Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

Defensemen continue to make up the lion’s share of the Atlanta Thrashers top prospects ranking, seven of the top 10, and 10 of the top 20. The mix of rearguards ranges from offensive blueliners such as Grant Lewis and Jim Sharrow to two-way players like Braydon Coburn, Nathan Oystrick and Paul Flache, to stay-at-homers like Boris Valabik and Brian Sipotz.

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 are recent on-ice performance in relation to potential, age, statistical production, honors received, adjustment to new challenges, and comments by coaches, scouts and management.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Kari Lehtonen, G – 21, Chicago (AHL)
2. Braydon Coburn, D – 19, Portland (WHL)
3. Boris Valabik, D – 18, Kitchener (OHL)
4. Jim Slater, C – 22, Michigan State (CCHA)
5. Grant Lewis, D – 20, Dartmouth (ECAC)
6. Jim Sharrow, D – 20, Halifax (QMJHL)
7. Nathan Oystrick, D – 22, Northern Michigan (CCHA)
8. Colin Stuart, LW/C – 22, Chicago (AHL)
9. Ilja Nikulin, D – 22, Dynamo Moscow (Russia)
10. Brian Sipotz, D – 23, Chicago (AHL)
11. Paul Flache, D – 22, Chicago (AHL)
12. Michael Garnett, G – 22, Chicago (AHL)
13. Jeff Dwyer, D – 24, Chicago (AHL)
14. Karl Stewart, LW – 21, Chicago (AHL)
15. Derek MacKenzie, C – 23, Chicago (AHL)
16. Mike Vannelli, D – 21, Minnesota (WCHA)
17. Brad Schell, C – 20, Gwinnett (ECHL)
18. Guillaume Desbiens, RW – 19, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
19. Colton Fretter, RW – 22, Michigan State (CCHA)
20. Brett Sterling, LW – 20, Colorado College (WCHA)

View the last Top 20 ranking here.

1. Kari Lehtonen, G – 21, Chicago (AHL) 1st round, 2nd overall, 2002 Entry Draft

While in some observers’ eyes, Alexander Ovechkin has overtaken Lehtonen as the top drafted prospect, he remains very firmly atop the Thrashers list. Nothing in his play this season is cause for reevaluation of the glowing reviews of his potential, posting a 21-13-1 record and a .927 save percentage. Lehtonen is getting used to playing more games this season, having played 79 percent of the team’s total minutes in net. When the NHL goes back to work, Lehtonen will come to Atlanta and partner with Pasi Nurminen.

2. Braydon Coburn, D – 19, Portland (WHL) 1st round, 8th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

The 6’5 two-way defenseman is putting in another solid season with the WHL Portland Winter Hawks. Now under contract with the Thrashers, he would likely have moved to the NHL this season, but will have to wait a bit longer. Coburn has a great first pass and has 22 assists and 28 points in 39 games. He played a key role in Team Canada’s gold medal in Grand Forks in the 2005 WJC. A gentlemanly player by nature, Coburn needs to continue to develop the edge necessary for the NHL.

3. Boris Valabik, D – 18, Kitchener (OHL) 1st round, 10th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Valabik suffered a concussion early in the season, but was well enough to take part in the 2005 WJC for Team Slovakia. He has one assist and 106 penalty minutes in 19 games for Kitchener. A tough customer averaging a high 5.58 penalty minutes per game, the 6’7 defender has another year of junior to play as he will only turn 19 on February 14th. Beyond that, he will need to spend time in the minors developing his game.

4. Jim Slater, C – 22, Michigan State (CCHA) 1st round, 30th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Slater is supposed to be the best two-way forward amongst the team’s prospects, but he hasn’t been as good as expected in either direction this year as a senior at Michigan State. Fellow Thrashers prospect and Spartan Colton Fretter leads him both in points and in plus/minus. Slater has 28 points in 26 games and is a team-worst -8. Last year a candidate for the Hobey Baker award for NCAA hockey’s best player, Slater will likely not be in serious contention for the honor this season. Next season will provide a fresh start for the centerman as he turns pro.

5. Grant Lewis, D – 20, Dartmouth (ECAC) 2nd round, 40th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

The 6’3 offensive defenseman has had a solid sophomore season at Dartmouth. Lewis is a bit off his scoring pace from last season, 13 in 17 games compared to 25 in 29 points in 2003-04, but it would have been difficult to keep up that .86 points per game pace from the backline. Lewis continues to lead team defensemen in points. Lewis attended the Team USA U-20 evaluation camp last summer, but was not selected for the team. He will likely remain at Dartmouth next season.

