Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

The Thrashers added to what was already a strength of its farm system, defense, at the 2004 Entry Draft in Raleigh, selecting Boris Valabik, Grant Lewis and Scott Lehman with their first three picks. Defensemen make up a full one half the latest Thrashers Top 20 list.

Quick glance at the Top 20

1. Kari Lehtonen, G – 20 – Chicago/Atlanta
2. Braydon Coburn, D – 19 – Portland
3. Boris Valabik, D – 18 – Kitchener
4. Jim Slater, C – 21 – Michigan State
5. Jim Sharrow, D – 19 – Halifax
6. Grant Lewis, D – 19 – Dartmouth
7. Karl Stewart, LW – 21 – Chicago
8. Michael Garnett, G – 21 – Gwinnett/Chicago
9. Ilja Nikulin, D – 22 – Dynamo Moscow
10. Colin Stuart, LW – 22 – Colorado College
11. Mike Vannelli, D – 20 – University of Minnesota
12. Derek MacKenzie, C – 23 – Chicago/Atlanta
13. Libor Ustrnul, D – 22 – Chicago
14. Nathan Oystrick, D – 21 – Northern Michigan
15. Brad Schell, C – 19 – Spokane
16. Patrick Dwyer, RW – 21 – Western Michigan
17. Jeff Dwyer, D – 23 – Yale/Chicago
18. Adam Berkhoel, G – 23 – Denver University
19. Paul Flache, D – 22 – Gwinnett/Chicago
20. Stephen Baby, RW – 24 – Chicago

The top 20 ranking is based on long-term impact on the hockey club and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Factors that help determine the order to varying degrees include: recent on-ice performance, age, offensive production, honors received, adjustment to North American hockey, and comments by coaches, scouts and management.

1. Kari Lehtonen, G (1st round, 2nd overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 20, Franchise goaltender

Not only is Lehtonen the top prospect in the Thrashers organization, but he is widely considered to be the best prospect in the entire league. The young Finn quickly adjusted to the smaller ice surface and increased net traffic and had a solid rookie season with the AHL Chicago Wolves. In the regular season he posted 20 wins, a 2.41 goals against average, a .926 save percentage, and three shutouts with the Wolves. He was named the starting goaltender for the PlanetUSA All-Star team, however, he did not play in the game due to injury.

Lehtonen made his NHL debut on March 19 in Atlanta against Florida. In four games with the Thrashers he was 4-0-0 with a 1.26 goals against average and a .953 save percentage.

Lehtonen was the only prospect with NHL experience who attended this summer’s development camp, working on getting into proper shape to play a full season of North American hockey. Known for his size, quickness and calm play, he’ll be on the Thrashers roster next season, if it is played, Chicago if it is not.

2. Braydon Coburn, D (1st round, 8th overall, 2003 Entry Draft) Age 19, Two-way defenseman

Coburn has progressed well since last summer when he was drafted eighth overall and is considered one of the top 10 prospects for the NHL.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell said of Coburn in a June interview with Hockey’s Future, “He’s the smartest player in the Western League as I’ve seen play in my five years. Will he have to play a little meaner here? There’s no doubt. I think he’s capable of that too. I think his progress was very good this year. That would be not just my opinion, but the opinion of the scouts. In fact, the other thing, when you’re trying to trade for other players, everyone always wanted him. He was the one everyone always wanted.”

The best skater at Thrashers Prospect Development camp, Coburn is obviously ready to play in the NHL. He is expected to be signed in the coming months, but will remain with Portland if the NHL labor situation is not resolved.

3. Boris Valabik, D (1st round, 10th overall, 2004 Entry Draft) Age 18, Defensive defenseman

Valabik, selected 10th overall this summer in Raleigh, debuts at No. 3 on the Thrashers Top 20 prospects list.

