Thrashers AHL/ECHL prospects season review

By Holly Gunning

The Chicago Wolves missed the playoffs in 2005-06 for the first time in the team’s 11-year history. It was a big letdown after losing in the Calder Cup Finals last season to the Philadelphia Phantoms. A lack of talent was a major reason for the down year, but with many prospects turning pro next fall, the lull in the pipeline won’t last long.

The ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators, on the other hand, have an abundance of talent, which they put to good use in posting the best regular season record in the ECHL American Conference. The team beat the Toledo Storm in the American Conference finals on Tuesday night, and will meet either the Alaska Aces or the Fresno Falcons in the 2006 Kelly Cup finals.

There are currently seven Thrasher prospects on the Gwinnett roster, Guillaume Desbiens, Joel Stepp, Brad Schell, Lane Manson, Adam Berkhoel, Jeff Dwyer and Adam Smyth.

Below are reviews of the Thrasher prospects who played professionally this season but did not see time in the NHL, plus an additional look at Berkhoel, who saw time at all three levels.

Colin Stuart, F

Age: 22
5th round, 135th overall, 2001

Stuart improved in many areas this season, particularly in the latter half of the year. He had 27 points in 78 games, up considerably from his rookie year when he had just five points in 39 games. He registered seven points over an 11-game span from March 11 to April 1. He finished with a +5 rating over the final 16 games after going –3 through the first 62 contests. Playing on the third line and on the penalty kill, he tied for second on the Wolves with four short-handed tallies.

“He’s hitting the net a little more,” Wolves Assistant Coach Marty Howe said near the end of the regular season. “He’s always had a problem going down, trying to wind up and blast the puck and misses the net a whole lot. Whereas this year, he’s got a little more composure when he’s got the puck, he takes some wrist shots when he has the chance, when he’s rushed, he always used to slap everything, because he has a great slap shot. Now he’s got that going for him and he’s turning into a pretty good penalty killer because he’s learned his angles, he’s learned position on blocking shots, taking away lanes better with his stick. He’s gotten way better. And he’s fast too. He’s big, I think he has some upside to him too.”

Stuart remains a viable prospect for the Thrashers, particularly in more a skating-intensive game, but has to earn another contract.

Brian Sipotz, D

Age: 24
4th round, 100th overall, 2001

Sipotz was hoping to build on a solid rookie year, but didn’t accomplish everything he wanted to. Unlike Stuart, he had a better first half than second. Sipotz had a +17 rating through his first 40 contests, before going –5 over the final 17. The 6’6 blueliner received less ice time as the year went on, particularly when veteran Bob Nardella was signed.

“He needs more composure,” Howe said of his play. “He’s not a very fast guy, because he’s huge. He’s got the big reach. You know, he’s sat for his share of the games this year because of that. He’s got a ways to go. He’s a big guy, and big guys like that take a while to develop, but actually, for a big guy, he has some pretty decent hands. He needs the composure part where he doesn’t panic and just throw things away. He was running into that at one point, and we stopped playing him, and then when he came back we told him to keep it simple and play defense, don’t worry about getting points and stuff, just don’t let guys score on you. And guys make a career in the NHL out of doing that. As a defenseman, you’ve just got to be aware of your role back. He’s a really good guy in the locker and he keeps in phenomenal shape. I think he’s more of a long-term project and somebody’s that going to help the Thrashers or somebody else.”

Despite these issues, Howe thinks Sipotz has some upside that he needs to take advantage of.

“He’ll be a defenseman that can kill penalties and move the puck up and fight when he wants to. I don’t think he’ll ever play the power play, but he does have a decent shot. I don’t know what it is, when you just get those long arms with long sticks, the sticks too long, and the shot gets blocked a lot. I’m not really worried about that part of his game. Just defensively, taking guys one-on-one and realizing how big and strong you are and knocking people down and get a little meaner, he hasn’t been near mean enough. He’s tried a little more of that this year, because he is a big guy and he should be somebody that people are afraid to come down on. When that happens, that’s when he’ll be a player.”

