Thrashers Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Matt Eichenblatt

The Atlanta Thrashers top 20 this spring remains largely the same at the top as it did in the fall. After the top five, the list begins to take a new look. With the addition of Eric O’Dell and Anssi Salmela via trades and the emergence of several prospects, such as Zach Redmond and Joey Crabb, the list continues to be dominated by upstart blue liners who all have seen or will soon see the NHL very soon.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Zach Bogosian, D
2. Ondrej Pavelec, G
3. Riley Holzapfel, C
4. Spencer Machacek, RW
5. Boris Valabik, D
6. Eric O’Dell, C
7. Daultan Leveille, C
8. Vinny Saponari,RW
9. Andrei Zubarev, D
10. Angelo Esposito, C
11. Brett Sterling, LW
12. Arturs Kulda, D
13. Grant Lewis, D
14. John Albert, C
15. Alex Kangas, G
16. Jonas Enlund, C
17. Anssi Salmela, D
18. Zach Redmond, D
19. Paul Postma, D
20. Joey Crabb, RW

1.  Zach Bogosian, D 8.0B
Drafted: 1st Round, 3rd Overall, 2008

Bogosian had a very rough start to his rookie season in the NHL, as problems adapting to the speed of the game and a broken leg hampered his progress early on. But ever since his return from his injury, he has begun to come around and make the strides the organization expected from him when they drafted him. With the departure of veterans Mathieu Schneider and Niclas Havelid over the course of the year, Bogosian has started taking more of a prominent role on the team, and has been rather impressive as of late. In 41 games this year, he has six goals and eight assists, and has steadily improved his playing time. He has a steady work ethic, and a passion to prove himself on the top level. All signs point to him living up to his billing as a potential franchise blue liner.

2. Ondrej Pavelec, G 8.0C

Drafted: 2nd Round, 41st Overall, 2005

Pavelec remained mostly at the AHL level this year to work on his consistency and gain experience. Despite only having played in 11 games this year with the top club, Pavelec is having another productive year with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. He has posted a .913 save percentage and 2.58 GAA, despite the fact he is only at .500 (18-18-2). He continues to show he is fully capable that he is an NHL goaltender, it is just a matter of when the Thrashers decide to call him up, and whether or not he can improve on his initial shaky performances at the NHL level.

3. Riley Holzapfel, C 7.5C
Drafted: 2nd Round, 43rd overall, 2006

Holzapfel is having a normal rookie season for someone fresh out of junior. While no one expected him to be an instant point leader for the Wolves, his total through 73 games of only 13 goals and 19 assists are a bit less than perhaps hoped. Holzapfel has good hockey sense and good skating ability, and a high upside, all of which are major factors in his high ranking. He had a very impressive camp this past summer with the Thrashers, and many remarked about his ability to dish the puck in tight situations. Given a few years to develop, Holzapfel should develop into a player with major playmaking potential.

4. Spencer Machacek, RW 6.5B

Drafted: 3rd Round, 67th overall, 2006

Another prospect in his first year playing at the AHL level, Machacek had a good first year with Wolves, posting 23 goals and 24 assists through 71 games. A lean two-way forward, Machacek is a non-stop player who does many of the little things correctly, and is always one of the most intense players on the ice. One of the biggest assets Machacek has, is he plays up to his maximum ability, which in many cases allows him to out-do other players that may have a more complete skill set than him. After posting 78 points in his last year with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, Machacek had a lot to live up to, and has thus far had a seamless transition to play at the professional level. Most expect Machacek to have another year or two at the AHL level before legitimately competing for a spot on the Thrashers roster, but if he makes significant gains next year and shows at camp that he can handle the speed of the game at the top level, he could be a valuable grinder in the near future.  He was recently called up to the Thrashers and has played two games.

5. Boris Valabik, D 6.0A
Drafted: 1st Round, 10th overall, 2004

Having been picked 10th overall in 2004, Valabik has failed to justify his high selection. Plagued by inconsistency and the inability to stay in the lineup, Valabik is a third-pairing defenseman who can provide depth to an organization. Valabik started the season in Chicago and has played in 45 games this season, posting only five assists along the way. With the progression of Bogosian and several other younger prospects in the system vying for a spot on the team, Valabik will need to step up his game to maintain a spot within the organization.

