Thrashers Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Holly Gunning

Defenseman Zach Bogosian takes over the top spot on the Top 20 Atlanta Thrashers prospects ranking.  All four of Atlanta’s 2008 selections make the list.

The list includes two goaltenders, six defensemen, and 12 forwards. 

Top 20 at a glance

1. Zach Bogosian, D, 18
2. Ondrej Pavelec, G, 21
3. Bryan Little, C, 20
4. Riley Holzapfel, C, 20
5. Spencer Machacek, RW, 19
6. Andrei Zubarev, D, 21
7. Boris Valabik, D, 22
8. Angelo Esposito, C, 19
9. Daultan Leveille, C, 18
10. Brett Sterling, LW, 24
11. Arturs Kulda, D, 20
12. Grant Lewis, D, 23
13. Alex Kangas, G, 21
14. Vinny Saponari, RW, 18
15. Jonas Enlund, C, 20
16. John Albert, C, 19
17. Paul Postma, D, 19
18. Jesse Martin, C, 19
19. Jordan LaVallee, W, 22
20. Danick Paquette, RW, 18

1. Zach Bogosian, D

1st round, 3rd overall, 2008
Jul 15, 1990, 6’2, 197

Bogosian is a two-way defender with good all-around skill, the most complete defenseman available in this summer’s draft.  He has speed and toughness, is a smooth skater and will carry the puck.  Bogosian is physically mature enough to play in the NHL, blowing everyone away at the NHL Combine in June during physical testing, with he and Colin Wilson being the talk of the event.

A right defenseman, Bogosian possesses the coveted right-hand shot. He led Peterborough in scoring in 2007-08 with 61 points in just 60 games, the fourth-best among blueliners in the OHL. As one of the youngest members of the 2008 draft class, he could be even better than he’s being given credit for. He was invited to U-20 evaluation camp this year, and will be on that team if he doesn’t stick in the NHL.

Bogosian will be given every chance of making the Thrashers roster in the fall. If he isn’t quite ready — and the Thrashers get nine games to decide that — then he must return to Peterborough.

Right now though the Thrashers need his rookie bonuses to get them to the salary cap floor, so right now that overrides other considerations.  If a trade is made that brings the team over the cap floor without Bogosian, then they can think about whether they want to conserve a year of his free agency. 

2. Ondrej Pavelec, G, 21

2nd round, 41st overall, 2005

If wins are the measure of success, it would be hard to argue with what Pavelec accomplished last year, going 33-16-3 and backstopping the AHL Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup. 

The top goaltender in the QMJHL for two years running before turning pro, Pavelec did exactly what was expected of him as a rookie with the Wolves — take the starting reins and be the workhorse.  Overall he posted a 2.77 GAA and .911 save percentage in the regular season, which ranked 24th and 18th in the league respectively.

Pavelec was called up to Atlanta as the season got underway due to a Kari Lehtonen groin injury. The Czech played well during his time in Atlanta, especially for a 20-year-old, posting a .905 save percentage in seven games. This time in the NHL took him temporarily out of his groove of playing a lot of minutes, but overall was good for his confidence. A reaction goaltender, his progress is tougher to measure, but with issues like his weight behind him, it’s about staying confident and happy.

Pavelec projects as a starting goaltender, which inevitably puts him in competition with Lehtonen.  For right now, another year in Chicago will do him a lot of good. There the just turned 21-year-old can even out his inconsistencies, mature as a person, and prepare mentally for graduation to the NHL.

3. Bryan Little, C, 20

1st round, 12th overall, 2006

Little played a majority of the year in Atlanta, but was sent down to the AHL mid-year. Called back up when Marian Hossa was traded to Pittsburgh, Little remained on the roster for the rest of the season and finished with 16 points in 48 games.  In Chicago, Little centered the second line and posted moderate numbers — 25 points in 34 games, and 13 points in 24 playoff games.

The 5’11, 190-pounder can play wing, but is a natural center and embraces the defensive responsibility that goes along with it.  Indeed, his defense is unusually strong for a scoring prospect. He’ll probably never be a huge scorer, so while he has the upside to be a No. 1 center in the NHL, he’s more likely a No. 2.  Without question he will be full time with the Thrashers this year and beyond.

4. Riley Holzapfel, C, 20

2nd round, 43rd overall, 2006

Holzapfel needs a bounceback season this year as a rookie pro after an injury-plagued 2007-08. A concussion gave Holzapfel a slow start to last season with Moose Jaw, and he also sustained a two-week abdominal strain.  He finished with just 43 points in 49 games, after a high of 82 playing a full schedule the year before.  He was selected for Team Canada in the 2008 WJC, and played on the fourth line. 