Sipotz doesn’t score much, but makes it count when he does. Both of his goals this season were game-winners. He had 14 points in 57 games, an improved rate over his eight points in 75 games in 2004-05. But as a defensive defenseman, any scoring he does is a bonus.

Having signed a two-year deal in 2004, he’s at the end of his contract.

Nathan Oystrick, D

Age: 23
7th round, 198th overall, 2002

Oystrick joined the Wolves after Northern Michigan’s season ended. He saw time in just the last two games of the season when Mark Popovic was recalled to Atlanta and the Wolves were out of playoff contention. He had one assist.

The 6’0 two-way defenseman has now been signed to a rookie contract by the Thrashers, one of only two announced thus far along with Boris Valabik.

Stephen Baby, RW

Age: 26
7th round, 198th overall, 1999

Baby had a good season point-wise when he was in the lineup, but missed the last two months of the year with a concussion. His 22 points in 39 games was by far the most productive of his three seasons with the Wolves. His penalty minutes were dramatically down, only 44 compared to 115 last year.

The 1999 pick was re-signed in 2005.

Jim Sharrow, D

Age: 21
4th round, 110th overall, 2003

Sharrow started the year with the Wolves, was reassigned to the Gladiators on Nov. 23, playing in 23 games, then returned Chicago on Jan. 12 where he would remain. The offensive defenseman scored two goals and 17 assists in 47 games with the Wolves and was +4.

Opinions on Sharrow were very mixed.

Howe was asked to compare Sharrow’s progress to Braydon Coburn, another rookie defenseman.

“Actually, he’s probably improved faster than Coburn,” he said. “I think he’s got a little better hands, he’s got a little more upside offensively with his skating ability. He’s not as good defensively, but he does get down and block shots. He’s a pretty good guy to come out of the corner because he gets down and uses his knee and whatever he has to do block those passes. He needs to work on his strength. He’s not a big guy. He’s pretty mobile, but he’s got to work getting bigger and stronger. And he’s done that over the 50 games he’s played here. He got sent down earlier in the year and that was pretty much the reason, is that guys were just running him over. Defensively, he was not very good, because he was lying on the ice all over the place. But he’s taken care of that. He’s got more composure now. I like his chances too, because he’s got good hands and he’s got more composure now and he sees the ice better. If he keeps doing that, he’ll keep going up and play more and more.”

But Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle, who has a very low tolerance for locker room problems, did not include Sharrow on his playoff roster, despite him being eligible and available for assignment.

Guillaume Desbiens, RW

Age: 21
4th round, 116th overall, 2003

Desbiens thrived on a team that routinely gives key roles to capable rookies. He finished tied for ninth in the ECHL amongst rookies with 60 points in 65 games, was tied for first in goals among rookies with 33, and was third in penalty minutes with 187. On the Gladiators, he finished fifth in scoring and led the team in goals, six of them game-winners. His hit statistics, if they were kept, would be through the roof.

More impressive than his statistics, however, is how they are achieved. Desbiens scored most of his goals one of two ways, by battling hard for a spot in the slot on the power play or by beating a defender wide one-on-one and cutting to the net.

Pyle commented that Desbiens was the only player in the league he knew that could beat someone wide on the forehand. It’s his strength that allows him to drop his shoulder and ward a defender off. He’s so hard to stop that he either scores or draws a penalty virtually every time he drives the net.

Slipping behind the defense up the right wing wall is something else Desbiens does very well.