Waddell said of Valabik at the draft, “He’s a great kid. I give him a lot of credit coming over here to North America as a Slovak player, not speaking English. He’s a real high character player. He brings so much to the table with his size and reach. He might be OK in another two years to play for the team. The guy (the scouts) compare him to is (Zdeno) Chara at his age, and they think he’s further ahead with skating.”

While the 6’7 defender has many things to work on to round out his game, his potential is very high. He will return to Kitchener in 2004-05.

4. Jim Slater, C (1st round, 30th overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 21, Two-way center

The Michigan State junior had a very solid year, one of ten candidates for the prestigious Hobey Baker award, given to college hockey’s best player. Slater led MSU and ranked fifth in the nation in scoring with 48 points in the 2003-04 regular season. He was named a First Team All-Star in the CCHA this season.

Slater will stay at Michigan State and play his senior year again as captain in 2004-05.

5. Jim Sharrow, D (4th round, 110th overall, 2003 Entry Draft) Age 19, Offensive defenseman

Sharrow continues to move up the Top 20 list as he improves. With 38 points in 52 games in the QMJHL this season, he played both defense and forward. His –22 tells the story of what he needs to work on, though it should be noted that Halifax was not a strong team.

GM Don Waddell said of Sharrow in June, “He’s been a heck of a player. I saw him a couple times this year, his progress is really good.”

Sharrow has been invited to the USA U20 team evaluation camp this August. He will return to Halifax for the 2004-05 season.

6. Grant Lewis, D (2nd round, 40th overall, 2004 Entry Draft) Age 19, Offensive defenseman

Grant Lewis made a meteoric rise into Division I hockey and onto the radar of scouts. Picked 40th overall in the 2004 draft, he debuts on the Top 20 list at No. 6. Lewis had 25 points in 29 games from the backline at Dartmouth in 2003-04 as a freshman.

Waddell said of Lewis at the draft, “Grant Lewis had a good freshman year. We like his program there, we like what the coach does there with the players. They’ve had other first round picks there, other pretty good players there. He has great hockey sense, good individual skill.”

Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet told Hockey’s Future, “(Lewis) is an offensive defenseman but he’s a solid defensive player as well. He was a kid that when he came in, we felt that he had real good abilities, but we were actually pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he developed. Just the feel for the game I think is probably his biggest asset. He’s a good skater with excellent lateral movement. He sees the ice tremendously well. He’s got real good hockey sense. He shows a lot of patience not only with the puck but defensively as well.”

Lewis was invited to the USA U20 team evaluation camp in Grand Forks along with Sharrow. He will return to Dartmouth for his sophomore year in the fall.

7. Karl Stewart, LW (Signed as a free agent, 2001) Age 21, Checking winger

Displaying a unique blend of offensive ability, defensive responsibility, and physical play, Stewart finished among the top five league rookies in three key statistical categories: assists (32), plus/minus (24), and penalty minutes (186). Spending most of the season on the defensive checking line, Stewart recorded a plus or even rating in 61 of his 72 AHL games.

Stewart is hardworking and creates breakaways with his speed, but doesn’t always cash in. His edginess could get him called for more penalties than he does.

Wolves coach John Anderson said of Stewart in March, “(He’s) one year away, he’s just got to get rid of a few of his bad habits from junior. He’s got to learn how to score a little more because he creates so much. Once he gets started boy, he could score 20-25 goals in the National Hockey League. He’s very effective. He drives people crazy. I think he has a good chance of playing in the National Hockey League.”

The 5’10 left winger spent five games with Atlanta last season, playing on the fourth line and earning one assist. Stewart has some work to do in the AHL before advancing. He’ll likely split time between the Wolves and Thrashers if the NHL season is played, Chicago full time if it is not.

8. Michael Garnett, G (3rd round, 80th overall, 2001 Entry Draft) Age 21

Garnett spent half of the 2003-04 season with the Thrashers new ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators, putting up great numbers (21-10-2, 2.14 GAA and a .926 save percentage) and earning an invitation to the ECHL All-Star Game. He was called up to the AHL in January due to injuries, and did well there too, was 7-3-2 with a 2.63 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. He returned to Gwinnett in April and backstopped the Gladiators to the ECHL Western Conference Finals.

Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said of Garnett in May, “Great kid, character guy on and off the ice. Never shies away from a challenge. And because of that, we had the opportunity to go as far as we did. He’s got a great future if he applies himself.”

The Thrashers will likely still pick up a veteran to play in Chicago beside either Lehtonen or Garnett, depending on the CBA situation. Garnett will start in either Chicago or Gwinnett.

9. Ilja Nikulin, D (2nd round, 31st overall, 2000 Entry Draft) Age 22, Defensive defenseman

Nikulin continues to play and play well in the Russian Super League. The only question is when and if he will sign a contract to come to North America. At age 22, the window of opportunity closes a little bit more each year.

Thrashers European scout Bernd Freimüller said of Nikulin in June, “Since we drafted him, he has played I would say 95 percent of the games with the senior team. Dynamo Moscow is one of the best teams and one of the richest teams. (He) played very well and beat out some older players for a spot in the lineup. It’s a good thing that he plays there, we’re happy that he plays there. But at some point he has to come over. (It’s) a little problem that they curtail his offensive abilities, they don’t want him to join the attack. He draws penalties and things like that. His physical game, which is very good, they don’t like it so much. He will be very good on the small ice.”

GM Don Waddell talked about his contract situation in June. “We’d like to bring him over. He’s a comfortable kid in Russia. Doesn’t speak a lot of English. I talked to him when I was over there at the beginning of the year. Some of these kids take longer. We’ll keep him on our reserve list and we’ll try to sign him, but if he doesn’t, well… We think he could play in the NHL, but you have a different country you’re dealing with and he’s pretty comfortable there. Maybe in another year, you just don’t know. Maybe he’ll never decide to come over.”

Nikulin will likely remain in Russia for the 2004-05 season.

10. Colin Stuart, LW (5th round, 135th overall, 2001 Entry Draft) Age 22, Checking winger

Stuart had 22 points in 30 games this season at Colorado College in his senior year as captain. He was signed to a contract by the Thrashers this summer.

Waddell said of Stuart in June, “If he plays this year in Chicago, I’d look for his development in a couple years and then he’s going to be a third line NHL player. Great speed, great hockey sense. But his upside is a third line player, that’s what he’s going to be.”

Stuart looked very good at the prospects camp and could challenge for a spot on the team if there’s a training camp to do it in. Otherwise he’ll spend his rookie season in Chicago.

11. Mike Vannelli, D (4th round, 136th overall, 2003 Entry Draft) Age 20, Two-way defenseman

Vannelli had 11 points as a freshman with the University of Minnesota. He saw his ice time increase first due to injuries in February, but continued earn more due to marked improvement in his play, particularly on the offensive side. He played in 27 of Minnesota’s 44 games this season.

Vannelli had a very good prospect camp this summer, the first he attended, showing good skill both offensively and defensively. The 6’2 defender will return to Minnesota for his sophomore year in 2004-05 where he should get the opportunity to quarterback the power play.

12. Derek MacKenzie, C (6th choice, 128th overall, 1999 Entry Draft) Age 23, Checking center

MacKenzie played well as the Wolves third-line center, top penalty killer, and key faceoff man in 2003-04. The Ontario born center enjoyed a breakout season offensively. He notched career-highs with 19 goals and 35 points in 63 AHL games this season. MacKenzie’s strong play was rewarded with three separate call-ups to Atlanta. Playing in 12 games, his first real test at that level, MacKenzie registered one assist and 10 penalty minutes.

MacKenzie continued his strong play in the AHL postseason. He led the team in goals (7) and registered a hat trick in Game 4 of the West Division Semifinal against Grand Rapids.
Coach Anderson said of MacKenzie in March, “Over the last three years he’s really matured as a pro. He’s one of those kids who is really easy to teach because he does listen.”