At 5’11 with decent speed and good hands, Holzapfel has probably second line potential. He’s one of those mature, dependable guys you don’t have to worry about too much.

Holzapfel is destined for the Chicago Wolves this year, and should me a decent contribution. 

5. Spencer Machacek, RW, 19

3rd round, 67th overall, 2007

A hard-working, determined player, Machacek scored more than expected last year for the Vancouver Giants, ending up 14th in points in the WHL with 78 in 70 games. 

Of average size at 6’1, 195, Machacek is gritty and goes to the net hard. He has the work ethic required of a third liner with the outside chance that he could emerge as a second liner.  A former captain, he’s the type of player coaches want on their teams. 

Machacek will spend next season with Chicago.  He’ll be 20 in October.

6. Andrei Zubarev, D, 21

6th round, 187th overall, 2005

Zubarev was a top young defenseman in the Russian Super League last year, but found 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.  He finished with just seven points in 39 games.  An important question is whether he’s getting enough ice time with his team to promote good development.

Zubarev remains a bit of a wildcard until he moves to North American ice and it’s seen how his game translates. Due to the lack of IIHF agreement with Russia, the Thrashers continue to hold onto Zubarev’s NHL rights indefinitely.  Zubarev’s English is good, and he expresses a desire to come to North America. Whether he eventually does though is open question.

7. Boris Valabik, D, 22

1st round, 10th overall, 2004

After two years in the AHL, Valabik made his NHL debut at the end of last year.  While mobility was the question mark going in, he kept up with the play and by the end acquitted himself well.

Valabik might have made his debut sooner if not for adversity the past few years.  As a rookie pro he had problems with his ankle, and this past year he was out for a period due to an enlarged spleen.  So instead of getting ahead, he was playing catch-up. When he finally reached the NHL, his stint did wonders to boost his confidence. 

The Slovakian has a very North American approach to the game and excellent command of English.  The 6’7 blueliner brings a physical presence and is a fearsome fighter.  He’s a defensive defenseman who will play on the lower pairings and penalty kill.  He has very little offensive upside, with just eight points in 58 games this year, but his +21 was second on the team, not easy for a player who scores so little.  Last year in his seven NHL games, he had no points and 42 penalty minutes, which was true to form for him.

GM Don Waddell said at the end of last season that Valabik needs to come to training camp with the attitude that a spot on the roster is his to lose. Valabik said he planned to do that, and given the rest of the depth chart, he’s clearly got an inside track. Knowing he has every opportunity to make the team, it’s just up to him to seize it.

8. Angelo Esposito, C, 19

1st round, 20th overall, 2007 by Pittsburgh

Esposito has the skill to be a star in the NHL, but whether he will ever reach his potential is the question. After a spectacular rookie year in junior (2005-06) playing with great linemates, his point totals have fallen each year.  Last season he had just 69 points in 56 games for the Quebec Remparts. Likewise, Esposito was part of the Canadian U18 national teams, but not the U20 teams — either cut from the team or this year not invited to camp. 

He is natural center, but played much of this year on the wing until traded to the Thrashers by Pittsburgh. With decent height at 6’0, Esposito does need to fill out quite a bit to be stronger on the puck. 

Esposito will remain in junior in 2008-09, playing for a new team, the Montreal Juniors, located in his hometown.  There, he’ll need to play consistently and be a good teammate.

9. Daultan Leveille, C, 18

1st round, 29th overall, 2008
Aug. 10, 1990, 5’11, 163

Leveille was said to be one of the fastest skaters available in the 2008 draft, but was taken out of a junior B league, two levels below major junior. The league he comes from makes him more of a wild card, meaning that he’s untested, and so does his age.  He is very young for his draft class, born on Aug. 10, 1990 a month before the cutoff.

Skill-wise, his stats show he’s more of a goal-scorer, but is a good playmaker too. Leveille is thin, listed at just 163 pounds, and has never had to play physically because he could dart away from any hits in junior B.  At college this fall with Michigan State, with players who can keep up with him better, how he reacts to physical play will be important. He will not be able to rely on just raw speed to beat opponents.

Against the low level of competition last year, one would have expected Leveille to rack up a lot of points, but in the regular season, had just 29 goals and 27 assists in 45 games.  In the playoffs, when there were lots of NHL scouts watching, he scored 30 points in 16 games and was team MVP.

As the player taken with the first round pick gained from Pittsburgh in the Marian Hossa deal, we’ll get a good indication fairly soon of whether or not the Thrashers turned the pick into a good return.

10. Brett Sterling, LW, 24

5th round, 145th overall, 2003

A 5’7 sniper, Sterling made the Thrashers roster out of camp last fall 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 — it’s the only place he’s effective. He was sent back to Chicago after 10 games and was only called back up when there was an opening on left wing (three games).