6.  Eric O’Dell, C 6.5C
Via trade from Anaheim 2009. Originally drafted: 2nd Round, 39th overall, 2008

Recently acquired at the trade deadline, O’Dell is another valuable piece to the Thrashers farm system, as he provides more depth at the center position. This season in the OHL, O’Dell has had another fantastic season, posting 33 goals and 30 assists in 65 games for the Sudbury Wolves. He has fantastic puck-handling skills and almost a sixth sense when it comes to passing, but he will need to work on being a more physical player and add some weight as he continues to progress. In the playoffs he has one assist in three games.

7. Daultan Leveille, C 7.5D

Drafted: 1st Round, 29th overall, 2008

The other first rounder picked in the 2008 draft, Leveille is someone who the Thrashers hope to provide some much needed help up the middle for in the future. A freshman for Michigan State University, Leveille posted nine goals and eight assists through 38 games this year, playing on the third line. A blazing fast skater, he has breakout potential and leads a very quick rush up the ice. While there are several holes in his game still, such as suspect defense and positioning, there will be plenty of time to smooth them over as he continues his collegiate career.

8. Vinny Saponari, RW 7.5D

Drafted: 4th Round, 94th overall, 2008

One of the biggest risers on the list, Saponari is making his home state of Georgia proud in his first year with Boston University at the collegiate level. In 42 games this year, Saponari notched seven goals and nine assists on the third line for Terriers, and has displayed tremendous upside as his playing time increased throughout the season. Playing with other NHL hopefuls like Corey Trivino (NYI) and John McCarthy (SJ) has been a big asset to Saponari as he can progress playing with better than average talent. Saponari cooled off towards the end of the season, as the fatigue of a full college schedule might have caught up to him. Nevertheless, expect big things out of this hometown hero as he continues his rise up the Terriers depth chart.

9. Andrei Zubarev, D 7.0C

Drafted: 6th Round, 187th overall, 2005

Zubarev is a very solid, yet still very raw defensive prospect. Zubarev has had a down season in the KHL this year, posting only four assists in 35 games and playing in a limited role for Mytishchi Atlant this year. But he had a very good playoffs. Touted as a sound defenseman with an offensive upside, Zubarev has failed to display that prowess (even given the fact that no secondary assists are awarded in Russia). His skill set on offense is good, and can be a real asset on the power play, but until he starts to put up better numbers or moves to North America, his NHL future seems to be more distant than once expected. 

10. Angelo Esposito, C 7.5D
Drafted: 1st Round, 20th overall, 2007

At one time, Esposito was considered the premier prospect in the 2007 draft, but ever since, has continued to slide as a prospect. Esposito was traded his hometown Montreal Juniors, posting 24 goals and 18 assists in 35 games.  He was supposed to be the face of the franchise, but it didn’t work out that way. He suffered a couple of injuries this year as well.  A player with a combination of puck-handling, skating and creativity, Esposito at times can do things that are quite remarkable. Still his inability to sustain success and questionable work ethic has prevented him from reaching his high potential. Esposito is still a very promising prospect within the organization, but his maturity is something that needs to be improved if he ever wants to live up to his billing as a potential playmaker at the professional level.

11. Brett Sterling, LW 7.0D
Drafted: 5th Round, 145th overall, 2003

A player that has been on the cusp of playing at the NHL level for several years now, Sterling is a player who now seems to be stuck in the AHL. After several years of posting gaudy numbers for the Wolves, Sterling has had an underwhelming year, playing in only 46 games and recording just 16 goals and 18 assists. Sterling’s small stature (5’7) is something that he might not ever be able to overcome. While he may get the chance to play as a fill-in player for the team in upcoming years, the forecast for his future as a day-to-day NHL player is pretty grim.

12. Arturs Kulda, D 6.5B

Drafted: 7th Round, 200th overall, 2006

A blue line staple for the Wolves this year, Kulda is having a decent years in his first action in the AHL. Though he possesses a heavy shot and can direct a power play fairly well, Kulda is known mostly for his solid work on the defensive end of the ice. At 6’2 and 194 pounds, Kulda uses his body extremely well, and finishes his checks when the opportunity arises. He is usually in good positioning, but his lack of foot speed is something he will need to work on the rest of this season going forward. He has tallied one goal and 11 assists in 51 games this year, but should improve that number in the future as he gets acclimated to the game speed of professional hockey. Kulda is still a long way from being a true contender for a roster spot in the NHL, and will probably remain at the AHL level for the next year or two.