At 23 years old, it’s time for MacKenzie to make the big club if he’s going to do it. He would have to clear waivers to play in Chicago this year, but the Thrashers are unlikely to take that chance, so he’s likely to be sitting along with other NHL players if there is a lockout.

13. Libor Ustrnul, D (2nd round, 42nd overall, 2000 Entry Draft) Age 22, Defensive defenseman

Ustrnul made modest improvements in his second full professional season. The 22-year-old stay at home defenseman matched his career high in points this season with 2 (1 goal, 1 assist). When Ustrnul was in the lineup, he provided some physical play and steady defense. His brief career has been plagued by injury and this season was no different. Overall, the Czech Republic native missed 28 games due to injury this season, including 19 with a concussion.
Coach Anderson said of Ustrnul in March, “Libor’s been hurt off and on throughout the year. Big strong guy, works really hard. Needs to work on his puck control and puck handing, but gives you 100 percent every night.”

Ustrnul will return to the Chicago Wolves in 2004-05 and will be looking to get more ice time and earn his next contract.

14. Nathan Oystrick, D (7th round, 198th overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 21, Two-way defenseman

Oystrick had a breakout year with Northern Michigan this season as he benefited from more ice time. The two-way defenseman had 8 goals, 28 assists, was +5 with 98 penalty minutes in 39 games. He was named to the CCHA Second Team All-Stars. Waddell agreed that Oystrick was a pleasant surprise this season.

“Nathan Oystrick had a very very good year. In fact, he’s close. He’s going to go back to school which he should for another year, but he had a very very strong year.”

Oystrick will be a junior in 2004-05.

15. Brad Schell, C (6th round, 167th overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 19, Scoring forward

Schell led Spokane in scoring with 92 points in 71 games, was third in the WHL with 57 assists and was tied for ninth in the WHL with 35 goals.

Waddell said of Schell in June, “If Schell plays he’s going to be a top two line guy. He’s not going to be a checker. He’s a skilled player that if he plays in the NHL he’s going to have to be a top two line guy. Again, he’s got so much skill. He had a troubled year last year, was hurt all year. So we still think he’s got a ways to go with his development. But we like him, he’s a good character kid, and we like what he brings to the table with his skill level.”

Schell is turning pro and will play in either Chicago or Gwinnett.

16. Patrick Dwyer, RW (4th round, 116th overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 21, Two-way winger

Dwyer put up decent numbers again this year for Western Michigan, 26 points in 35 games, 13 of them goals. He has some skill, but may suffer from being a ‘tweener’, good at both offense and defense, but not truly good enough at either one.

Dwyer will return to Western Michigan as captain in 2004-05. A senior, he has one more year to prove his case for being signed.

17. Jeff Dwyer, D (8th round, 178th overall, 2000 Entry Draft) Age 23, Offensive defenseman

After his Yale University season ended, defenseman Jeff Dwyer played 11 regular season games with the Chicago Wolves, going scoreless and posting a +1 rating. A skilled defenseman, he had 15 points in 30 games with Yale this year.

Waddell said of Dwyer in June, “Jeff Dwyer could be the big sleeper because for a defenseman his individual skill is as good as it could be at his level. Unfortunately, not to take a shot at the ECAC or Yale hockey, he only got to play 20-some games a year and he really needs to get into a system where he plays a lot more games. But his skill level for a defenseman is really really high. I look for him to get the opportunity to continue to grow and he’ll be a real good player.”

Already 23, Dwyer will spend his rookie year in Chicago.

18. Adam Berkhoel, G (Acquired via trade from Chicago, 2004) Age 23

It’s hard to argue with success like a national championship, which Berkhoel accomplished with the Denver University Pioneers in 2004. But on the other hand, it’s hard to slot Berkhoel any higher in the ranking, having not played a minute of pro hockey.

Waddell explained why he traded for Berkhoel just moments after it happened, “He was the MVP of the playoffs. He carried that team in Denver.”