Working on rounding out his game, Sterling played a bit on the PK this year.  He finished +7, which was fairly average on the team.  He tied for second in the league with 38 goals, despite missing a dozen games while he was called up to the NHL. The year before he led the league with 55.  What he can do at the AHL level is no longer very relevant though.

With only three NHL points in 13 games, questions remain — and in fact are increasing — whether Sterling can transfer his game to the NHL level.  If he sticks, he’ll likely be a second liner.  Now 24 years old, he must produce during exhibition season to get another look. 

11. Arturs Kulda, D, 20

7th round, 200th overall, 2006

Kulda played so much with the Wolves during the playoffs last year that it seems like he’s a second-year pro. But the Latvian played most of last year in the OHL with Peterborough.

Injured to start year, Kulda went on to almost triple his output from last year with Peterborough, in fewer games.  He finished with 34 points in 55 games. Part of his increase could have been playing with Bogosian, his defensive partner for much of the year.

Kulda has a heavy shot from the point which is valuable on the power play. He’s a very willing hitter and makes a good outlet pass.  But he’s not perfect — he makes mistakes in coverage and can get a little messy with the puck. He also needs to work on the speed of the pro game. 

Good sized at 6’2 and serious about improving, Kulda just turned 20 at the end of July. He’s certain to spend the year in Chicago, probably with top-four minutes.

12. 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 for the Wolves, but had a good second half.  In 43 games, he had 16 points and was +16.

Injuries limited his games played. Around Christmas, he suffered two concussions close together, from hits that caught him off guard. Late in the season he suffered an injury to the arch of his foot. 

Skating and Skills coach Kenny McCudden said of Lewis,“He’s gifted offensively.  On the defensive side, we’re constantly working with him, with keeping his stick on the ice and not up in the air – those are things that you thought would be taught years and years ago but they’re just habits that maybe haven’t been corrected.”

One place Lewis did well was on the power play.  “He’s trusted by the coaching staff to move the puck, jump into the play as that fourth forward terrifically," McCudden said.  "And he’s very good at getting back – he’s quick. But I think he has to come in stronger and bigger.”
The 6’3 Lewis is indeed working very hard on the stronger and bigger part this summer.  He says he’s almost sick at meals from eating past the point of being full in an effort to put weight on. 

Slated to be back with the Wolves this year, playing time is still the thing Lewis needs the most.  With that will come experience and confidence.

13. Alex Kangas, G, 21

5th round, 135th overall, 2006

Kangas took over the No. 1 job at Univ. of Minnesota as a 20-year-old freshman.  He finished the season ranked seventh nationally with a .930 save percentage and sixth in GAA with 1.98.  But he didn’t win a lot of games because he doesn’t receive a lot of goal support.

Kangas improved his conditioning since arriving on campus and finished the season very strongly. He will remain the go-to guy in net for Minnesota, especially with Jeff Frazee turning pro a year early.

Kangas is a long-term investment for the Thrashers and won’t be part of the mix for years to come.

14. Vinny Saponari, RW

4th round, 94th overall, 2008
Feb. 15, 1990, 6’0, 179

Saponari is a skilled player whose best asset is his puckhandling.  He can do things at high speed, and protect the puck well.  The winger had 33 points in 49 games for the US National Team Development Program last year. In the U-18 tournament, the highlight of the USNTDP schedule, he scored three points in seven games.  After a good tryout camp, he may be part of the US WJC team this year.

Saponari is a local product from Powder Springs, a northwest suburb of Atlanta. He moves on to Boston University this fall, where his brother Victor also plays.

15. Jonas Enlund, C, 20

6th round, 165th overall, 2006

Enlund was a pleasant offensive surprise this year in the Finnish League, finishing tied for 20th in the league in scoring, the youngest player on the leaderboard.  He excels near the net, with deft hands. But his 41 points in 56 games were accomplished playing alongside 20-year-old Jori Lehtera (who tied for 17th), taken in the third round in the 2008 draft by St. Louis.  Many scouts believe that Enlund benefited from this excellent linemate. 

Regardless, Enlund is good both ways — fourth on his team in scoring as well as Tappara’s top penalty killer.  So even if his scoring doesn’t hold up, he may be able to fit in elsewhere.

Drafted under the new CBA, the Thrashers would have had to sign Enlund by this past June if it weren’t for the lack of IIHF agreement.  He now has two years remaining on his contract with Tappara.  His poor English skills give reason to wonder if he’ll choose to come over to North America when that contract is over.

16. John Albert, C, 19

6th round, 175th overall, 2007

Albert quietly put together a quality freshman season playing on Ohio State’s top line.  His numbers weren’t that impressive, with 21 points in 41 games, but OSU was a struggling team and Albert was a true freshman at 18.  Albert led the team in assists and finished third in scoring, seeing time on both special teams.  The 5’11 center has good speed and an underrated and underutilized shot.

