Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

Top 20 at a glance

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Alex Bourret, RW
4. Ondrej Pavelec, G
5. Mark Popovic, D
6. Boris Valabik, D
7. Jim Slater, C
8. Nathan Oystrick, D
9. Grant Lewis, D
10. Jim Sharrow, D
11. Andrew Kozek, W
12. Jordan LaVallee, F
13. Chad Denny, D
14. Colin Stuart, LW
15. Brian Sipotz, D
16. Michael Garnett, G
17. Brett Sterling, LW
18. Jeff Dwyer, D
19. Karl Stewart, LW
20. Michael Vannelli, D

Key: Rank (previous rank) name, position – age

1. (1) Kari Lehtonen, G – 21

Lehtonen was a workhorse for the Chicago Wolves again last season, ending the regular season fifth in minutes played with 3378. He improved his numbers slightly from 2003-04, a .929 save percentage compared to .927, and a 2.27 goals-against versus a 2.41 last season. Lehtonen then raised his game further in the playoffs, with two shutouts and a .939 save percentage as the team went all the way to the Calder Cup finals.

With just four NHL games to his credit, Lehtonen will without a doubt be the Thrashers starting goaltender in 2005-06, thanks to a severe injury to Pasi Nurminen. Lehtonen will have a veteran backup, but who that will be is yet to be determined. This is the final year of his rookie contract and he could achieve many of his bonus clauses with a good year as long as he can steer clear of injuries, which have been a problem for him so far in his pro career.

2. (2) Braydon Coburn, D – 20

Coburn joined the Wolves with just three games left at the end of the regular season, but ended up getting in another quarter season’s worth of games thanks to the long run in the playoffs. The former Western Leaguer slid easily into the line-up and saw a bit of time on special teams, more as the playoffs went on. The smooth-skating 6’5 blueliner plays a solid, effective game. He has the skill to contribute offensively, but needs to feel like his own end is taken care of before he’ll jump in.

A great deal of depth on defense heading into the season means the Thrashers aren’t forced to push Coburn into the line-up if they don’t feel he’s ready. They’ll do what’s best for his adjustment, so he could possibly start the year with Chicago and be the first call-up when injuries hit.

3. (NR) Alex Bourret, RW – 18

Bourret was Atlanta’s first round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, No. 16 overall. He led his team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs in scoring with 86 points in 65 games in 2004-05. He is a strong skater and a tireless worker who helped lead the team into the second round of the playoffs with his blend of skill and physicality.

“He’s got enough skill that he’s going to play on the top two lines,” Thrashers GM Don Waddell described last week. “But he’s also going to be one of those guys who will be a feisty player and create disturbances.”

Traded at the end of last season, Bourret begins play with the QMJHL Shawinigan Cataractes this fall.

4. (NR) Ondrej Pavelec, G – 18 (this week)

Pavelec was a surprise addition to the Thrashers prospect pool. The organization weren’t looking for another goaltender just yet, but couldn’t pass him up at No. 41 this summer.

At the U-18 WJC, Pavelec was the best player of the Czech team, who finished just out of the medals. With his junior team, Pavelec had seven shutouts, a .929 save percentage, and a 2.31 goals against average in 39 games. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable when you consider that he was one of the youngest players in his draft class, not turning 18 until August 31st of this year.

Thrashers European scout Bernd Freimueller described the newly-drafted Pavelec as “Tall and stringy, quite an athlete. Very combative and vocal. Great glove and legs. Never gives up on a shot. Has found his style, just has to refine it a little bit and work on his stickhandling.”

Pavelec has moved to Canadian major junior this season with Cape Breton of the QMJHL. He won’t be at Traverse City due to some slow paperwork, and it’s unlikely he’ll attend Thrashers main camp.

5. (NR) Mark Popovic, D – 22

This two-way defenseman was acquired this week from Anaheim in exchange for Kip Brennan.
In his third year with Cincinnati in 2004-05, Popovic continued to be a steady mainstay on the Ducks blue line. Seeing time in all situations, he had a goal and 17 assists in regular season play to tie for third on the team in scoring by a blueliner. He was also tied with his defensive partner, former Thrashers prospect Kurtis Foster, for team lead in plus/minus.