“There’s guys who can read that and guys who can’t. Some guys just take off to take off,” Pyle said, laughing. “It’s not a planned play, but if we get the puck, with our systems, we should know what’s happening. So if I’m the off-side guy, I know the puck’s going up that far side, I’m supposed to come across and take off. Our job is to get it station to station if there’s pressure and if we get it out in front of him, and I’ve done my job, I’m going to get that puck. Dezy’s real smart, he just knows when to go and because of our systems he knows where to go. (Steve) Slonina two years ago, (Chris) Durno and (Kris) Goodjohn were the best ones in our systems that when a puck was going to be somewhere, they knew where it was going to be and they kept going there and that’s why they had success.

“He’s just smart. He needs a little bit more coaching on the tiny, tiny things. But from work ethic and commitment, heart and team, everything is very good.”

Pressed for an example of something to work on, Pyle offered, “When he forechecks, he’ll take himself out of the play. They’ll stop behind the net and he’ll swing away. You’re supposed to stop in front of the net and jam things up. Making sure that when he comes back, he comes back to the middle and takes one of the last two guys up top. And he has a habit of running down to get a hit and the puck will come up to his point man. Just the little things of knowing when to go. From his heart, his work ethic is great, but sometimes you work yourself into a corner. We don’t have four lines so we can’t do that.”

Since December, Desbiens has been playing on a line with Brad Schell and league MVP Jeff Campbell, as well as on the first power play unit. Pyle talked about the decision to put Desbiens and Schell together.

“They’re great. I knew they came up in Atlanta’s organization together. Scheller needs that type of guy and Dezy brings a lot out in Scheller. Soupy is that third guy who just fits perfect with them. With his intelligence with Scheller and Dezy –- they need to take Dezy under their wing a little bit. ‘When we’re here, you move here.’ That’s the only thing they are missing, they are so good together. They don’t know how good they can be.”

Pascal Pelletier played on that line early in the season before moving on to the Providence Bruins. As a fellow French-Canadian, Pelletier served as a mentor to Desbiens early in the season.

“I think at the beginning of the year he needed it,” Pyle said. “Dezy didn’t know me from Adam, so he didn’t know if he could trust me or not, and that’s normal. If Dezy knows from Pascal’s side that hey, I’m honest, I’m up front, if I have problems I’ll talk to them. I think it made him confident enough to play his game.”

Desbiens adjusted quickly to life in pro hockey. Roommate Jon Awe, 26, volunteered compliments of him, saying Desbiens was very well-rounded for his young age, and “wise beyond his years.”

The roommates were separated for periods while each was called up to the American league, Awe to Portland and Providence and Desbiens to Chicago in February, where he played three scoreless games.

Desbiens wasn’t getting on the scoresheet much early in the playoffs, but when he did start scoring, it was in bunches, posting two goals in Game 3 against Florida and a hat trick against Toledo in Game 1. He had still been shooting, in the running for the most shots on the team, but it just wasn’t going in for him. A Desbiens goal is worth waiting for though, as his goal celebrations are sheer joy and the power forward has been known to even knock down a teammate in the process.

He’s currently ranked second on the team in playoff scoring with 11 points in 12 games, behind Milan Gajic. His six goals are third on the team.

Joel Stepp, C

Age: 23
3rd round, 66th overall, 2001 by Anaheim

Stepp is the only prospect who joined the organization partway through the season. He was acquired from the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Jani Hurme trade on March 1 and reassigned from the ECHL Augusta Lynx to the Gladiators.

Beginning his tenure merely as the return on a problem, Stepp has impressed coaches in both cities. He blended right into the Gwinnett locker room and made big contributions.

“Solid all-around guy, he’ll take any role you want to give him and run with it,” Pyle said. “He doesn’t care if he’s checking or if you sit him out, he doesn’t care. He cares, but he’s not going to be a bitcher. He’s great in the locker room, he’s a great kid. I needed that leadership and more grit. I love the kid. You know you can count on him, he does everything well. He reminds me of me only I had more skill, he as more grit. He’s a little more physical, a little bit bigger. I said that to Donnie (Waddell) and he’s like ‘Oh no’ (laughing). But I think you’ve got to have those guys. He led Red Deer to a Memorial Cup. You need winners to win. He’s been there, he’s been through the battles, and again, he’ll take whatever it takes to win. In the locker room, guys listen to him. He’s a natural-born leader.

