2006 Draft provided depth at center for Atlanta Thrashers

By Kyle West
Photo: Five years after being selected in the seventh round, Arturs Kulda has developed into a solid defensive prospect for the Thrashers.  (Photo courtesy of www.chicagowolves.com)

In an attempt to address an organization need, the Atlanta Thrashers stocked up on skilled centers in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, taking four pivots with their eight picks. Five years later the Thrashers 12th overall selection, playmaker Bryan Little, is a mainstay of the organization, however the rest of the draft class seems unlikely to add to their NHL games played total anytime soon. With the exception of seventh-rounder Arturs Kulda, a stay-at-home defenseman with limited offensive upside, none of the prospects taken in this draft has seen NHL action. Recent injuries to forward Jesse Martin and goalie Alex Kangas have further added to the air of gloom around the Thrashers 2006 entry draft.

Bryan Little, C, Barrie (OHL) – 1st round, 12th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 251

Coming into the draft, Thrashers GM Don Waddell stressed the organizational need for a skilled center and a playmaker to bring some offensive flair to the team. Luckily for him, Barrie Colts game-breaker Bryan Little was still on the board when he stepped to the podium at the 12th overall position. A player the Thrashers admitted was very high on their list, Little slipped through the top ten selection due to the teams picking in front of the Thrashers having different organizational needs, rather than any concerns over Little as a player.

Voted the hardest working player in the OHL East, Little was sixth overall in league scoring with 109 points in 64 games in 2005-06 and stepped up his game in the playoffs with eight goals and 15 assists in 14 playoff games. A crowd favorite in Barrie, Little returned to Colts the following season and scored 107 points in just 57 games before signing a pro contract with Atlanta.

Little’s rookie season in the NHL saw him play 48 games with the Thrashers, scoring six goals and 10 assists, before joining the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for a lengthy playoff run, where he scored eight goals in 24 playoff games and lifted the Calder Cup.

The 2008-09 season was Little’s breakout year in the NHL. Scoring 31 goals in 79 games, Little became the offensive catalyst the team was hoping for since draft day. Showing flashes of the explosive rushes that wowed OHL crowds, Little’s playmaking ability, quick feet, and cannon-like shot made him a key performer.

Having signed a three year deal worth over $7 million in August 2010, Little has adapted well to the new regime of head coach Craig Ramsay. With top Thrashers draft picks Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen now traded away, Bryan Little is one of the new faces of the Thrashers homegrown success.

Riley Holzapfel, C, Moose Jaw (WHL) – 2nd round, 43rd overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The Thrashers continued to address a weakness at center with their second-round pick, this time in selecting Riley Holzapfel. Benefitting from having wingers Troy Brouwer (CHI) and Blair Jones (TB) on his line with the Moose Jaw Warriors, Holzapfel was getting attention at the draft as a playmaker with good size and hockey sense.

Returned to the Warriors for the next two seasons, Holzapfel was the team’s scoring leader in 2006-07, notching 82 points in 72 games. An injury the following year halved his production, but the Thrashers signed him to a pro contract in time for Holzapfel to score eight points in six AHL playoff games with the Chicago Wolves in 2008.

Anticipating a one-two punch of Little and Holzapfel in their future, Thrashers brass were not overly concerned when Holzapfel managed only 32 points in 73 AHL games as a rookie, but they began to look for answers when his production dipped to only 23 points the following year.

Reinvented as a defensive forward who shadows the opposition’s best centers, Holzapfel’s hockey sense is being put to good use. Unfortunately for the hard-working center, his inability to generate offense means he is slipping down the Thrashers depth chart very quickly.

Michael Forney, LW, Thief River Falls (USHSW) – 3rd round, 80th overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Trading down from the 75th position, the Thrashers picked up an additional third round draft pick and nabbed highly rated winger Michael Forney. After earning some consideration for the Mr. Hockey award as Minnesota’s top high schooler and ranking amongst the state’s top scorers with 68 points in just 25 games, the hard shooting senior from Thief River Falls might have expected to go higher in the draft.

A recruit of the University of North Dakota, Forney suffered two shoulder injuries in his freshmen year and never got back on track. He left for the USHL as a 20 year old, scoring freely and showing off the booming shot and quick hands that made him a star in the State of Hockey and then turned pro instead of returning to the NCAA.

Assigned to the ECHL for the better part of the past two seasons, Forney has belatedly started to turn on the offense and was recently named an ECHL All-Star and recalled to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. If Forney continues to work hard on his skating, he may just get in the right position to use that big shot and realize some of his untapped potential.

