Six Atlanta Thrashers prospects have seen time with the Gwinnett Gladiators already during the 2007-08 season, including three forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender.
Twenty-eight-year-old captain Mike Vigilante offered some virtually unprompted opinion on NHL-contracted guys coming to the team.
"I think initially it’s hard for those guys because they sign with the NHL team and usually if they’re not up with Atlanta, they start in Chicago — and you know Chicago — there’s so many numbers there. When they get sent down to the ECHL, I think it’s just a norm that the players that are signed don’t want to be here. And that’s a good thing, for them and for their personal career. But I think what a lot of them are seeing is that it’s a good league and they’re going to play more down here to develop, and if they take it seriously and do the right things, they’ll be back up in Chicago and hopefully ultimately Atlanta before they know it."
Vigilante’s serious but positive spin on things is part of the reason he’s got the C on his sweater this year. An improved locker room atmosphere has everyone positive, despite the recent spate of injuries. The Gladiators are second in the South Division with a 18-5-0-1 record, and are on a seven-game winning streak.
Second-year pros Scott Lehman and Chad Painchaud had brief tours with the team as they try to work their way into the lineup in Chicago. Lehman’s five games played already qualify him to be on the ECHL playoff roster.
"I’d have him back anytime," Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle said after Pospisil’s first tour. He was reassigned back to the team on Dec. 13.
The 20-year-old has a lot of skill, the only Gladiator in recent memory to do any between the legs maneuvers during warm-ups, but he’s also young and not strong on the puck or along the boards. Playing with men instead of boys is the biggest thing he needs to work on, and he’ll get a lot more playing time to do so in Gwinnett than Chicago.
Below are the remaining three, who are likely with the team for the rest of the year, barring catastrophic injuries above.
Dan Turple, G
6th round, 186th overall, 2004
Turple’s numbers are dramatically improved from last year, a season in which he finished last among regular league netminders. He’s gone from a .879 save percentage and 3.77 GAA last year to a .926 save percentage and 2.51 GAA so far this year. His save percentage ranks him seventh in the league, and his goals against average is 11th. The 6’6 netminder has always been quick, but this year he seems to have better focus.
"I think I just figured out my mental game a bit better," he said of the turnaround. "I have a little bit more control, I’m a little bit more confident. I think I made some adjustments over the summer – getting out on top of the crease, finding the puck better – that have helped. The past few games have been good for me."
Turple’s partner this year is Craig Kowalski, a 26-year-old veteran, someone who Turple needs to continue to play well in comparison to in order to keep his ice time. It’s a different setup than last year, when both Turple and Dave Caruso were rookies on relatively even ground.
"I saw him play two years ago when he was with the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL because my younger brother (John) was on a rival team," Vigilante recalled. "I didn’t play that year so I watched him a lot. I thought he was a great goalie. Last year, he was really hard on himself, and I think as a hockey player usually you are your toughest critic and you beat yourself up. It doesn’t get any easier sometimes. I’ve said this since the beginning, but if it wasn’t for Turps and K-Wal this year, we wouldn’t be where we’re at."
Both Turple and Kowalski were recently named goalie of the week in the league, but a goalie would rather have a good month than a good week though, as consistency is the key. In fact, even during Turple’s rough rookie season, he was named goalie of the week in late October.
"Last year I would put a couple games together and then a couple bad games together," he said. "So this year I’m just trying to keep steady the whole season."
Turple was passed over for call-ups to Chicago earlier this year in favor of the non-contracted Kowalski and out-of-work Rob Gherson. Both instances should give him extra motivation to prove himself.
The new season has brought new pre-game rituals. In the past, he tended to be a bit panicky before games, but now he’s distracting himself by taking a stick and puck, or sometimes tape ball, out on the ice alone before warmups.
"It’s more of a relaxing thing," he said of his shoot-arounds. "Just out there shooting the puck, getting warmed up and keeping my mind off the game."
It’s worked so well that he’s even been coming out to the bench during intermissions.
"He’s doing his own thing," Vigilante said of it. "I’ve seen so many different superstitions. Usually with goalies, you let ’em be. You don’t want to mess with their psyche at all. Let them do their thing – and it’s working. I noticed that too a couple times too, in the locker room we’re looking for Turps and he’s not around, but good for him, you know? (laughing) Whatever works. Keep it going."
Vigilante was asked to rate how strange Turple is on a 1-10 scale.
"Honestly I’ve seen much stranger," Vigilante said. "I’d give him a 4. Just because he’s a goalie I’ll give him a 4. I think it’s more because he’s a quiet guy and he keeps to himself. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. He’s pretty normal for a goalie."