Popovic raised his game even more in the playoffs, scoring two goals and three assists in 11 games of action as well as being tied for team lead in plus/minus with a +2. In Game 7 of the West Division semi-final between Cincinnati and the Milwaukee Admirals, Popovic flipped a weak shot towards the net that somehow eluded goaltender Brian Finley with 12.9 seconds remaining. The Ducks won the game based on that goal and also won the series after being down three games to one.

It’s unlikely that the Thrashers would start the year with two rookie defensemen, so it will
probably come down to either Coburn or Popovic making the team. Both will likely see time during the year, in either case.

6. (3) Boris Valabik, D – 19

Valabik suffered a concussion in the fall of 2004 that kept him out of the Kitchener Rangers line-up for an extended time. He was able to return in time for the 2005 World Junior Championships to play for his native Slovakia. But even when he was in Kitchener’s line-up, the 6’6 blueliner did not make much, if any, progress this season. Valabik had four points in 43 games and 231 penalty minutes, for a whopping 5.37 penalty minutes per game. In plus/minus, he was even on a generally plus team. He did seem to improve his strength though, and was an imposing physical presence.

Valabik has a lot of upside with his size and nasty disposition, but still has a long way to go to get the NHL. He will return to junior this season with Kitchener after taking part in the Traverse City tournament.

7. (4) Jim Slater, C – 22

Slater had a tough start to his senior year with Michigan State, struggling to score goals. He had only six at Christmastime, despite having a team-high 71 shots. But he picked it up late and ended up tying his career-best 48 points, 16 of them goals, in 41 games in his second year as captain. His usual contribution goes beyond just scoring, as he is well known for his good two-way game, along with solid playmaking skills and plenty of physical edge.

Slater, a 30th overall pick in 2002, is almost certain to play in the NHL, but his top-end potential is not as high as those ranked above him. He is likely destined to be a high-end third line player.

Signed to a rookie contract, Slater will start the 2005-06 season with the Chicago Wolves. The acquisition of Bobby Holik gives Slater more time to ramp up to the NHL level.

8. (7) Nathan Oystrick, D – 22

In a surprise non-move, Oystrick decided to remain at Northern Michigan this year. Self-admittedly not a scholar, he will play out his final year of eligibility.

“We had some earlier talks this summer with him,” Waddell said. “I never encourage players to come out early. If they want to come out, we’ll talk to them, if they don’t want to come out, fine. I think some of these guys realize how far they are away from playing in the National Hockey League, and another year of playing on a good team in college, being a leader, that’s going to help them more than playing maybe one year in the American League.”

Such is the case with Oystrick, who would have played at the AHL level. Though he’s not ready to step right onto the big club, the organization remains high on this aggressive stay at home defenseman. He’ll be focused on leading the Wildcats deep into the postseason.

9. (5) Grant Lewis, D – 20

Lewis saw his numbers dip slightly this season, finishing second among Dartmouth defensemen with 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists) in 33 games. While Lewis’ numbers may have slipped, however, his performance did not. He continues to quarterback the Big Green’s power play along with junior Garrett Overlock, and plays in every type of situation for Dartmouth. Lewis’ outstanding performance this season didn’t go unnoticed as he was an honorable mention to the All-Ivy League team. He will be a junior at Dartmouth this fall.

“I’ve talked to his family advisor this summer about things he needs to do,” Waddell commented. “He needs to treat every practice like it’s a game because [Ivy League schools] don’t play many games. We’re very high on Grant though, we thought he had a good year this year. He’s a guy I wouldn’t be surprised if we brought out early.”

10. (6) Jim Sharrow, D – 20

Coming into his third season in the QMJHL, Sharrow was again looked upon to provide a key contribution to the Halifax blue line. Though at first he continued the struggles of his sophomore season, Sharrow’s play made a complete turnaround after the New Year’s break. He began to finally use his size to his advantage and chose his opportunities better in the offensive zone. His defensive game also improved greatly, he played meaner in his own zone, and was rarely out of position. He was perhaps Halifax’s best defenseman in the second half of the season, and was a key contributor in the playoffs.

Sharrow signed a rookie contract this summer, and will almost certainly play in Chicago.

