Thrashers AHL prospects update

By Holly Gunning

Thrashers AHL update

The Chicago Wolves, AHL affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers, have had a tough start to the season, currently at 6-10-1-2 and on a four-game losing streak. Their start has been even worse than the struggling Thrashers, a .395 winning percentage compared to .456 for the parent club.

Three players named a total of four reasons for the team’s struggles, though there are more.

“I think right now we’re just lacking in some departments,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said this weekend. “We’re having one good period and then we’re letting ourselves off the hook and not following it up with another. So I think consistency is one thing that we really have to work on, and just playing together more as a team. We’re playing a lot like individuals right now, and we’ve got to figure that out.”

“There’s lots of things,” defenseman Mark Popovic explained. “One of the main issues is special teams — we’re not where we should be. With the new rules and everything, power plays and penalty kills are the majority of the game and that’s where you win or lose games. I think first off we have to start working on those and bearing down on our chances, we have to get it deep on power play and get it out on the penalty kill. Bury those ones on the power play. Other than that, I think consistency. We’re playing some great periods, but letting teams back in the game.”

In contrast to other years, the Wolves have been working more on special teams in practice.

“Yeah, we’ve talked about it a lot more, even in pre-game skates we’re working on it,” Popovic said. “But I think we have a good month coming up, lots more games. We’ve had a pretty easy schedule, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad. We need to get into more games so we get into a rhythm. I think you’re going to start seeing some wins out of this team in the next month.”

Defenseman Brian Sipotz pointed to the schedule as a factor as well.

“We’ve had the fewest games in the league here. We’re playing just two games a weekend and we have four or five days off in between. It’s tough for a team to get going like that. But we’re getting into the thick of our schedule here so hopefully we’ll start coming together.”

Scoring has been an issue, with the team ranked 18th in the league in goals scored per game (2.78) headed into Saturday’s contest. And like the Thrashers, a revolving door in net has not helped either. With seven games in 10 days starting on Dec. 9, there is plenty of opportunity to get things turned around.

There are very few true prospects currently with the Wolves, with most of those under Atlanta contract past prospect age. Both goaltending prospects, Michael Garnett and Adam Berkhoel, are up with the big club, while several of the younger ones are getting ice time with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators. Below is a review of the six Thrashers prospects who fit HF’s criteria.

Mark Popovic, D

Popovic has drastically improved his point production over his 2004-05 season with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, now leading Wolves defensemen and ranking sixth on the team with 18 points (3 goals, 7 assists). Not afraid to shoot, he has led or shared the team lead in shots on four occasions.

Having a chance to quarterback the power play has given him more offensive chances with Chicago.

“I think that helps,” he agreed. “With this team, they give you more freedom to create and do things. It’s kind of fun. I enjoy running the power play back there, but like I said we need to improve that if we’re going to start winning more games.”

The 23-year-old fourth-year pro is wearing an A on his jersey. While he didn’t necessarily expect it coming to a new team where a lot of guys had played together before, he appreciates it and takes it seriously.

“I think ever since the end of my rookie year I’ve had one in this league. It’s an honor. Everywhere I go I think guys look at me as a leader. I love that responsibility in the room. Verbally I’ve had to speak up, or by my play, or working out at the gym. I just try to be a leader all around. Be professional on and off the ice.”

Popovic showed a lot of leadership on Saturday against Omaha, getting the team on the board early with a very determined goal, and later hustling back to dive and disrupt a scoring chance. He is +1 on the year.

Reminiscent of Slava Kozlov, Popovic shows no panic with the puck and will hold on to it even with forecheckers nearby, until he sees a pass he likes. Though not flawless, he’s a defenseman who can slow the game down at this level, and more polished than Coburn right now, he would likely be the first call-up in case of injury. He’s already played two games with the Thrashers earlier this season.

Braydon Coburn, D

After starting the year with the Thrashers for nine games, Coburn is in Chicago to continue his development.

“[The Thrashers] want me to just keep working on my game and get some confidence playing down here in Chicago, getting lots of ice time,” he said.

Coburn is getting plenty of ice time, pairing mostly with Popovic, and playing both the power play and penalty kill. Though disappointed not to stick with the Thrashers, he has five points in 12 games since his reassignment on Oct. 26, which is a significant improvement offensively from his two points in 21 games with the Wolves last season after his junior season ended.

He has been involved on the physical side of things, with 33 penalty minutes in his 12 games. This past weekend he was involved in a fight with Calgary’s Brandon Prust, and while it was not something he started, or necessarily wanted much part in, the very strong 20-year-old held his own.

Coburn is +3, but does still need to work on his defensive coverage even at this level. He sometimes makes errors in taking the wrong man, and commits dangerous giveaways. This is the only area that lacks for the 6’5 smooth-skating defenseman. As soon as his coverage improves, he will be back in Atlanta, but it might take until the end of the year for that to happen.

Brian Sipotz, D

In training camp, Sipotz was determined to have another good year, and he’s accomplishing just that. The 24-year-old sophomore leads the Wolves with a +7 rating, and has been plus or even in 16 of 17 contests. Still not known for his offense, he seems to score when it matters, notching his lone goal as the game-winner goal against Hamilton on Nov. 23.

While his defense is very effective, Sipotz hasn’t been able to add that chippy element to his game that he talked about during training camp.

“No, not quite yet. I haven’t been able to as much I want to. Hopefully, once everyone gets going here, it will be easier for me to do that.”

Inseparable from partner Tim Wedderburn last season, Sipotz has had to play with other partners this year. He said he’s managing OK without him.

“Yeah (laughing), I wrote his number on my shoulder pads so he’s still out there with me. But even if we’re not playing together, if he’s playing forward, we end up out there at the same time.”

Karl Stewart, LW

Stewart is one of the most physical Wolves, hitting at nearly every opportunity. He’s a fixture on the penalty kill and co-leads the team in shorthanded goals with two. He brings energy to the team.

Stewart has a total of five goals and two assists in 16 games and is +3. Recently he has been more effective in drawing penalties without taking them himself, though he does have 40 minutes himself.

With Scott Barney and Derek MacKenzie currently injured, if Atlanta needs a forward, it would likely be either Stewart or Ramzi Abid coming up.

Colin Stuart, LW

The most positive thing to say about Stuart is that he plays well on the penalty kill. But at even strength Stuart is just one tick off the team worst –4 rating, at -3. Offensively he has just three assists in 19 games. He also has 26 penalty minutes, but most consist of obstruction-type offenses, the kind that professional hockey leagues are trying to eliminate. Stuart must learn to use his stick only on the puck, not other players. He certainly does have the speed and size to defend effectively without resorting to such measures. It’s simply a bad habit that needs to be broken.

The 23-year-old protects the puck well and can turn on a dime. A defensive forward who is not offensively gifted, Stuart will need to improve his grit along with his defense to make it to the next level. But right now there is not much positive to say about his season or his progress, as he struggles along with the team. His frustration, along with Coburn’s, is evident.

Stuart is among five Wolves to play in all 19 games. The long schedule could still be an issue for him this season, having come from a college program and playing only 44 total games as a rookie in 2004-05.

Stephen Baby, RW

Baby had not played since Nov. 4, a coach’s decision. When he did return on Dec. 3, he played a very good game. He was very physical and even scored a goal, his first point of the season, by doing what most on the team are not doing –- simply shooting the puck. He added an assist later in the game, to make two points in 11 games. Having scored 14 goals as a rookie in 2003-04, the 25-year-old is capable of much more.

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