“The only thing I question with him is his intensity a little,” Pyle continued, saying he couldn’t tell if Stepp is up for a game or not. “If he’d bear down more — he’s too much of a team guy. He can be a little more selfish, shoot the puck, that way.”

Stepp was called up at the end of the year to Chicago because they needed someone more experienced, a penalty kill guy for a short period.

“He played one game. I’ve seen him play though,” Howe said of Stepp. “He’s played with Cincinnati. I like him. He’s kind of like Stuart as far as his type of play, his role as a player. He’s strong, he’s up and down. He actually plays pretty good positionally. He only played the one game for us, but he did a really good job that night.”

As far as next season goes, Howe said, “I’m sure he’ll come to camp here and he’s got to earn a spot. I think he has a pretty good chance of making the team next year.”

Stepp’s season was cut short on May 8 during Game 2 of the Toledo series when he ruptured his spleen on a rather innocent-looking hit. He was the team’s third leading playoff scorer when he went down. He’s out for the season recovering from surgery.

Stepp will have to be re-signed by the Thrashers this summer, but he’s impressed enough people on and off the ice that it’s likely to happen.

Brad Schell, C

Age: 21
6th round, 167th overall, 2002

Schell enjoyed a healthy bump in production from his rookie season, finishing tied for seventh in the league scoring with 79 points in 59 games. A whopping 39 of those points came on the league’s best power play, which he directs from the half wall. His faceoff percentage improved to around 62 percent this season.

Schell was second on the team in scoring, behind Campbell. Playing on the top line with the MVP was a promotion from last season when he played with two guys who were less skilled, but could create space for him, captain Cam Brown and Adam Smyth.

“Him and Soupy are so much alike,” Pyle said. “They get too lackadaisical at times. If they turn that screw and bring up the intensity, they can just control a game. It’s not so much with points, but just running our power play, setting it up, calming things down.”

Schell also played 10 games in Chicago, the most of any of the Gwinnett regulars. He was recalled twice, once in January and once in April. He tallied his first AHL goal in his league debut on Jan. 8 against Omaha.

Asked what Schell still has to work on, Howe said, “Everything.”

“He’s come in and he’s filled in well. He’s getting stronger. The first couple games, we had him at the beginning of the year, you could tell, he’d go to take a face-off, he’s on the ice a whole lot. Just not strong on his feet, not strong with his arms. He’s improved his leg strength. I’d say next year he probably has a chance to play in the American League. He hasn’t played that many games. I think the biggest problem he had with his strength was he was a pretty slim, skinny kid. Guys were rag-dolling him all over the place when he first came up. He’s taken care of that little by little.”

Schell thought the stay went well, playing on the fourth line with Francis Lessard and various wingers, but wasn’t sure if he was better able to handle traffic and physicality the second time.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “I didn’t play all that much up there, but when I got out there I thought we created chances. I thought I played well and they said I played well, so just take that into next year and hopefully be there.”

Finishing the season strongly in Gwinnett is important towards that end.

Schell wore an A on his jersey while Campbell was called up to Lowell in March, a reward for good play. He finished tied for fourth in plus/minus in the league at +32, after a terrible rating the year before. While he did improve on defense, the change was not as dramatic as the stat would indicate. He was not as bad as advertised last year, nor as good as implied this year. More telling was that he became a staple on the team’s penalty kill.

The playoffs, unfortunately, were a different story. Pyle had to have yet another sitdown with Schell, the topic again being work ethic.

“I wanted him to play a little harder,” Pyle explained. “In the end you need your best guys to be playing as good as they can. And so far [as of the division finals] it hasn’t happened. This is when you’ve got to stand up and bring your best.”

