The Atlanta Thrashers are designed to be a team that will beat opponents with speed and offense. Those desired attributes are becoming more pronounced this season, with the help of some talented rookies. Departures in the offseason left several openings.
"There’s two spots [at each position], we’re going to give the two spots to the two guys up front and on the blue line that we feel are going to give us the best mileage," coach Bob Hartley said mid-way through camp. "There’s no favorites over here."
Hartley said that they were not hesitant to give the roster spots to rookies.
"Not at all. That’s very clear with me and (GM) Don (Waddell). We’re going to take the two guys that deserve it the most."
To that end, there was a preset schedule of how many preseason games each would play, which was communicated to the players so that they wouldn’t panic after one bad game.
"Those guys make their own decision. That’s why we committed to have them play games and it comes down to performing," Hartley said. "We sit down as a committee – the coaches, the pro scouts, Don – and we do a round table on each of our decisions and everyone has the same say. We make decisions for the best of the organization."
Enstrom, an eighth-round draft pick back in 2003 when size was a much more important attribute for an NHL player, is listed at just 5’10, but his speed and passing skills are top notch.
Hartley was very happy with him after his first game at Nashville.
"He’s much stronger than he looks," Hartley said. "You look at him and he’s a small-sized defenseman. Last night in Nashville, they’re a big team, a physical team, and he’s heads-up, so smart with the puck, plus he’s so skilled that he can dance in a phone booth. I felt that last night he had a pretty solid game. He knows how to get away from traffic, and away from danger. The more he plays, the stronger he’ll get. Last night when he took his too many men penalty – in Europe you’re allowed to do this (change early). As long as it’s close, you’re good to go. So I laugh because I yelled at him, but I saw his eyes when he saw open ice. When he heard the whistle, he thought the whistle came from another planet. He was like ‘what’s going on here?’ This morning I sat him down and explained."
The thought coming into camp was that Enstrom would take a little while to adjust to the North American game. But the soon to be 23-year-old needed very little time. The five-game rookie tournament in Traverse City, Michigan was beneficial.
"He’s here by himself, there’s big cultural changes and hockey changes. I think that Traverse City was very good for him because that allowed him to kind of know the dimension of our rink."
Hartley commented on Enstrom’s quick adjustment, saying. "Well, he’s older, he’s not 18 years old. That plays in his favor. He’s a little more mature and that works to his benefit."
Most impressively, his size hasn’t been a factor, in fact, he’s small enough to be very slippery.
"He went behind the net once and I saw a big guy coming and I thought ‘oh boy, we’ll need the shovel,’" Hartley said. "You could tell he knew – he’s so smart. Those little guys it seems they have a sixth sense and they never get caught. Like when have you ever seen (Brian) Rafalski get nailed? Or Dan Boyle in Tampa Bay? Those guys have eyes all over. Last night he was in one battle where the guy went to crush him and he deflected it pretty good.
"Obviously we won’t make him bigger, so the big question is can he play at the NHL level with his size – and I think he passed his first test with high marks."
Enstrom’s attitude about small defensemen in NHL is to look right past size as a factor.
"Anyone can do it," he said simply. "You have to practice hard and show them you want to play."
Having just come off the ice against the Panthers though, one player caught his attention.
"I was watching the guy for Florida, Cory Murphy — he’s like me and I like the way he plays."
With his skating ability, Enstrom certainly gets to every corner of the rink, but the left-shooting defenseman still has a slight preference for playing one side of the ice.
"I played on the left side for almost five years now, so of course I want to play on the left, but it doesn’t really matter."
Enstrom credits his quick adjustment to North American rink and to the Thrashers way of doing things to the team’s two Swedish veterans.
"Of course the Swedish guys have been very helpful, (Nic) Havelid and (Johan) Hedberg too. I really appreciate it. It’s been great. The whole organization is really great, they help me out with everything. I feel like home."
And that home will quickly be a literal one, as he plans to take up residence with Hedberg.