11. (NR) Andrew Kozek, W – 19

Kozek is another 2005 draft pick, taken 53rd overall. He put up huge numbers last year with South Surrey of the BCHL with 48 goals and 97 points in 60 games. He has great speed and agility and knows how to finish.

“Kozek is a proven, top scorer at his level,” Waddell described. “And the BCHL is not just a scorer’s league. You’ve got to go both ways there. He was heavily recruited by US colleges and will be with University of North Dakota — and they have a very good hockey program. I saw him at the [BCHL] All-Star game and was impressed.”

Kozek has high potential, but needs to be tested against stronger competition. He will be a freshman at UND this fall.

12. (NR) Jordan LaVallee, F – 19

Passed over in 2004, LaVallee is now a hot commodity who may play for Team USA in the 2006 WJC. The Thrashers selected the 6’3 winger 116th overall this summer.

“He’s a guy who wasn’t on the radar screen two years ago, with a legitimate chance of making that World Junior tournament team,” Waddell said. “He’s a big kid who had 40 goals. It’s way early in the process, but to me, hearing how he was in the camp, and knowing what we know about him now, this could be the steal for us in this draft.”

LaVallee will continue with the QMJHL Quebec Remparts in 2005-06 and could turn pro at the end of the year.

13. (NR) Chad Denny, D – 18

A bit of an unknown coming into the season, Denny flourished under the Lewiston MAINEiacs’ run-and-gun, physical system, playing his brand of heavy-hitting hockey. Though hampered by injuries that cost him 17 games in the regular season, Denny finished third on the Maineiacs in hits, and posted very respectable offensive numbers.

“Denny was a guy that every scout that went in there and saw him said ‘solid player, physical player, doesn’t put himself in a position to get beat,’” Waddell said. “Is he a real flashy player? Absolutely not. But he’s a steady, strong, physical player.”

Denny will return to Lewiston for 2005-06.

14. (8) Colin Stuart, LW – 23

A rookie out of Colorado College, Stuart did not see much ice time with the Wolves this season, and none in the playoffs. Including the five games he spent with the Gwinnett Gladiators in January, his 44 total games played just barely exceeded his game totals in college.

The smooth-skating, smart defensive forward will see increased time next season, and could see some time with the big club later in the year.

15. (10) Brian Sipotz, D – 23

Sipotz made an impressive transition to pro hockey in 2004-05. It was the longest season of his career, playing 93 total games with the Chicago Wolves, compared to a college high of 36 last season with Miami of Ohio. While he had just 11 points, it was a veritable offensive explosion for the 6’6 blueliner, whose career-high was three points as a senior. Sipotz had the best plus/minus amongst Thrashers prospects during the regular season at +6.

As to why his transition to the pros was so easy, Waddell explained, “First of all he really takes care of himself unbelievably well. He’s committed to it and he can skate. If you talk about [Lane] Manson versus Sipotz, there’s a huge difference there. Sipotz can skate, and if you know the game, you can play a lot of levels.

“He was a surprise, but not a total surprise, because we knew with his skill level that he could skate. What he could do with it, that’s what we weren’t sure of. He’s another guy who still has steps in front of him, but he’s got a pretty good drive and commitment to try to get there.”

Another thing Sipotz had going for him was his age, turning pro at almost 23. Sipotz will be 24 in September. His contribution to the team was better than expected for a rookie, but he has more work to do to refine his game to get to the NHL, most important being stickhandling. He’ll play top minutes in Chicago again this year and could get a cup of coffee with the big club.

16. (12) Michael Garnett, G – 22

Garnett played 24 games during the regular season for Chicago, behind Kari Lehtonen. He was sent to Gwinnett of the ECHL to get some additional ice time in the fall, but did not end up playing after a groin strain was diagnosed. Garnett improved in the second half of the season for the Wolves, and relieved Lehtonen when he suffered his own groin strain in the playoffs. He went 11-9-0 in the regular season, with a 2.86 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.

Re-signed this summer by the Thrashers, Garnett may play 50-90 percent of the games in Chicago, depending on how the situation shakes out above him. He will have a veteran playing along with him, it’s just not determined who that will be yet. The Thrashers will put themselves in a position where they won’t need to call up Garnett this season, who will need at least another year, this time as the starter in Chicago.