Alex Kangas, G, Sioux Falls (USHL) – 5th round, 135th overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Gamed Played: 0

Selecting in the fifth round after sitting out the fourth, the Thrashers added depth to their goaltending prospect pool with USHL All-Star Alex Kangas. Undrafted in 2005, the 19-year-old backstopped Sioux Falls to the Clark Cup Finals in 2005-06, although they eventually lost to Kyle Okposo (NYI) and the Des Moines Buccaneers in the final.

Playing another year in the USHL with Indiana and then reporting to the University of Minnesota in 2007, Kangas was a rookie sensation in the
WCHA. After displacing New Jersey Devils prospect Jeff Frazee as the number one midway through the season, Kangas then backstopped the Golden Gophers to the WCHA title and was named MVP of that tournament.

Unable to replicate that first-year success, Kangas has been the lightning rod for a hockey program in decline. As the once-mighty Golden Gophers have continued to falter in recent years, so Kangas has seen his stats steadily erode from the once eye-popping 1.98 goals against average and .930 save percentage that he posted as a freshman.

Having recently suffered a season-ending injury in his final year of college, Kangas can only work patiently through rehab and look towards a pro career. With his calm demeanor and laudable work ethic, Kangas has the intangibles that most good goalies seem to possess and with the right development approach could recapture some of that freshmen form. He will need to be at his best right away however, as the Thrashers depth chart in net is crowded.

Jonas Enlund, C, IFK Jr (Fin Jr) – 6th round, 165th overall
NHL Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Selecting in the sixth round, the Thrashers went overseas for Finnish ace Jonas Enlund in a search for further skill up the middle. Enlund had been one of the best players of his age group and was Finland‘s leading centerman in the year’s U-18 championship.

Enlund left his native IFK and transferred to Tappara after being drafted and became one of that team’s top players during the duration of his four years with that team. Recently moved to the KHL, Enlund has playmaking skill and a sniper’s instinct. He remains an intriguing free-agent possibility, yet if he is to sign with a North American team it seems unlikely he would to want to spend much time in the minor leagues.

Jesse Martin, C, Spruce Grove (AJHL) – 7th round, 195th overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The fourth and final center taken by the Thrashers, Martin’s status as a prospect is up in the air after sustaining three fractures to his C2 verterbrae in a game against North Dakota. An alternate captain and team leader for the University of Denver Pioneers, Martin was being counted on as a key player for one of the top teams in the WCHA. Caught with his head down by Fighting Sioux winger Brad Malone (COL), the impact of the check left him unconscious and temporarily paralyzed.

Since recovered from surgery and able to walk again with the support of a special halo brace, Martin is expecting to return to school and finish his business degree. It seems highly unlikely that he will be able to return to the ice to play competitive hockey in the future, however with advances in the treatment of this type of injury, nothing is being ruled out at this point.

Arturs Kulda, D, CSKA 2 (RPL) – 7th round, 200th overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 4

Having stocked up at center, the Thrashers didn’t start taking defensemen in this draft until the event drew to a close in the seventh round. Credit to their scouting department for finding at least one potential late round gem.

Arturs Kulda, a Latvian playing in Russia for the CSKA Moscow second team, was the Thrashers second pick of the seventh round. A defense-first type with a physical, combative style, Kulda was selected by OHL league champion Peterborough Petes in the CHL Import Draft, for whom he played the next two seasons.

Assigned to the Chicago Wolves of the OHL, Kulda had a breakout year in 2009-10 when he partnered future Hall-of-Famer Chris Chelios on the Wolves blue line and led the AHL in plus/minus rating. Called up to the NHL for four games, Kulda chipped in a pair of assists and acquitted himself well enough to see his name penciled in as a regular with the Thrashers in 2010-11.

Unfortunately, Kulda lost the training-camp battle this fall to free agent signing Freddie Meyer and was reassigned to the Wolves. Without Chelios beside him, his plus/minus has sunk to a minus-seven rating and he has found himself in the penalty box with far greater frequency than previous years. Kulda doesn’t currently have a steady partner to complement his game, but needs to prove that he can thrive in a shut down role regardless of who plays beside him.

Will O’Neill, D, Tabor Academy (USHSE) – 7th round, 210th overall
NHL Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The fourth from the last player taken in the 2006 draft, with a pick acquired from the Dallas Stars, Will O’Neill went on to play two years in the USHL before joining the University of Maine. Now in his junior year, O’Neill is the top-scoring defenseman on the Black Bears, although the program has taken a dip after a strong season last year. As a sophomore, O’Neill scored eight goals and 31 points and impressed at the Thrashers training camp with smart positional play and a strong first-pass.

Ranked 173rd among North American skaters by Central Scouting, O’Neill has worked hard to overcome his faults and has improved his overall game by leaps and bounds. An on-ice leader and vocal presence in the dressing room, O’Neill has also developed the hockey sense needed to control the play from the backline. With the Thrashers’ depth on the backend however, it remains uncertain if he will be signed to a pro contract next year.