"I think I’m gonna move in with Moose," Enstrom said Friday. "He’s got a big house. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay there, but we’ll see. I feel comfortable with him and if I stay there I can just worry about playing my game."
Brett Sterling, RW
Sterling has done nothing but score at every level before and after being selected 145th overall in the 2003 draft. And the 5’7 winger did exactly what he needed to do in Thrashers preseason action – produce. The 23-year-old lead the team in goal scoring in the preseason with three goals and one assist in five games.
A natural left winger, Sterling has had to make the switch to right wing, where the team had an opening opposite Ilya Kovalchuk.
"I think it’s going well," he said of the switch. "I mean, there’s little things, obviously, like on the first shift, just picking the puck up off the boards, I’m not facing the d-man so I gotta get better at kind of giving the d-man a shot and then getting the puck. I like it, I like playing with the guys that I’m playing with, getting the puck to Kovy and just letting him skate and get to the front of the net."
The organization gave him fair warning that this is where he would get an opportunity, which allowed him to practice at it most of the summer.
"I started on it in prospect camp. They talked to me and said they wanted me to try right wing, they wanted to give me a shot up with Kovy and (Todd) White, so basically the rest of the summer from July on I started doing stuff on the right side, trying to get myself ready. It’s not a huge adjustment but it’s enough of it that you have to work on it and think about it before you get on the ice."
Sterling played with Kovalchuk and White from the first day of camp, and that line is likely to be set for some time, especially given how well Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov work together on the other scoring line.
With two natural shooters, Kovalchuk and Sterling, on one line, the obvious question is – is there enough puck to go around?
"I think so," Sterling said quietly. "I mean, obviously I know Kovy is a shooter, and one the best goal scorers in the game right now. I’m gonna give him the puck and whether he scores or whether the rebound comes to me, I couldn’t care less either way. As long as we’re winning games I’m happy. He knows I shoot the puck, and he told me from the start, if I get my chances, shoot the puck. So it gives me a little confidence knowing that right off the bat a guy like that telling me to shoot. Makes things a lot easier."
While Enstrom and Sterling had roster spots within grasp fairly early in camp, the other openings were still in limbo.
Hartley didn’t feel that anyone was stepping up and saying they wanted the jobs.
On Sunday, Sept. 23, he spent the first 10 minutes of the rookies-only practice doing some serious scolding, with the players gathered around one net. He summarized his speech afterward.
"I addressed it this morning with them. I fried their ass. I told them that I want to see an attitude. Patty-cake is over. Romper Room is not in Atlanta. The next days will tell. That’s their next challenge because the cuts are not getting easier. The first cuts are kind of always easy. But now we’re starting to really have some tough decisions.
"Like a poker player, I’d be all in. Don’t just put a quarter on the table. Go all in."
One player eventually answered that call.
Bryan Little, C
Little played in six of the team’s seven preseason games, scoring two goals and two assists. The center, who won’t turn 20 until Nov. 12, is already solid enough defensively to help the team.
Hartley said after Little’s first home game, "Last night the more the game was progressing, he got stronger and stronger. He’s just in what, his second training camp now? Now he’s getting late in camp and I’d like him to grow a little bit more. He’s too polite. I’d like him to believe he has a chance to be here. Just in his demeanor, he’s a very respectful young man and there’s nothing wrong with this, but there comes a point where he has to say ‘hey – if it’s not me it’s gonna be someone else.’ That’s part of an attitude. You can be a good kid and have a cocky attitude. Show us that you’re not going to let no one step on your toes or take your jersey away from your stall."
The question with Little is short-run versus long run, Hartley said. "Is he better here? Is he better there? How much is he going to contribute over here versus his development?"
These are questions Little will help answer. For his part, he seemed about as even-keel as you could hope for as a 19-year-old trying to make an NHL roster.
"I think it’s going pretty good," he said mid-way through camp. "I came up here a couple weeks before camp so I think that helped feeling more comfortable playing with the guys and each day that goes by I get more comfortable playing out there.
