Jordan LaVallee will eventually make the Thrashers roster.  But he’s only 21, and there’s no need to rush things. The ability to send him down without penalty will probably mean that he’ll need to wait for an injury opening.  He remains a darkhorse for the fourth line. 

It helps that LaVallee is flexible about which side he plays. "I don’t really have a preference," he said this summer. "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."

Jesse Schultz, who will be 24 at the end of September, is another youngster to keep an eye on.

Twenty-six-year-old right wing Milan Bartovic’s contract agreement is confirmed to include a deal to return to Europe if he doesn’t make the roster.  Thus he will not be a factor to consider in the calculations past camp if he is cut.

Defense

The Thrashers have open spots on defense now that Greg deVries, Andy Sutton and Shane Hnidy are no longer with the team.  Veteran Ken Klee will take one of them, but the rest are up for grabs. One thing is for sure: It will be a physically smaller group.  Karel Pilar, at 6’3, would be the tallest defenseman on the team — by two inches – if the makes it.  His size, and the fact that he’s a right-handed shot among a very left-handed group, gives him an edge. The only two right-handed shots likely to take spots are Klee and Pilar.

Mark Popovic is quite likely to stay up with the team over the younger prospects, because he has 11 games of NHL experience and a one-way contract.  Popovic, who will be 25 in October, is a younger version of Hnidy — a good seventh defenseman in that he’s versatile and won’t complain about his ice time.

Tobias Enstrom has a good shot at a spot, but very few 22-year-old defensemen have made NHL teams straight from Sweden.  The best guide would be Niklas Kronwall for the Detroit Red Wings.  In 2003-04 as a 22-year-old, the touted Kronwall played 25 games for Grand Rapids, and 20 games for the Red Wings.  Granted, Kronwall was competing for a spot on a star-studded defense. 

Enstrom is 5’9 — no more, no less.  He’s big enough to play in the league, given his high skill level.  But his decision-making and defense may not be at an NHL level yet.

Asked in July how he would feel if he doesn’t make the Thrashers team and is sent to the AHL, Enstrom 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."

With the weather taking an appropriate change, he’ll feel more at home in Atlanta already than he did during prospects camp in July. 

Nathan Oystrick, 24, should be in the mix on the blue line, but would be a surprise to make the starting roster, given the number of bodies ahead of him.  Last training camp as a pro rookie, he participated in practices, but was not 100 percent due to his recovery from mononucleosis. He did not play in any preseason games. 

Goaltender

Ondrej Pavelec turns pro this season, but the 20-year-old is earmarked to be in Chicago. Pavelec was the only junior player who saw playing time in the preseason last year.  He could see time with the club later in the year in case of injury, especially if veteran Fred Brathwaite isn’t playing well at the time.

Traverse City Tournament notes

The Atlanta Thrashers prospects took third place in the 2007 Traverse City Prospects Evaluation Tournament on Tuesday. Their only loss was to the eventual winners, the New York Rangers.  The Thrashers team was coached by Chicago Wolves assistant coach Todd Nelson, and Gwinnett Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle.

They spent no time celebrating, though, as management and a select group of players quickly got on a charter flight back to Atlanta after beating Minnesota.

Comparing this team to last year’s second-place team, Pyle said the 2006 team had more experience, and this one probably more energy.  "They were a fun group who all worked extra hard," he said.  

The last game was a 35-save effort by goaltender Dan Turple. "He was phenomenal," Pyle said.  "Rebounds, deflections, he pretty much won the game for us.  Minnesota was probably a better team."

That’s not to take away from the team’s other goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, who Pyle said also played well in his two games. 

It was 2006 first-rounder Bryan Little who was "hands down" the team’s MVP.  "He has the same face, the same work ethic no matter what the situation," Pyle said.  "He played to his strengths all the time. I didn’t have to say anything to him.  He’s fun to coach and more fun to watch."  Named the captain for the tournament, Pyle said even after the first game that " he really stepped up to that."

Little finished tied for second in scoring in the entire tournament with four goals and three assists, behind The St. Louis BluesPatrik Berglund with 10 points.  Spencer Machacek was second on the Thrashers in scoring with four goals. 

Regarding other players, Pyle was complementary of Lewis, saying "He practices to a T.  Like when he moves the puck up, he skates hard behind it.  He’s highly motivated and doesn’t look to anyone else to do things for him.  He jumps up too much, but that’s OK because he knows what he’s doing."

Pyle was impressed by 20-year-old Tomas Pospisil.  Fighting through traffic has been a problem with him in the past, but Pyle said he was working hard and playing gritty. Pospisil was also playing hurt the whole tournament and didn’t want to come out of the lineup. The coaching staff did insist he take the practice day off Sunday. To add injury to injury, was hit in the foot by a shot on Monday night and briefly left the game, but later returned.
   
In other injury news, Chad Painchaud hurt his knee in the last game, but it does not appear to be serious.  A couple of days rest should take care of it.  Free-agent invitee Arron Alphonso suffered a concussion in Game 2 on a hit from behind by Corey Potter (NYR).

The best free agent invitees? Defenseman Dan Kelly, who Pyle said "played strong every game.  He was really quiet back there, like a veteran."  Up front, Pyle was impressed with Jordan Fox and Bostjan Golicic. 

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