6. Jim Sharrow, D – 20, Halifax (QMJHL) 4th round, 110th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

With 30 points in 46 games, Sharrow is eighth among QMJHL defensemen in scoring. He attended the Team USA evaluation camp last summer along with Lewis, but like him, was not selected for the team. Very good on offense, indeed used sometimes as a forward, the criticism of Sharrow is that he is not solid in his own end. At +5, he is currently about average on his team. Drafted in 2003, Sharrow would be under a June 2005 deadline for signing if the CBA was in place. Instead, he is currently one of many who may be in limbo.

7. Nathan Oystrick, D – 22, Northern Michigan (CCHA) 7th round, 198th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Oystrick has continued his solid play at Northern Michigan as captain in this, his junior year. He has 12 points in 24 games, leading team defensemen, and has 48 penalty minutes. Oystrick is imposing in his own end and may be the best bodychecker of all Thrashers prospects. At 6’0, he is one of the smaller defensemen, but his game does not suffer for it. Oystrick will likely turn pro next year, foregoing his senior year, unless the NHL labor situation drags on.

8. Colin Stuart, LW/C – 22, Chicago (AHL) 5th round, 135th overall, 2001 Entry Draft

Stuart has all the necessary components to play in the NHL, size, skating, hockey smarts and skill. He won’t score a ton of points, but will chip in. He has two assists in 18 games with Chicago this season, and four points in a recent five-game stint with the Gwinnett Gladiators. Stuart has not been given much opportunity in Chicago, but if the NHL lockout ends soon, don’t be surprised if he’s invited to camp.

9. Ilja Nikulin, D – 22, Dynamo Moscow (Russia) 2nd round, 31st overall, 2000 Entry Draft

A 6’3 defensive defenseman, Nikulin remains with Moscow Dynamo of the Russian Super League. He has eight points in 36 games this season, a career high. The main question surrounding Nikulin is if he ever decides he wants to play in North America. He’s been offered a contract, but is content to stay in Russia for the time being.

10. Brian Sipotz, D – 23, Chicago (AHL) 4th round, 100th overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

Sipotz makes a meteoric rise on the charts from unranked to the bottom of the top 10. In the category of seeing is believing, this 6’7 specimen has made a much quicker than expected transition to the pro game with the Wolves, coming from Miami of the NCAA. Likely the strongest prospect on the list, Sipotz has great reach, and his skating and stickhandling are good for his size. He might take another year to develop, but imagining him in the NHL is not a hard picture to conjure up.

11. Paul Flache, D – 22, Chicago (AHL) 5th round, 144th overall, 2002 Entry Draft (redrafted)

Spending two years in the ECHL, Flache has gradually progressed into a valuable asset for the Thrashers. This season Flache has not merely adjusted to the AHL, he has taken on an important role on the team. At 6’6, he has great size but also great offensive instincts, having played forward for much of his life. The two-way defenseman is third among Wolves blueliners in points as a rookie with 14 in 41 games. Needing to work on consistency and grit, Flache will continue in Chicago for the foreseeable future. He will need to be re-signed after this season.

12. Michael Garnett, G – 22, Chicago (AHL) 3rd round, 80th overall, 2001 Entry Draft

With Kari Lehtonen on the verge of moving to the NHL, the Thrashers need to be grooming another prospect in goal. Garnett’s move to the AHL this year has not been encouraging. He has a 3-3-0 record, a 3.31 GAA and a .903 save percentage in nine games, and has struggled mightily at times. The 22-year-old is in the last year of his rookie contract, but with little pressure from within the system, he’ll likely be given more time to develop.

13. Jeff Dwyer, D – 24, Chicago (AHL) 6th round, 178th overall, 2000 Entry Draft

Jeff Dwyer ends up at unlucky No. 13, which is a good description of his season. He has been plagued by a groin injury, making three attempted comebacks already. In total, he has played nine games for Chicago and two for Gwinnett. With only two assists with Chicago and none last year, his lack of scoring is puzzling given his good outlet passing and willingness to shoot. The 6’2 Connecticut native scored about a half a point a game at Yale in his senior year. Dwyer has some intriguing skill, but needs to get healthy and start scoring as priority No. 1 and 2.

14. Karl Stewart, LW – 21, Chicago (AHL) Signed as a free agent, 2001

The chip on Karl Stewart’s shoulder appropriate for a player who wasn’t drafted and has something to prove. He is one of the hardest working players, but can be smarter in his play.
He has potential as an agitator, but must learn to draw penalties rather than take them. His speed is one of his best assets, but seems to have suffered due to his added muscle mass in the offseason. If he can utilize his speed and find his scoring touch again, he could get a chance.

