Thrashers Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Holly Gunning

With super-rookie Tobias Enstrom, a former eighth-round pick, graduating off the list, some younger players grab spots on the Top 20 Atlanta Thrashers prospects ranking.  All four of Atlanta’s 2007 selections make the list, along with Pittsburgh’s first rounder Angelo Esposito.

The list includes two goaltenders, six defensemen, and 12 forwards.  The top two prospects remain the same, both having seen time in the NHL this year.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Ondrej Pavelec, G, 20
2. Bryan Little, C, 20
3. Riley Holzapfel, C, 19
4. Angelo Esposito, C, 18
5. Brett Sterling, LW, 23
6. Andrei Zubarev, D, 21
7. Spencer Machacek, RW, 19
8. Grant Lewis, D, 23
9. Boris Valabik, D, 22
10. Jonas Enlund, C, 20
11. Alex Kangas, G, 20
12. John Albert, C, 19
13. Jordan LaVallee, W, 21
14. Paul Postma, D, 19
15. Jesse Martin, C, 19
16. Niklas Lucenius, C, 18
17. Nathan Oystrick, D, 25
18. Arturs Kulda, D, 19
19. Tomas Pospisil, RW, 20
20. Rylan Kaip, C, 24

Ondrej Pavelec, G, 20

2nd round, 41st overall, 2005

The top goaltender in the QMJHL for the past two years, Pavelec is doing exactly what was expected of him as a rookie with the Chicago Wolves — become the team’s most valuable player.  He’s gotten better over the course of the year and was recently named goaltender of the month for February, posting a 1.49 GAA and .949 save percentage in 12 games.

Pavelec was called up to Atlanta as the season got underway due to Kari Lehtonen’s groin injury. He played well during his time in Atlanta, especially for a 20-year-old.

Pavelec projects as a starting goaltender, which inevitably puts him in competition with Lehtonen.  Less technical than Lehtonen, Pavelec relies more on reactions, and his outgoing, sunny personality is a contrast to Lehtonen’s brooding nature. Just how soon that real competition begins in earnest is an open question.

Bryan Little, C, 20

1st round, 12th overall, 2006

A rookie out of the OHL, Little started the year on the Atlanta roster, but lost his job when veteran Mark Recchi was picked up on waivers. In Chicago, Little centered the second line and posted moderate numbers. Recently called back up when Marian Hossa was traded to Pittsburgh, Little will probably remain on the roster for the rest of the season.  The 5’11, 190-pounder can play wing, but is a natural center and embraces the defensive responsibility that goes along with it.  There’s no question the serious youngster is effective at the NHL level, at both ends of the ice.

Little remains second below Pavelec on this list because his top-end potential is not quite as high — he is less of a game-breaker.  But he’s a very good player and without question will be full time with the Thrashers next year.

Riley Holzapfel, C, 19

2nd round, 43rd overall, 2006

A concussion gave Holzapfel a slow start to the season, and he recently returned from a two-week abdominal strain as well.  In the middle of the season he was healthy though, and was selected for Team Canada in the 2008 WJC, playing on the fourth line.  As a result, his numbers are down this year. But captain of his junior team, Holzapfel is one of those mature, dependable guys you don’t have to worry about too much. 

A 5’11 with decent speed and good hands, Holzapfel has probably second line potential. Already signed to a contract by Atlanta, he’s destined for the Chicago Wolves next year.  If his Moose Jaw Warriors make an early playoff exit, he could see time this spring as well.

Angelo Esposito, C, 18

1st round, 20th overall, 2007 by Pittsburgh

The only player from the QMJHL on this list, Esposito has the skill to be a star in the NHL, but there are a lot of concerns surrounding him. He has not raised his game over his time in junior, a result reportedly of work ethic issues. If that weren’t enough, he also had a serious groin issue last summer.

Infamous for being cut from the Canadian junior team three years, he will get a rare fourth chance next year. (Most players invited at a young age advance to the NHL by the age of 19.) 

Not small at 6’0, Esposito is natural center, but has played much of this year on the wing. He will remain in junior in 2008-09 since he will still be under 20, unless he makes the Thrashers roster.

Brett Sterling, LW, 23

5th round, 145th overall, 2003

A 5’7 sniper who put up 55 goals in the AHL last year, Sterling made the Thrashers roster out of camp but didn’t stick.  It was at this point that the organization, and Sterling, came to realize just how firmly he’s entrenched on the left side of the ice. In Chicago, Sterling at first rejoined his line from last year with Darren Haydar and Jason Krog, but later moved the “second” line to play alongside Little.  These two were a good combination in Atlanta early in the year.

Working on rounding out his game, Sterling has been playing a bit on the PK.  He’s +7, which is fairly average on the team.  He again leads the league with 31 goals, despite missing a dozen games while he was called up to the NHL.