In addition to changing his pre-game ritual, different living arrangements have helped his mental game as well. Last year Turple roomed with Lehman and Painchaud in the team apartments, but this year is living with his girlfriend, with an extra bedroom if the team needs to put someone up.
"I find [this arrangement] more relaxing as well," he said. "Just having your own space."
Turple lives next door to Myles Stoesz though, and the two spend a good bit of time together.
With Kowalski currently called up to AHL Syracuse, Turple, who will be 23 on New Year’s Day, will take the reins for the time being. He’ll be backed up by Ray Jean, acquired off waivers.
Myles Stoesz, F
7th round, 207th overall, 2005
Stoesz is a 6’2, 215 rookie out of the WHL whose best skill is fighting, at which he’s quite accomplished. He needed no adjustment period in this department.
"When I first came to pro, I wasn’t sure, maybe guys were way tougher. But everybody’s the same. We all came from the same place."
He may not have needed them, but he’s been getting a few tips from the ECHL‘s all-time penalty minute leader in assistant coach Cam Brown (2,425 penalty minutes in 15 years).
And now that the 20-year-old has established his place in the pecking order in the league, he can worry about other things — like offense. He scored goals in back to back nights last weekend.
Stoesz said he finds the game easier at this level because the players are better overall.
"Here if you give a guy a good pass, you know there’s a good chance he’ll put it in," he said. "It’s easier to make plays. Guys are in the right spots at the right times."
At the beginning of the year Stoesz was rotating on and off the third line (there is no fourth line in the ECHL). He’s seen more ice time lately due to injuries and has proven his worth. His defense is solid, having played on the backline growing up until he was drafted. His game is simple but effective and he is one of the most physical Gladiators.
"He does the little things. And he can do a lot of things," Pyle said.
Stoesz missed two games on a suspension due to a melee on Oct. 28 against Reading. He received 41 penalty minutes in that game. Stoesz is now fourth in the league in penalty minutes with 99.
"I don’t know if want to call it a good start or bad start or whatever – but I got quite a few penalty minutes there the first couple games," he said. "Now it seems like guys know who I am because I’m at the top of the leaderboard in penalty minutes."
Those 99 minutes include seven fighting majors. Stoesz knows to avoid minor penalties though.
"As a tough guy you can’t cost your team. I think I’ve been working hard at that and trying not to take too many minors," he said. "A lot of my penalties have been five minutes, a couple 10’s, but those don’t hurt the team. You don’t want to put the team down because then you won’t be seeing the ice."
The team-first mentality is part of Stoesz’s great attitude. As a rookie, he’s quiet in the locker room, but Vigilante said that’s just fine, as they’ve had some pretty ‘noisy’ guys in his role in the past.
For Stoesz, it’s all going to come down to whether or not he can improve his skating to an NHL-caliber level. The extra ice time can only help in this area.
Chad Denny, D
2nd round, 49th overall, 2005
Denny is a rookie out of the QMJHL, where he was known for his powerful slapshot and high-scoring ways, with 65 points in 59 games last year for Lewiston.
The 20-year-old got off to a poor start to the season at the Traverse City tournament in September, and hasn’t yet turned it around. The 6’2, 230-pounder was assigned to the Gladiators on Nov. 13 after playing no games for Chicago.
He’s playing at even strength with fellow rookie Dinos Stamoulis and on the penalty kill, not yet earning power-play time. Hard work and a concentrated focus will be the things that earn that time. Right now there is not enough of it, however. In a recent game, he was sat in the third period after a disastrous shift in which he played the puck instead of his man near the net and then took a hooking penalty — which resulted in an important goal against.
Denny now has five points in 11 games. Asked if he was concerned at all about his lack of scoring, he said "No, not really. I’m just playing defense and all that. I’m a young kid, I won’t be getting all the power play time like I got in junior. I just have to wait it out and my chances will come."
Denny scored his first pro goal this past weekend.
Having played forward during his first weekend tour of duty, Denny said that Pyle has now told him to concentrate on playing good defense first, and he’ll try to work him into the power play.
Eliminating lackadaisical play and putting his nose to the grindstone will be the route to get there.
Denny missed two weeks with a concussion, suffered on Nov. 20 when a puck hit him in the eye on a dump in. He came back once the associated headaches were gone and was not asked to take the standard computer test to compare to his Thrashers-gathered baseline. He reports feeling fine.
Denny is rooming with Mike Hamilton and fellow Nova Scotian Stuart MacRae. Denny is five years younger than MacRae so they had not met prior to this year, but have many mutual friends and acquaintances, so they’ve hit it off well. Denny knew Stuart’s younger brother Patrick through minor hockey.