Thrashers AHL/ECHL prospects 2009-10 review

By Kyle West

The Chicago Wolves finished atop the West Division of the AHL with 49 wins and 105 points in 2009-10. The Wolves battled past the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Texas Stars in seven games. Bolstered by the veteran presence of Jason Krog and Chris Chelios, they had 12 Atlanta Thrashers prospects. There were a further three active this season with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL.

Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, 6’0, 180 lbs
Acquired via trade with Dallas Stars 2010

A first-round draft pick in 2006, Vishnevskiy has been on the cusp of an NHL spot the past few seasons. Acquired for goaltender Kari Lehtonen just before the Olympic break, he has looked disinterested at times in the AHL. A smooth skater who can quarterback a power play, his inconsistent effort and poor defensive play has held him back from claiming a full-time spot in the show. His stats with the Chicago Wolves were decent enough, with two goals and 10 assists in 28 regular-season games and a further five assists in 12 playoff games. He has played five NHL games with Dallas, chipping in a pair of assists. He should come to camp next year with the objective of winning a place on the Thrashers.

Arturs Kulda, D, 6’2, 210 lbs
Drafted in the seventh round, 200th overall, 2006

The most improved Thrashers prospect, the combative Latvian was paired with future Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and his plus/minus rating of +47 was the best in the AHL. Kulda’s offensive numbers were not bad either, with six goals and 19 assists in 66 games. He made a strong impression in a late-season call up to the Thrashers with two assists in a four-game stint and has earned a shot at a full-time job in the NHL next year. He will compete for a place on the third pairing with next year’s Thrashers and if he continues his strong physical play and assured defending, could be successful.

Spencer Machacek, RW, 6’1, 195 lbs
Drafted in the third round, 67th overall, 2007

A former captain of the Vancouver Giants, Machacek plays a strong north-south game and added a more physical edge to his game this year. Scoring 20 goals and 29 assists in 79 games, Machacek’s more aggressive play resulted in 68 penalty minutes as he rode shotgun with AHL veteran and top scorer Jason Krog. A strong character player with a never-say-die attitude, he picked up his play in the postseason with seven goals and four assists in 13 playoff games, including two in Game 7 against the Stars. A reliable and hard-working winger, he should challenge for a place on Atlanta’s third line next year, perhaps depending on the status of UFA winger Colby Armstrong.

Paul Postma, D, 6’3, 190 lbs
Drafted in the seventh round, 205th overall, 2007
An offensive dynamo in junior, Postma set new offensive records for defensemen in the WHL with 23 goals and 84 points in 70 games. His rookie season in the AHL showed flashes of that offensive brilliance with 15 goals in 63 games, most of them on the power play. His defensive play was patchy, however, and he was troubled by injuries. Limited to just seven playoff games, he chipped in a pair of assists but was a -3. Struggling at times to deal with the size and speed of opponents at the AHL level, Postma will need at least another season to continue his development. He does have excellent offensive instincts and all the tools to run a power play, with a more well-rounded game he could be an NHL player. For a seventh-round pick his upside is outstanding.

Angelo Esposito, C, 6’1, 180 lbs
Acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh in 2008

Once labeled as a “can’t miss” prospect at the age of 16, Esposito faced yet more adversity in 2009-10. For the second consecutive year, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. A first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Esposito came over to the Atlanta organization in the Marian Hossa trade and began his pro career this year with Chicago. With four assists in 12 games his stats were underwhelming prior to his injury. For a player who was famously cut from the Canadian World Junior team three years in a row before making the squad and playing a starring role in a gold-medal win two years ago, overcoming adversity is something he has become accustomed to. He will need all his resolve to bounce back with a strong season next year. 

Riley Holzapfel, C, 6’0, 185 lbs
Drafted in the second round, 43rd overall, 2006

Assigned to the role of a checking center this season, Holzapfel’s offensive production regressed, totaling just seven goals and 23 points in 60 games, down from 13 goals and 32 points in 73 games in his rookie season. A 39-goal scorer in junior, he has the offensive talent and instincts to score more often regardless of his role. A tireless competitor and hard worker, he will have to continue to add strength to his frame and find a way to produce offensively if he is to continue his progression. Perhaps a switch to the wing may clear a path to an NHL spot.

Grant Lewis, D, 6’3, 195 lbs
Drafted in the 2nd round, 40th overall, 2004

Drafted as a puckmover with size, Lewis was derailed by season-ending knee injury last March. He managed only 26 games in 2009-10 for the Wolves managing just a goal and two assists. Loaned out to the Hershey Bears, he played in 10 games and assisted on three goals, but is now watching the Hershey playoff run from the press box. Lewis has to be able to produce offensively to be considered a legitimate prospect, as his defensive play is not strong enough for the NHL.

Michael Vernace, D, 6’2, 200 lbs
Signed as a free agent in 2009

After a quietly solid season with Chicago, Vernace was loaned out to the Hamilton Bulldgos and is seeing regular ice time in their playoff run. A solid two-way defenseman at the AHL level, Vernace has yet to show the offensive skills that made him a point-per-game player in the OHL. Now in his third organization he has shown nothing to suggest he will be anything more than a career AHL player.

Andrew Kozek, RW, 5’11, 185 lbs
Drafted in the 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2005

Kozek completed his first pro season with the Wolves but failed to make much of an impact. Just 12 goals in 69 games was a poor return for a player drafted to be a point producer. Kozek has a big shot but his skating is still sub-par and his weak physical play will limit his ability to get himself into scoring positions. 

Rylan Kaip, C, 6’0 190 lbs
Drafted in the 9th round, 269th overall, 2003

A late-round pick from the Notre Dame Hounds, Kaip has a role as a fourth-line checker and penalty killer. His top scoring year with the University of North Dakota was as a senior when he managed eight. Kaip scored once in his rookie year with Chicago and added four in 68 games in 2009-10.

Peter Mannino, G, 6’0, 195 lbs
Signed as a free agent in 2009

A former University of Denver standout, Mannino played three NHL games with the New York Islanders in 2009 as part of their goalie carousel. He had decent numbers with Chicago this year during the regular season, but his stats dipped in the playoffs. In 35 regular-season games, he had a 2.34 GAA and a .921 save percentage but in the playoffs posted a 3.12 GAA and a save percentage of .889.

Scott Lehman, D, 6’1, 200 lbs
Drafted in the 3rd round, 76th overall, 2004

Lehman he managed just 11 games this season due to a shoulder injury, but had a big climb to get off the scratch list in any case. He’s at the end of his entry-level contract and will not likely be retained.

Chad Denny, D, 6’3, 227 lbs
Drafted in the 2nd round, 49th overall, 2005

Denny played full time with the Gwinnett Gladiators this season after playing over 50 games with Chicago in the two seasons prior. An impact player in junior, Denny has been regressing since turning pro three years ago. With low hockey sense, it’s hard to imagine a long career for him.

Michael Forney, LW, 6’2, 185 lbs
Drafted in the 3rd round, 80th overall, 2006

Forney played 63 games with the Gladiators and scored 11 goals. This was his first pro season after scoring 60 points in 59 games in the USHL. A former Mr. Hockey finalist, Forney has talent but will need a big season next year to avoid slipping off the radar.

Matt Siddall, RW, 6’1, 205 lbs
Drafted in the 9th round, 270th overall, 2004

Siddall scored 14 goals in 31 games with the Gladiators to start the season but was then reassigned to Victoria to finish the season. A big physical winger, Siddall was always at the bottom of the Thrashers depth chart.