Schell had just one assist in the first five games, and one goal and six assists in 12 playoff games, good for just tied for ninth on the team. Suffering an injury in Game 5 against Toledo, it’s unclear if and when he will be available for the final series.

Lane Manson, D

Age: 22
4th round, 124th overall, 2002

Manson’s progress this year was incremental, but the 6’9 defenseman was always expected to be a long-term project.

By the numbers, Manson tied for the league lead among defensemen in major penalties with 19. He was only fourth on the team in total penalty minutes with 169, however, behind Smyth, Desbiens, and Matt York, because he did not take a high number of minor penalties. His +13 was fifth among team blueliners, and he totaled 13 points in 66 games.

The numbers don’t tell you much about stay-at-home defensemen, however. The fundamental thing is that Manson was tougher to beat this year than last.

“He’s got to understand he’s a good solid two-way defenseman, he moves the puck up, he’s smart, he’s got good hands,” Pyle said. “But that’s not his strength. He needs to be the guy who is so solid position-wise that when we turn the puck over, he’s always there. That’s going to get him to the next level. He battles every night, has got a huge heart, he’s a great team guy.

“The only time he gets caught is when he takes a misstep. His reads on transition and his reads on situations are usually really good. So when he angles off a guy or has a guy, it’s tough to get away from him because he’s so strong, he’s so big. The only time he gets beat is if he’s a step in the wrong direction, someone quick gets a step on him because of a bad bounce or something. That’s when he struggles. But that’s anybody though.”

Manson went on the 7-day IR at the end of March to heal up an injury suffered on a hit. He would miss the last six regular season games and the first three playoff games.

Manson showed off the injury when he returned, a still-visible bump near the middle of his chest. “It’s my sternum/clavicle area,” he explained. “It was subluxed a little bit. That’s why I was out so long. The joint doesn’t move.”

He found success doing radio color commentary during that time. According to Gladiators’ play-by-play announcer Dustin Bixby, Manson was an honest commentator and gave credit to the other team when it was due.

“I thought he was very impartial and very professional in that sense,” Bixby said. “He’s smart and he understands Jeff’s systems.”

Jumping back into the fray in a quick-moving series against Florida, Manson talked about playing conservative playoff hockey.

“What am I going to do, jump up there and get in [Gajic]’s way? You know what I mean, really? (laughing) Move the puck and stay back, that’s my job. I just try and stay back. If something opens up, I’m going to take it, but I’m not ever going to force the offensive issue. I’m going to try to stay back and hit guys and work in our end.”

During the regular season, Manson played on the third pairing, usually with Rick Emmett or Steve Slaton, and on the penalty kill. He found playing time in the playoffs a bit hard to come by, however.

“I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong, but the bottom line is that with the way the rules and changing, it’s rules to eliminate guys like him,” Pyle said as explanation, implying mobility issues. “It’s tough for him.”

Scratched for some games in the Florida and Toledo series, Manson returned to the lineup in Game 3 of the conference finals and due to injuries, will almost certainly remain active.

Manson was the only Thrasher prospect in Gwinnett who did not see any time in Chicago this season. A likely scenario for next season is Manson splitting time between the AHL and ECHL.

“He’s not getting shorter,” Pyle quipped. “Being 22, he’s still growing into that body. It may take another year or so.”

Adam Berkhoel, G

Age: 25
8th round, 240th overall, 2000 by Chicago
Acquired June 27, 2004

Berkhoel was pulled in many directions this year, which was difficult, but beat suffering a string of injuries as he did in 2004-05. A microcosm of the many directions he was pulled in was in his hairstyle at the end of the season. Making the mistake of assuming he would stay the rest of the year with the Gladiators, he was one of the first to get the team playoff Mohawk. He got rid of it when he was called up to the Thrashers — not even for the final call-up, but the second to last call-up thanks to injuries down the stretch.