Berkhoel has been signed and will likely play with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators this fall.

19. Paul Flache, D (5th round, 144th overall, 2002 Entry Draft) Age 22, Two-way defenseman

Flache is a 6’6 defender who skates well and has good puck skills. He had a very good year with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators, posting 18 points in 62 games and was +18. He also played nine games with the Chicago Wolves, with four points and a +5 rating. He played in all situations and elevated his game in the playoffs.

Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle said of Flache in May, “From where he started, the confidence level he showed, he was dominant defensively at times, he was dominant physically at times. He’s got to be a little more consistent that way. But when you’re growing into a 6’6” body at 22 years old, he’s got a bright future. He’s got to get hungry, he’s got to be motivated. He came huge steps from being a solid defenseman to being a really, really good defenseman for us, to adding some offense, to playing forward when we needed him to. Great, great kid, phenomenal in the lockerroom.”

Flache will spend the 2004-05 season in Chicago.

20. Stephen Baby, RW (8th round, 188th overall, 1999 Entry Draft) Age 24, Power forward

Baby had an up and down first professional season with the Chicago Wolves. He struggled to consistently make the lineup early in the season and was scratched in 11 of the first 27 games. Baby started the season on the fourth line. Learning to use his size along the boards, Baby started to gain the coaching staff’s trust and earned a second scoring line opportunity. The Illinois native responded with a productive second half, recording 19 of his 27 points (11 goals, 8 assists) over the final 40 games. He led Chicago Wolves rookies this season with 14 goals.

Baby has size, good hands and vision, and goes to the net hard. This all sounds very promising, but his skating needs some serious work. If he could improve this aspect, he has a chance to play in the NHL.

Waddell said of Baby in June, “He started off slow, had to earn his ice time. Once he got in the lineup there, the last 30-40 games he played very well, was a very effective player for Chicago and he’s a good kid who is determined to get to the next level and I truly believe he will.”

Coach Anderson said of him in March, “He’s been surprisingly good around the net so I’m really happy with how he’s had a chance to score and add offensively.”

Already 24, it’s difficult to improve much at this point, but he’s trying. He’ll continue at Chicago in 2004-05.

Missing the cut

Tobias Enstrom, D (8th round, 239th overall, 2003 Entry Draft) Age 19, Offensive defenseman

Enstrom has a lot of upside as an offensive defenseman even though he only scored five points in 33 games in the SEL in 2003-04.

Freimüller said of Enstrom in June, “He was a regular with MoDo in the Swedish Elite League, I just wish he had racked up more points. But he played a very good World Junior. There he scored on the power play. Of course his skating is still outstanding, his hockey sense is very good, good shot. He played after his injury all the games with the big team. Then he helped out the juniors in the playoffs, and there of course he was dominating.”

Enstrom will continue with MoDo in 2004-05.

Juraj Gracik, RW (5th round, 142nd overall, 2004 Entry Draft) Age 18, Power forward

Gracik scored 25 points in 29 games in the Slovak senior league this year, and 34 points in 28 games in the junior league.

Freimüller said of Gracik in June, “(He) is a potential power forward. Played this year in the second level, senior Slovak league. Scored tons of goals. He played all the time, three to four games a week. Got a little tired towards the end. But scored tons, close to 20 goals in the senior league. Tall, pretty competitive, good around the net. No problems with the physical game. Has to work a little bit on his skating, although it’s fine. And his decision-making has to get better.”

Gracik will leave Slovakia and come to North America to play for Tri-Cities of the WHL in 2004-05.

Guillaume Desbiens, RW (Round 4, 116th overall, 2003 Entry Draft) Age 19, Checking winger

Desbiens may have a better chance of making it to the NHL as an enforcer than some others listed higher, though his upside is not as high. He showed good overall improvement from 2003 to 2004 prospects camp. The 6’2 winger had 41 points and 199 penalty minutes in 58 games in 2003-04. Desbiens will return to Rouyn-Noranda in 2004-05.

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