17. (20) Brett Sterling, LW – 21

Sterling enjoyed an outstanding season with Colorado College in 2004-05, helping to lead the Tigers to a share of the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA Regular Season Champions as a trip to the Frozen Four. The 5’7 winger led the nation in goals (34) and power play goals (18) going into the Frozen Four. His seven game-winning goals tied him for first in the nation in that category. He was named a finalist for the 2005 Hobey Baker Award and named to the CCM 2004-05 All-American First West Team.

When asked to name top performers from this season, Waddell said, “The other kid you obviously have to take you hat off to is Sterling as one of the Hobey Baker finalists. You’re talking about a small guy that has intangibles. He can skate and he can really finish. Any time you draft a player, I don’t care if you draft him in the first round or the ninth round, regardless if they end up being NHL players, you like them to compete. That means you drafted good players. [Colton] Fretter, Sterling, I can’t tell you they’re going to be NHL players. But they’re doing the most they possibly can at the level they’re at, so they’re going to get an opportunity.”

Sterling will return to Colorado College for his senior year, where he will be a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker award again this year.

18. (13) Jeff Dwyer, D – 24

Dwyer was the victim of a lingering groin injury in 2004-05, his rookie pro year. The skilled defenseman played just nine games with the Chicago Wolves, and two with the Gwinnett Gladiators on a rehab assignment. He saw medical specialists about the injury, according to the Thrashers, but fortunately nothing more serious was found.

“Our last report was just a couple weeks ago, he was skating, doing everything,” said Waddell, who was very high on him going into last season. “He’ll be coming to camp. He’s got to make up for a year though.”

Turning 25 in November, Dwyer is the oldest prospect on the Top 20 list, and time is of the essence in making the transition to pro. He’s in the second year of his two-year contract.

“He had a year of being around, not playing a lot, but of seeing how the game is played. Our hope is that he can jump right in and be one of those top 4 guys there in Chicago.”

19. (14) Karl Stewart, LW – 22

Stewart managed to cut his offensive production nearly in half in 2004-05 with the Chicago Wolves, going from .58 points per game in 2003-04 to only .31 in 2004-05. He did pull his plus/minus up in the later part of the season to finish at +1, but it had been worst on the team in late January. Stewart took a career-high 226 penalty minutes this year, an astonishing number for a player who isn’t an enforcer. The disturber finished the season second in the league in minor penalties with 68, behind only Darryl Bootland of Grand Rapids.

Stewart is in the last year of his rookie contract. He played five games with the Thrashers in 2003-04, and will try to get back there again this year. Making the team out of camp is unlikely, however.

20. (16) Mike Vannelli, D – 21

Vannelli had 14 points in 39 games with the University of Minnesota in 2004-05. While he did assert himself more, he doesn’t do so consistently and suffered from a lack of playing time amongst a strong group of defensemen at top-ranked Minnesota. This is an important year for Vannelli, who will be a junior.

Missing the Cut

Guillaume Desbiens, RW – 20

This gritty winger out of the QMJHL has signed a rookie contract, and will likely play in Gwinnett. Built for the pro game, with hands both for shooting and fighting, he has a higher likelihood of making the NHL than others above him, but he won’t be as much of an impact player.

Colton Fretter, RW – 23

For a good portion of the season, Fretter was leading Slater in scoring on Michigan State. He ended the season with 20 goals and 24 assists in 44 games, a huge improvement over the previous two seasons.

“He had a good year,” Waddell described. “Talking to Coach Comley there, a coach I played for, [Fretter] was one of their go-to guys when they needed a big goal. Guys that can score, in today’s game, could become a nice little bonus for you. If you’d asked me two years ago, he was still a long ways away, but he made huge strides last year. Let’s hope he keeps making them this year.”

Brad Schell, C – 21

Schell played in all 72 games for the Gwinnett Gladiators, and finished the regular season with 53 points, which put him tied for ninth on the rookie scoring list. At 20, he was the youngest player on the list. Schell improved his plus/minus from –18 at one point to finish at –8 for the regular season, due in part to a move from center to left wing in February. He’ll likely play in Chicago this season.

Kevin Forbes, Phil Laugher, DJ Powers and Jason Ahrens contributed to this report. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.