Called up twice to replace Ilya Kovalchuk, once for a suspension and two games for a knee injury.  With only three NHL points in 13 games, questions remain — and in fact are increasing — whether he can transfer his game to the NHL level.  If he sticks, he’ll likely be a second liner.

Andrei Zubarev, D, 21

6th round, 187th overall, 2005

Zubarev is one of the best young defensemen in the Russian Super League, but oddly finds himself in and out of the coach’s doghouse, fighting for ice time. A 6’1 offensive defenseman, his statistics aren’t high due partially to the lack of ice time and because no second assists are awarded in the league.  Zubarev remains a bit of a wildcard until he moves on North American ice and its seen how his game translates. 

Due to the lack of IIHF agreement, the Thrashers continue to hold onto Zubarev’s rights past the two-year window in the CBA. This would seem to be the year for him to come over though, as his contract in Russia comes to an end and there is good opportunity in the Thrashers system.  His English is good, and he expresses desire to make the move.  Working out a contract will be a project for the offseason.

Spencer Machacek, RW, 19

3rd round, 67th overall, 2007

A hard-working, determined player, Machacek is on the other side of the continent from Esposito, and on the other end of most other spectrums as well. He’s scoring up a storm for the Vancouver Giants, currently 10th in points in the WHL with 76 in 65 games.  He was player of the month for February.

Average sized at 6’1, 195, Machacek is gritty and goes to the net hard. His precise upside is unknown, as to whether he’ll be a second or third liner.  He certainly appears to have the work ethic required of a third liner with the outside chance that he could emerge as a second liner.  But he’s the type of player coaches want on their teams.  Machacek has one more year before he needs to be signed to a contract. 

Grant Lewis, D, 23

2nd round, 40th overall, 2004

An offensive defenseman with good vision, Lewis struggled at the start of the year as a rookie, but has been a steady contributor for the Wolves as of late.  Around Christmastime, he suffered two concussions close together, from hits he wasn’t expecting. Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said as Lewis returned, “he’s got to learn when you have the puck to be a little smarter about the way he positions himself and exposes himself. But now that it’s happened to him twice, I think he’s figured it out and he’ll be more confident.”

That certainly seems to be the case.  At least he won’t be concerned about what the concussions did for his thinking — Lewis said he actually did better on baseline psychological test after the concussion.  A regular in the lineup since he returned, the consummate team player has been scoring and he’s plus. 

Lewis is putting off finishing up his last few credits at Dartmouth College for another year to concentrate on parts of his game this summer.  He should be back with the Wolves next year, and put himself in line for a call-up to the big club.

Boris Valabik, D, 22

1st round, 10th overall, 2004

Valabik has had another year of adversity in the AHL.  As a rookie he had lots of problems with his ankle, and this year he was out for a period due to an illness – an enlarged spleen, which was not caused by mononucleosis.  Being out of the lineup hurts a young player because it takes away from development time — instead of advancing, they have to catch up.

Valabik is Slovakian, but you’d never know it from his North American approach to the game, or his command of English.  The small accent is the only thing that gives it away. The 6’7 blueliner brings a physical presence with 165 penalty minutes, the most on the team.  He has very little offensive upside, with just seven assists in 48 games this year, no improvement over last year.  But his +17 is second only to Joel Kwiatkowski’s +23. 

Does Valabik have the skating and puck skills for the NHL?  He’s looked fine in preseason play, but that’s not indicative of actual NHL games.  He’s commited to improving, but these are difficult parts of the game to improve on.

Big defensemen take a long time to develop, and there’s no reason to give up on Valabik yet.  But it’s also unrealistic to expect him to make the Thrashers roster out of camp next fall if he has not sampled the NHL by then. 

Jonas Enlund, C, 20

6th round, 165th overall, 2006

Enlund has been a pleasant offensive surprise this year in the Finnish League, finishing 20th in the league in scoring, the youngest player on the leaderboard. But importantly he’s good both ways — fourth on his team in scoring as well asTappara’s top penalty killer, playing about 15 minutes per game.

Enlund adds to the Thrashers depth at center among prospects, projecting as at least a good third liner at the NHL level.  Drafted under the new CBA rules, the Thrashers need to sign Enlund by June 1, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t try to do so.

Alex Kangas, G, 20

5th round, 135th overall, 2006

Goaltending continues to be an area where the Thrashers have done well at the draft table. Kangas, after another year in the USHL in the interim, has taken over the No. 1 job at Univ. of Minnesota as a 20-year-old.  He is ranked 14th nationally with a .924 save percentage and 12th in GAA with 2.14.  But he doesn’t win a ton of games because he doesn’t receive a lot of goal support. Minnesota is only seventh in the WCHA standings, so they’ll hang this one up as a rebuilding year and press on in the fall.  The fact that he plays in a very high quality conference is a plus for his development.