13. Grant Lewis, D 7.0C

Drafted: 2nd Round, 40th overall, 2005

Having a stellar year at the AHL level, Lewis is having a much improved campaign in his second year with the Wolves. He has 22 assists in 54 games, without a single goal, and has been steady in his own zone this year. Though the Wolves defense is not what was during their Calder Cup run last year, Lewis has been one of the brighter spots for the team. He has been streaky at times this season though, and has provided some open opportunities by being caught out of position. Still, Lewis is a player who can provide solid top-two pairing minutes, and can be a physical presence when needed. He recently had a one-game call-up to Atlanta.

14. John Albert, C 7.0C
Drafted: 6th Round, 175th overall, 2006

Albert had a good season for Ohio State this season, having posted 11 goals and a whopping 28 assists on the Buckeyes second line in 42 games. Centering the top line and playing on the power play, Albert has taken advantage of his new-found opportunities. As his statistic totals show, he is a fantastic passer, and can be quite the playmaker in the offensive zone. He has a better than average shot, but what makes him special is ability to be a playmaker and help put his teammates in scoring position. If Albert can continue to progress at this rate, he’ll cement himself as a legitimate center prospect.

15. Alex Kangas, G 7.0C
Drafted: 5th Round, 135th overall, 2006

After having a stellar 2007-08 campaign, Kangas has had a major drop-off in his performance this year. With a save percentage at .901 through 36 games, he struggled mightily to maintain the form he had as a freshman sensation for the Gophers last year. While the team is missing some defensive help from last year, the drop-off that Kangas has had this year is alarming. He still has all of the measurable to perform at a high level, and can still have absolutely dominant games, but they have been a bit too few and far between. Kangas will need to rebound next season to prove that last season was a fluke, or the luster of his freshman campaign will be all but gone.

16. Jonas Enlund, C 6.5C
Drafted: 6th Round, 165th overall, 2006

Enlund is small and skillful with good instincts. He has a good work ethic and is a two-way player. In his third year with Appara Tempere, he had 11 goals and 16 assists in 58 games. He was the fifth leading scorer on his team.

17. Anssi Salmela, D 6.5C
Via trade from New Jersey, 2009

Another pickup for the Thrashers at the trade deadline, Salmela is an offensive-minded defenseman with a real knack for making plays in the offensive zone. In 38 games for the AHL Lowell Devils, Salmela had eight goals and 16 assists. Salmela is an excellent stick handler, and can be a tremendous asset on the power play. He moves the puck up ice, and doesn’t panic in pressure situations. Salmela is rather old as a prospect, but is very mature and seasoned enough to potentially grab a roster spot with the Thrashers as soon as next year.

18. Zach Redmond, D 6.5C

Drafted: 7th Round, 184th overall, 2008

An overager in the 2007 draft, Redmond has been an anchor on the blue line for Ferris State during his sophomore campaign. As the only NHL drafted prospect on the roster, Redmond still put up stellar numbers in the ultra-competitive WCHA with three goals and 21 assists in 38 games this year. Besides his offensive prowess, Redmond got the job done in the defensive zone as well. He is sound along the boards and uses his 6’2 197-pound frame to the best of his abilities. As he enters his junior year next year, Redmond will continue to draw more attention if he can put up offensive numbers similar to the ones he had this past year.

19. Paul Postma, D 6.5C

Drafted: 7th Round, 205th overall, 2007

Postma is having a monster year in the WHL, posting a staggering stat line of 23 goals and 61 assists in 70 games for the Calgary Hitmen —- doubling his point total from 2007-08. But it’s important to keep in mind how offensive potent his team was this year. Almost every player had huge increases in their numbers, so there is a big team effect on the stats. 

The knock on this talented defender his lack of size and physical play. While he stands at 6’3, he only weighs 182 pounds putting him at a distinct disadvantage when trying to nudge others off the puck. He has a good hockey sense and is rarely caught out of position, but until he can gain some weight and start being more physical, he will be unable to capitalize on the rest of his abilities.

20. Joey Crabb, RW 5.5B
Undrafted, 2006

One of the hardest workers you will ever see, Crabb has really caught on in the organization after going unsigned by the NY Rangers. Having spent two full seasons with the Wolves, Crabb finally got the call-up this past year, and has played in 29 games at the NHL level, recording four goals and five assists. On the AHL stage, he has posted 15 goals and 14 assists in 41 games, and has been a leader for the club this year. Crabb is a scrappy player who doesn’t mind getting physical when needed. His future with the organization will most likely be as a fourth-line winger, and he’ll look to grab a full-time roster spot going into next season.