Berkhoel had a 10-4-0 record, 2.73 GAA and .909 in 15 regular season games with Gwinnett. He split time with partner Sean Fields in the regular season and in the playoffs.

With an NCAA championship, NHL experience, and now a berth in the ECHL finals, Berkhoel has a resume an agent dreams about. Neither his size at just 5’11 nor his natural talent measure up to his resume, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with negative comments about the goaltender’s character or contribution to a team.

“With all he’s been through, for two years, I think my job is to build him back up,” Pyle said. “When he comes here I just tell him ‘keep working, I’m behind you,’ and he does. He wants to win, he wants to be a team guy and he understands that Fieldsie had 32 wins and deserves to play. He wants to play as Fields does, as each and every one of them do, but in the end his character, his dedication, his commitment, has always come through. He’s never complained about the cards he’s been dealt, the situation he had. Him going up to the NHL to me was deserving, just from what he’s been through. I think there’s no better character builder than to get that taste and know what it takes to get there. Everything he’s done he’s earned.

“He’s the ultimate professional I think. Even when we win and he doesn’t play as good as he thinks he should play, he’s the first one to be hard on himself and that is a professional. It’s the guys who look for excuses that you worry about. He’s a great kid, he works hard.”

Berkhoel will need that resume heading into this offseason, as it’s unlikely the Thrashers will re-sign the netminder, who turned 25 yesterday. Younger goaltenders will replace him in this organization, but he may catch on somewhere else.

Jeff Dwyer, D

Age: 25
6th round, 178th overall, 2000

Dwyer is very little noticed – he doesn’t hit much, score much, or fight. But he’s very quietly been the team’s No. 1 defenseman all season.

“He’s been so good, in every situation that I’ve put him in,” Pyle raved. “If I put him on the power play, he’s been good, if I take him off the power play he’s fine, I know he probably wants to be on it more but he understands. He’s probably been the cornerstone of our D all year. He’s been the guy that’s been there with the most experience, been leading our guys. He’s got the most minutes and he’s been phenomenal all year.

Dwyer tied for fourth in the league amongst defensemen in plus/minus at +23. This rating was good for third on the team behind forwards Schell and Campbell. For a top defenseman, especially one with as much skill as Dwyer, he was quite low-scoring, however, fifth among team blueliners with 33 points in 69 games.

Fighting a nagging groin injury in 2004-05, Dwyer has gone from playing 11 games in two leagues combined last year to playing over 80 games this season, with no letdown.

“Not at all,” Pyle said regarding a letdown. “He’s taken every different partner I’ve given him and been our No. 1. He’s done everything I could ask of him and more.”

When Dwyer does get scored on, he’s almost invariably in the right spot, but has failed to completely tie up his man. A very solid player at this level, Dwyer could easily play in the AHL. He doesn’t look like NHL material at age 25, however, so he likely won’t be re-signed by the Thrashers.

Adam Smyth, RW

Age: 22
Free agent signee, 2005

A terrific fighter with skill, Smyth unfortunately lacks the self-control necessary to be a contributing member of a team.

The 6’1 215-pounder was third in PIMs in the league with 286, including 22 major penalties. Despite a good set of hands, Smyth did not increase his point production rate in his second year as a pro.

More concerned with measuring himself against fellow tough guys than helping the team, he’s too often guilty of selfish play. His antics, while sometimes entertaining, do not win games, especially come crunch time. On a short leash going into the playoffs, he couldn’t keep his roster spot.

Smyth was shelved on the IR after hitting someone from behind the first shift of Game 1 against Toledo. Pyle had specifically warned him one more time against such behavior that very morning. It would be the last of such warnings as he became persona non grata in regards to the lineup.

It’s safe to say that Smyth won’t play again for a Jeff Pyle-coached team. And hand in hand with that, since part of the role of the affiliate is to weed players out, Smyth is also a candidate for a trade or a buyout from his Thrashers contract.

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Kevin Wey contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.