"I know there’s room for improvement and so does Bob," he said. "Each day I’m on the ice, he’ll take me aside when we’re doing drills and show me something I can do different. In games after a shift he’ll tell me something I can do different, do better."
Asked for an example, Little offered the following.
"One thing he’s big on is stick to puck. He likes one hand on the stick and putting your stick to the puck instead of having it off the ice where you can’t intercept anything. Even doing that in the exhibition games I found I’ve picked off a lot more passes than I used to."
The system the Thrashers play is not that different than what his junior team the Barrie Colts ran, but Little’s place on the totem pole is.
"The big difference is that the coach in Barrie was more helping out the younger guys, rookies, and I was an older guy there and didn’t really get talked to too much. I’m the younger guy and (Hartley’s) really helping me out.
"If you make a mistake he’s going to point it out to you. He’s a perfectionist I guess."
At 5’11, 190 lbs., playing against bigger stronger players, Little ended up getting pushed to the ice quite a few times. He addressed this after Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues.
"It’s gonna happen when you’re my size. Tonight the guys were pretty big and I landed on my hip once, but it’s part of the game and I’m even used to that in junior, getting hit a lot. Best thing I can do is just get to the puck first and use my body to shield it."
Little wasn’t sure where he stood in terms of making the roster after that game, saying that he hadn’t been given much indication. He regretted only a couple chances he said he probably should have shot on.
Having started on a line in camp with players who were destined for Chicago, Little had to work himself onto the roster. It meant he had different linemates virtually every night during preseason play.
"It’s pretty tough," he admitted. "Especially because I had the same linemate in junior for three years (Hunter Tremblay), so it’s tough playing with new guys every time."
He thought it went pretty well playing with Kovachuk though.
"We didn’t really get to play together too much in the first half of the game with all the penalties, but he’s a really fast player and you kind of have to keep up with him. He’ll make really good passes that you don’t really think anyone could make, but does. When I passed to him I just kind of buried my head and went to the net hard for a rebound. He’s got such a hard shot."
Little denied that he was feeling timid on the ice – but did say he needed to make some adjustments so as not to get pushed off the puck so easily.
"It’s not like I’m scared or anything out there. I’ve just got to get used to using my body more to my advantage. Sometimes I kind of forget who I’m playing with and I underestimate them. They’ll push me off the puck, so I’ve really got to get ready for the hit and try to use my body as much as I can because I know I’ll be playing against some big guys."
Off to Chicago
Twenty-year-old first-year pro Ondrej Pavelec played 100 minutes in net during preseason action, posting a 3.00 GAA and a .886 save percentage.
"It’s my second camp so I feel a little bit comfortable and I know everybody from Atlanta," he said. "It’s good for me right now, I played two games. I’m happy for every minute."
The former QMJHL‘er felt particularly good having stopped Nashville’s top shooters in their building. Predator defenseman Marek Zidlicky is from his hometown of Kladno, Czech Republic, so he had extra incentive to do well against him.
Pavelec said his confidence was high, having had a good summer with a trainer in Montreal. He’s very near his ideal weight, something that wasn’t the case last year at this time.
Assistant coach Steve Weeks, a former goaltender, was very bullish on Pavelec.
"He had a very good camp," Weeks said. "He came into camp this year much lighter than he was last year, so he’s in much better shape and I think it really showed throughout camp. Last year there were times when he was caught down and it was a struggle for him to get up because he wasn’t in shape or he was tired. This year, that was not a factor at all. As a matter of fact, it worked for him. I think in the St. Louis game he faced the bulk of the shots in the third period, and he was stronger in the third period. It really made a believer out of him. It’s a credit to him. He’s a competitive guy. He had a very, very good camp. I look forward to having him go to Chicago and play a lot of games, get a lot of experience."
Weeks praised in particular Pavelec’s great attitude.
"He’s very competitive, but he enjoys himself on the ice. He challenges and he’s got that fire. He does not like to get beat.