Albert attended US national team camp this August, but is not a favorite to make the WJC team this year. Albert projects as a top-six forward, but he’s a long way off with three more years of college eligibility.

17. Paul Postma, D, 19

7th round, 205th overall, 2007

Postma is a very good skater, especially for someone of his height at 6’3. He can also score, putting up 42 points in 66 games for the Calgary Hitmen last year. Traded there two games into the season, he was given more opportunity and it was a breakout year for him offensively.

For all of these good qualities, Postma is still very raw. If he can improve his defense and puckhandling and put on much-needed weight, the sky’s the limit for him. His good attitude will help him along the way.

Postma will remain in with the Hitmen in 2008-09.  He should see even more ice time given the recent trade demand by 19-year-old Alex Plante (EDM).

18. Jesse Martin, C, 19

7th round, 195th overall, 2006

As a freshman at Denver, Martin carved out a niche for himself quickly, playing on the second line and getting good ice time.  The 5’11, 118-pounder posted 15 points in 41 games.

Martin was invited to attend Thrashers prospect camp the last two years, but Denver told him there was no point in going unless he’d make the team.  Instead, they told him to stay in Denver and work out with his teammates at DU. That’s what he did, keeping his full attention devoted to college hockey right now.

Martin needs to work on skating and projects as a checker.  He’ll remain at Denver for the foreseeable future.  Martin turns 20 next week.

19. Jordan LaVallee, W, 22

4th round, 113th overall, 2005

A good sized winger who will use his body, LaVallee will likely be a fourth-liner at the NHL level.  He will need to embrace this role of course, as in junior he was looked at to score. 

LaVallee had 42 points in 76 games last year, his second in the AHL, but was only even on a very plus team. Given his future role, it’s not the points that matter for him.

McCudden addressed this point: “We all know he takes the puck to the net very well, finishes his checks. When Jordan’s not playing his game, he doesn’t do those little things.  And those little things are big things for Jordan.”

LaVallee was given a tryout with the NHL club for two games at the end of the season to see where he was at. McCudden described what Atlanta would like to see improved.  “Puck movement, being able to see the ice better. Skating away from the puck – stops and starts.  Constant drive, constant motion. Where I want to work with Jordan is when he’s tired, on the latter half of a shift. It’s unbelievably important, especially in backchecking.”

Right now LaVallee’s defense is not at a level needed for a checking line, which leaves very little possibility of sticking with Atlanta out of training camp.  If he can work on these things during the course of the year though, he should see more time throughout the year.

20. Danick Paquette, RW, 18

3rd round 64th overall, 2008
Jul 17, 1990, 6’0, 210

Paquette is an intense sandpaper type of player, with theatrical antics.  Not an enforcer, he will, however, fight to back up his hits if necessary. Paquette more than doubled his point totals in the Q last year, ending with 29 goals and 13 assists in 63 games. He also had 213 penalty minutes and was suspended several times last year for questionable hits. 
He scores by driving the net, but his passing needs work. The biggest knock on Paquette is his skating, with foot speed an issue, which may be a consequence of his conditioning.  At 210 lbs, he’s actually lost weight from a previous high as he improved his conditioning.

Paquette will return to Lewiston this season. He must improve his skating by a good bit in order to sniff the NHL.

Missing the Cut

Rylan Kaip, C
9th round, 269th overall, 2003

Kaip is a heart and soul player with strong hockey sense and work ethic.  He never put up big numbers for North Dakota (just 15 points in 42 games last year), but is a penalty killer extraordinaire and a physical presence.  Though fighting in college hockey is not allowed, Kaip was one of the most likely to get into scraps on the team.

It’s very unusual for low point producers to turn into NHLers, as they must play an error-free defensive game to make up for a lack of offense. But the 24-year-old former captain already plays a pro-style game and should be able to step right for the Chicago Wolves.

Nathan Oystrick, D, 25
7th round, 198th overall, 2002

Oystrick had a good rookie year in the AHL in 2006-07 with offensive accolades, but didn’t follow up on it as many hoped.  The 5’11 blueliner does have offensive talent, but struggles at times defensively and worse, his commitment level has been questioned. This year his production went down a bit and in the playoffs, he was the second leading defenseman in scoring, but had the worst plus/minus on the team at -5.

A poor showing at Thrashers training camp nixed his chances of a call-up last year, and it would take a run of injuries to get him up to the Thrashers this year. Essentially he has become a depth player in the organization, with an outside chance of playing some NHL games. Turning 26 in December, Oystrick’s window of opportunity has nearly closed. 

Tony Piscotta and Guy Flaming contributed to this article.