Kangas has improved his conditioning since arriving on campus and seems to be finishing the season strongly.  Like all college prospects, Kangas is a long-term investment and won’t turn pro for years to come. 

John Albert, C, 19

6th round, 175th overall, 2007

Albert is very quietly putting together a quality freshman season playing on Ohio State’s top line.  His numbers aren’t that impressive, about a half a point a game, but OSU is a struggling team this year.  Albert has played in all 38 games and leads team in assists and is third in scoring, seeing time on both special teams.

A January birthday, Albert has another year of U-20 team eligibility, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be picked given his time with the USNTDP.  At 5’11 with good speed, Albert projects as a top-six forward, but he’s a long way off with three more years of college eligibility.

Jordan LaVallee, W, 21

4th round, 113th overall, 2005

LaVallee is having a solid second year in the AHL, scoring at a higher rate and keeping his penalty minutes down.  He’s also taken on some leadership responsibilities, wearing an A.

A confident winger with good size who can play a scoring or checking role at the minor league level, he doesn’t have NHL-caliber hands, and will likely be a checker at the NHL level.  LaVallee can play both wings with equal effectiveness.  More physical than Colin Stuart, LaVallee has a chance to play with the Thrashers sooner rather than later if spots on the lower lines open up.

Paul Postma, D, 19

7th round, 205th overall, 2007

Postma was talked about a fair amount going into the 2007 draft, but fell to the seventh round. He looks like a terrific value pick for the Thrashers so far. Traded two games into the season, it’s been a breakout year for him offensively, to the surprise of many. He’s 16th among WHL defensemen in scoring, with 39 points in 64 games.

Postma has good size at 6’3, is a good skater and of course can score. With the combination of these qualities, the sky’s the limit for him. Postma will remain in junior in 2008-09.

Jesse Martin, C, 19

7th round, 195th overall, 2006

Martin played another year in the USHL after being drafted in 2006. Now a freshman at Denver, Martin has carved out a niche for himself already, playing on the second line and getting good ice time.  Playing for a top college program and in a strong conference benefits his development as long has he continues to receive good ice time.

Martin needs to work on skating and projects as a checker.  He’ll remain at Denver for the foreseeable future.

Niklas Lucenius, C, 18

4th round, 115th overall, 2007

Lucenius is in the Tappara organization along with Enlund, but is a year younger.  Halfway through the season he voluntarily moved to Leki, the Division 1 team (farm team), to get more playing time.  He has signed a new contract with Tappara and will be back with the team in the fall.  His long-term outlook is as a checker, as he likes to hit and crash the net, but has limited offensive potential.

Nathan Oystrick, D, 25

7th round, 198th overall, 2002

Oystrick had a good rookie year in the AHL with offensive accolades, but has not followed up on it well.  A poor showing at Thrashers training camp set the tone for what has been a disappointing second season.

The 5’11 blueliner does have offensive talent, but has the second-worst plus/minus among defensemen on the Wolves roster, worst among regulars.  Worse, his commitment level has been questioned.  At 25, Oystrick’s window of opportunity is nearly closed.  He’s in a contract year, and it’s not a slam dunk that he’ll be re-signed.

Arturs Kulda, D, 19

7th round, 200th overall, 2006

The only OHL player on the list, this Latvia native has a good, heavy shot from the point which is utilized on Peterborough’s power play. Injured to start year, Kulda has gone on to almost triple his output from last year, in fewer games.

Good sized at 6’2 and serious about improving, Kulda is young for his draft class — he won’t be 20 until the end of July. Kulda needs to be signed by June 1, and seems like a decent gamble.

Tomas Pospisil, RW, 20

5th round, 135th overall, 2005
Is going from playing with Steve Stamkos to Mike Hamilton depressing?  Probably so, but Pospisil’s fate is in his own hands.  In Sarnia last year, Pospisil played alongside 2008’s likely top pick.  He turned pro this fall and began the year in the AHL, but was demoted after 11 games in which he only scored two points.  He then spent some time on the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators’ top line with Jeff Campbell, a former league MVP and a deft passer.  But again Pospisil was demoted.

If he wants to get out of Gwinnett, his current lackadaisical play isn’t going to earn him a ticket out.  The physicality of the pro game remains a problem for him as well.  With great vision and a sneaky shot, the Czech native is capable of so much more.  Pospisil has 13 goals and 15 assists in 39 games with the Gladiators. 

Rylan Kaip, C

9th round, 269th overall, 2003

Kaip does not have high upside, but is a heart and soul player with strong hockey sense and work ethic.  He has never put up big numbers, but is a top penalty killer and physical presence for North Dakota.

The Thrashers have until Aug. 15 to sign Kaip, who will be 24 later this month.  UND is second in the WCHA, but if they make an early playoff exit, it’s entirely possible that he could join one of the minor league affiliates.

Missing the cut

Joey Crabb
Andrew Kozek