"He’s a much more mature goaltender this year than he was last year. If (maintaining his weight) was the only thing he learned in a year, that’s great, but he also had a very good year in junior at the same time."
LaVallee played in four games, going scoreless, with 11 penalty minutes, including a fight in defense of his Chicago teammates Darren Haydar. LaVallee didn’t see a lot of ice time in preseason, but did something good each shift, either a hit, a clear, or simply advancing the puck.
Weeks spent a good deal of time helping 21-year-old LaVallee, talking to him between shifts and at practices. He listed the things he was working with him, and the other prospects, on during their time in Atlanta.
"Habits of angling, taking the right route to a guy," Weeks said. "Discouraging a pass, but at the same time laying a good stick. This game is faster than the game at the AHL level. You have to take your first couple steps and be moving and be thinking then. If you stop, think, and then start moving, it’s too late. The play has already passed you by. So we stress the urgency of moving your feet and making your decisions from there."
Weeks was optimistic about the 6’3, 220-pounder’s outlook.
"I thought he had a pretty good camp," Weeks said. "He got to play in some exhibition games. I think there are some things he has to work on. He goes back to Chicago and works on those things and makes habits — good habits — he’s got some good tools. He’s got a good shot at it. A big, physical presence and he can move. He goes to the net. He’s got some good traits and things you’re looking for at the NHL level."
The most disappointing prospect in camp was Oystrick. The soon to be 25-year-old was considered to be in the mix to grab an open spot on the blue line heading into camp, but his poor play quickly took him out of contention. He finished with no points and a team-worst -4.
He was told at the start of camp he would play in about five games, but was sent down after four — the last game one in which he turned over the puck at his blue line for a goal. He talked about the rough game he had immediately afterward.
"Yeah, it wasn’t my best, that’s for sure. Today I don’t know, I kept falling, didn’t seem like I had my legs. Then the turnover at the end cost us the game."
Oystrick came into camp healthy this year, as opposed to last year when he was still recovering from mononucleosis.
"I felt good, I was ready. Definitely ready for camp this year," he said. "A hundred times better than last year, that’s for sure. The older guys are helping me – Nic (Havelid), Kenny (Klee) and Mac (McCarthy) are always talking to us on the bench."
Oystrick had a different offseason training regimen this year.
"I stayed in Chicago all summer, went home for about a week, but other than that I was in Chicago working at the rink, running," he said. "Just kind of on my own this summer. I wanted to stay away from everyone else and just get out there and do my own thing. I felt good, I think it worked for me. Last year was a big eye-opener for me coming to camp. I knew I could be ready this year."
It’s hard to pinpoint if Oystrick’s shortfall was mental or physical. He had a very good year as a rookie in the AHL last year, and will need a quick turnaround to change the impressions of team brass and put himself in line for a call-up.
Others seeing time
Boris Valabik stayed a long time in camp, which enabled the coaching staff to work with him for a long time. He played in four games, going -2 with 17 penalty minutes, and played just :12 seconds in his last game, the result of a game misconduct for not having his fight strap tied down. Rookie pro Tomas Pospisil played two games, going scoreless and -2. He was gone in the first round of cuts.
Rookie defenseman Grant Lewis did not get into any preseason games due to a hip injury originally suffered at Traverse City. He practiced for a few days, and was assigned to Chicago in time for the opening of Wolves camp.
Riley Holzapfel, drafted in 2006, was the only junior player who saw time in the preseason. In two games, he posted one assist.
Sock issues explained
Oystrick was able to explain why there was so much confusion on the first day of training camp about how the new practice socks were supposed to be worn, and how it – literally – got straightened out.
"Socks have a tag and the tag usually goes in the back. With those socks, with the tag in the back, the stripe would have gone in the front. The first group went out and we all had the stripe in the front. (Equipment managers) Joey (Guilmet) and Bobby (Stewart) came in and after the first group came off and said ‘Hey, stripes in the back, boys.’"
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