Gwinnett Gladiators season preview

By Holly Gunning

The Gwinnett Gladiators are beginning their second year of affiliation with the neighboring Atlanta Thrashers. In 2003-04, the team went all the way to the ECHL Western Conference finals in just its first year of existence.

The 2004-05 Gladiators roster features seven returning players, nine rookies and four who moved over from other ECHL and AHL teams. It all adds up to what Head Coach Jeff Pyle calls a real fun group. It was all seriousness on Thursday, however, as he spent practice going over systems in detail in preparation for tonight’s opening game at Augusta.

There are three Atlanta Thrashers prospects assigned to the team to start the season, goaltender Adam Berkhoel, center Brad Schell, and defenseman Lane Manson — all three rookies. Last season, four Thrashers prospects saw time with the club, including Michael Garnett and Paul Flache who are now playing for AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves.

Berkhoel was acquired by the Thrashers this June in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. As Pyle put it, “His resume speaks for itself.”

The 23-year-old led the University of Denver to the 2004 Championship and was named the NCAA Tournament MVP. He went 24-11-2 last season, with a 2.45 GAA in 39 games for the Pioneers.

“[Berkhoel] stays real focused,” Pyle described. “He’s the kind of goalie that when you see him back in there, he’s going to give you confidence.”

Backing up Berkhoel will be 22-year-old T.J. Aceti, who played for the ECHL Long Beach Ice Dogs last season.>
Up front, Brad Schell joins the team from the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL, where he had 92 points in 71 games last season. He was a sixth round, 2002 draft pick of the Thrashers.

“Schell’s got great hands, good vision,” Pyle said. “The one thing we want to make sure is that we school him in what happens at this level and the next level. He’s a proven scorer. He’s got, I think, unlimited upside. I think he’ll do a lot of things well for us, power play, penalty kill.”

Last year’s ECHL Rookie of the Year was Gladiator Kevin Doell, and it’s not unreasonable to expect Schell to be atop the rookie leaderboard this season. That is if he stays with the team for most of the year. With scoring such a valuable commodity, there’s a good chance he’ll see time with the Chicago Wolves as well.

“If we’ve got him all year, great, if he’s up and down, which I’m pretty sure he will be, we want that to happen,” Pyle said. “If we lose him at any point, we wish him the best.”

Schell will start the season on a line with 25-year-old Mike Vigilante and 29-year-old Sam Ftorek, both of whom spent most of last season in the AHL. At 20, Schell is the youngest player on the team.

“My fear is that he’ll look for those guys too much,” Pyle said. “I want everyone to understand that there’s a time you’re a playmaker, there’s times you’re a shooter, there’s times when you’re a fighter, that’s the game.”

Another line will be comprised of captain Cam Brown, rookie Mike Stathopoulos out of the University of Western Ontario, who is on Chicago Wolves contract, and rookie Jeff Campbell from Western Michigan University.

While the Brown line is small and fast, the other line has size to burn. It is centered by 6’3 Chris Durno, last season’s leading scorer in the playoffs who is back with a much smoother stride after skating every day this summer. On one wing is 6’5 Peter Flache, twin brother of Thrashers prospect Paul Flache who is now with the Chicago Wolves, and 6’1 rookie Brett Engelhardt. Durno and Engelhardt should have some immediate chemistry as former teammates at Michigan Tech.

Kris Goodjohn and Chris Peterson start the season on the IR.

On defense, it’s hard to miss towering rookie Lane Manson. A fourth round, 2002 draft pick of the Thrashers, the 20-year-old has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons playing for Moose Jaw in the WHL and is ready for a test at the pro level.

“At 6’8, 250, he’s got enormous upside, he’s just got to push himself to do as much as he possibly can getting his hands and his feet and his brain to work together,” Pyle explained. “When you’re that size it’s tough to get all that going.”

Manson will be paired with a steady second-year player to start the season.

“Right now I’ve got him with Joe Bourne,” Pyle said. “Joe’s a skill guy, real good at supporting, does a lot of things well, and will work with Manson in every form and fashion to help him, and that’s what we need.”

Returning on defense are Jim Jackson and Rick Emmett. Rookie David McCulloch and Ryan Van Buskirk join from Harvard University and the Florida Everblades, respectively. Rookie Kevin Harris, a skill guy with speed, is the “seventh.”

The overall level of talent in the ECHL will experience somewhat of an increase this season, a trickle-down effect of the NHL lockout. The effect is much less in the Thrashers organization, however, which has fewer players under contract who are eligible for the minors. But Pyle praised the mindset of the three young Thrasher hopefuls who did get the assignment to this level.

“The attitudes of both [Manson] and Schell, and Berkie — they don’t want in the Coast, no one signs an NHL contract going ‘oh yeah, I want to be in the ECHL’ – but the other side of that is that they’ve come down and said ‘hey, we know we need to develop, we know it’s a good league, we know this is a good situation, and we’re here to help the organization as much as we can.’ With that attitude, we can only be successful.”

The Gladiators begin their season on the road October 22nd at Augusta, and the Lynx return the trip a week later for Gwinnett’s home opener on the 29th.

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.