15. Derek MacKenzie, C – 23, Chicago (AHL) 5th round, 128th overall, 1999 Entry Draft

One of the most experienced prospects on the list, it is difficult to compare MacKenzie to much younger players. Good at penalty-killing and faceoffs, the 5’11 center will at least earn some time in the NHL as a depth forward. He won’t make as big of an impact as some other prospects, however. Locked out of the NHL, he signed an AHL deal with the Wolves, where his offensive production is down from last season, 18 points in 43 games compared to 35 points in 63 games last year.

16. Mike Vannelli, D – 21, Minnesota (WCHA) 4th round, 136th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Vannelli was poised for a good year as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, but is not yet living up to his high potential as a smooth-skating two-way defenseman. The 6’2 Minnesota native has eight points in 25 games, about the same production as last season, but he has started to pick up his offensive game a notch as of late. Vannelli will remain at Minnesota for the foreseeable future.

17. Brad Schell, C – 20, Gwinnett (ECHL) 6th round, 167th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Schell is one of very few prospects in the Thrashers system with offensive potential. He’s currently fifth on the Gladiators and tied for 18th among league rookies with 27 points in 37 games, 22 of them assists. Schell needs to work on defense, posting a team-worst –17, but otherwise is making fine progress as he adjusts to the pro game. Fighting his way through a men’s league has been good for his development, causing a necessary toughening up of the 20-year-old.

18. Guillaume Desbiens, RW – 19, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL) 4th round, 116th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

A player who is already as tough as they come, Desbiens is eighth in the QMJHL in penalty minutes. Seeing time on the power play, this 6’2, 215-pound winger has already set a career best in goals with 21 in 41 games, three of them game-winners, and is a plus player at +4. Still improving in skill, Desbiens is one of the few prospects in the power forward mold in the system. He should have a great opportunity with the club if he can continue to improve. Drafted in 2003, Desbiens is scheduled to turn pro next year, though the signing of a contract on time will depend on the CBA.

19. Colton Fretter, RW – 22, Michigan State (CCHA) 8th round, 230th overall in the 2002 Entry Draft

Fretter leads the Spartans in points (29) and goals (14) in 25 games, including an impressive four game-winning goals. This surprising output is coming off a 2003-04 season in which he had only 17 points in 39 games. A very hard worker, the 5’10 junior will need to prove he can play at the pro level. The player drafted the lowest on the top 20 list, he’s already turned out well for the eighth round.

20. Brett Sterling, LW – 20, Colorado College (WCHA) 5th round, 145th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

With 20 goals and 20 assists in only 26 games for Colorado College, Sterling leads the team in goals and is second in points behind teammate Marty Sertich. The duo is on the leaderboard for the entire NCAA. The feisty goal-scorer will be in contention for the Hobey Baker. He may stay in college for another year, but inevitably the 5’7 winger will need to prove himself in the AHL before his NHL dreams can take shape. Sterling has one more year of college eligibility remaining.

Missing the Cut

Tobias Enstrom, D – 19 MoDo (Sweden) 8th round, 239th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Enstrom’s point production has improved this season with MoDo and he’s a regular on the power play of the star-studded team. His 11 points in 37 games puts him in a tie for the lead among team defensemen. While no one discounts his effectiveness on the big ice sheet, the question remains whether the smooth-skating 5’10 defenseman will be as effective in North America.

Stephen Baby, RW – 25 (on Jan 31) Chicago (AHL) 8th round, 188th overall in 1999 Entry Draft

Last season Baby had a hard time staying in the Wolves line-up. The improved winger has played full-time this season, but has had a lot more trouble finding the net, with only five points in 42 games compared to 26 points in 68 games in 2003-04. At 6’5 235 pounds, Baby lacks the offensive skills for a power forward role, and would have to make it as a checker. At 25 years old, Baby’s window of opportunity for making an impact is closing rapidly.

Lane Manson, D – 20 Gwinnett (ECHL) 4th round, 124th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Having vastly improved his skating, the 6’8 Manson now is a legitimate prospect for the organization. In 36 games with the Gwinnett Gladiators, he has eight points and 49 penalty minutes. Usually reliable defensively, Manson has some work to do on not taking himself out of position on hits and not getting taken off his game by agitators. Manson has some potential, but will need to prove himself over time. He may be ready to move up to the AHL next season.

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