Five Atlanta Thrasher prospects are currently playing for the nearby ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators, including two goaltenders, two forwards, and one defenseman.
Almost a third of the way through the season, Gwinnett is 11-6-3-1, a drop-off for a team that went to the league finals last year. But amid the struggles, there are a few prospects showing some real promise.
Dave Caruso, G
Local product and veteran of the Thrashers’ prospect camps, Dave Caruso was signed as a free agent this summer after completing four years at The Ohio State University. He’s off to a pretty good start with the Gladiators, with record of 6-1-2, a GAA of 3.36 a save percentage of .901 that is middle of the pack in the league.
“I feel pretty comfortable in there,” he said recently. “I’m not exactly where I want to be in terms of all the finer points — I have a lot to learn, but I’m trying to pick it up every game and trying to watch tape and learn from it.”
He found on-ice similarities and off-ice differences between college and the ECHL, where teams play a 72-game schedule.
“I think the travel is a lot harder. It’s more of a grind. But from the college game it’s not much different. I don’t think it was a huge step up. When I played in the A for that one game, it was much bigger of a step up. Bigger guys, everything like that.”
Caruso was recalled to the AHL Chicago Wolves between Oct. 28 and Nov. 6 when Fred Brathwaite hurt his hand. The 24-year-old played half of one game when Michael Garnett was a bit shaken up.
No longer wearing his red Ohio State mask, Caruso recently got a new one done in a “Thrashers hometown” theme. It has the Atlanta skyline on the sides, with a sky of reds and oranges to represent “Hotlanta.” As a native of Roswell, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, it has street signs on the back depicting the corner of Peachtree and Roswell roads.
Perhaps due to being from the south, Caruso is known for being very easy going, a trait not always found in netminders.
“I think he’s one of these guys who can get along with anybody,” Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. “He’s an intelligent kid, works pretty hard. Eager to always learn, wants to do more, and whatever he can do.”
“I’m actually a forward who plays goalie, I always think of it that way,” Caruso said of his easy-going nature. “I played forward a lot growing up.”
Did he find a higher calling when he moved to goal?
“If that’s what he wants to tell himself,” joked winger Brandon Kaleniecki, standing nearby.
Chad Painchaud, RW
For a 20-year-old rookie, Chad Painchaud is doing fine. He has six goals and seven assists, and his –2 is about average on the team. But fine isn’t good enough for him, as scorers always measure themselves by their production.
“Personally I think I could play a lot better,” he said before the team headed out on its recent road trip.
Painchaud is the youngest Gladiator, and one of the youngest in the league, born in May 1986.
Among 20-year-old players league-wide, Painchaud is the fourth leading scorer behind Aki Seitsonen (CAL), Stanislav Lascek (TB) and Tyler Spurgeon (EDM).
Pyle has been generally pleased with Painchaud, but had the usual criticisms for players of his background.
“He’s a good skater, has shown flashes of being really good, but he’s just got to get out of some of the habits he had coming from junior. [Junior’s] a little bit easier and I’m sure he had a lot more ice time.
“In junior you play two minutes on the power play, and I don’t think he had to be as committed as he needs to be to be a pro hockey player – what you need to do on the ice, what you need to do off the ice, to develop and get better. That’s the side he’ll need to work on.”
Working harder is in Painchaud’s plans, as he thought it would help him out of his self-defined slump. “When you’re in a little slump, the best thing is just to work hard and hopefully get the breaks,” he said.
In the OHL, Painchaud won fastest skater in the 150′ dash at the 2004 skills competition, and won the fastest lap at the 2006 skills competition. Having had knee surgery last spring, he’s still shown flashes of speed, but overall hasn’t been able to use it much to his advantage in this setting. Painchaud started the year on the second line with Mike Vigilante and Andy Contois, the two fastest skaters on the team to form an all-speed line.
After Jeff Campbell was called up, Painchaud played briefly on the top line with Brad Schell and Colton Fretter, as Pyle was trying to figure out what worked.
“I just thought it’d be a good fit. Because he’s got skill,” Pyle said. “And now it’s just one of those deals where I’m just trying to find a rhythm.”
Having played with Scott Mifsud and Joel Stepp for a couple games, Painchaud is back again with Vigilante and Contois as the team struggles to find its way back to the win column. The reunion produced a goal for Painchaud on Saturday night, his first point in five games. He has scored four points in the last two games, which moved him into second in scoring among rookies on the team behind Fretter.
Pyle agreed that Painchaud has improved already since the beginning of the season, and once he becomes more committed, will only get better.
“He does a lot of little things well. He’s very aware of the game, but the work ethic – and this is a lot of the guys – they don’t understand that you’ve got to work harder without the puck than with it. Because you don’t have it that much.”
Unlike the college-trained Caruso above, Painchaud felt the level of play in the ECHL was a transition from junior, saying the players are bigger, stronger, and faster. Indeed Painchaud loses a fair number of battles to more mature players.
“He hits, he gets involved, so I can live with that,” Pyle said. “He’s 20, I’m sure he’s going to mature over the next couple years.”
Far from scrawny, Painchaud will need to develop core muscles for balance and get used to going up against men. It’s a problem Schell had his first year, and in fact Painchaud in general looks a lot like Schell did his first year.
“Yeah, a lot like that,” Pyle agreed. “I think he’s a step better than Scheller was though because he’ll shoot the puck a little more. I think he has the same rap as Scheller — that he’s a little lethargic at times.”
In his first year in the league at age 20, Schell had .74 points per game while Painchaud currently has .62 points per game. It’s not a huge difference, but importantly Painchaud’s defensive game is better than Schell’s was at the time.
One thing is for sure – being on a winning team is a relief. Painchaud’s junior team, the Sarnia Sting, where he played last year alongside fellow Thrashers prospect Tomas Pospisil, was nothing short of awful. Coming to the rink was not a lot of fun for anyone.
“Yeah, the last few years have been a struggle,” Painchaud said. “But coming here, definitely winning has been a good feeling.”
Having known many of his fellow players already from Thrashers camps, Painchaud is living with fellow rookies Scott Lehman and Dan Turple.
“It’s going great. We have a lot in common,” he said. “We’re pretty much from the same area, played in the same league last year, so we’ve become friends really quickly.”
The outlook for Painchaud’s second half is good, though fatigue could become a factor as he played only 49 games last season due to the knee injury.
Brad Schell, C
In reference to their place in an NHL organization’s depth chart, prospects often recite a very wise mantra: ‘Play well, that’s all you can control.’ Concentration on changing one’s own approach rather than the environment is a teaching that hockey and Buddhism have in common.
Schell is living that mantra, controlling everything he can and playing well with the situation he was given, which is a third year at the ECHL level. He’s leading the league in scoring with 36 points in 21games — at age 22 no less – he’s making a strong statement to anyone who’s listening.
Playing with 2005-06 MVP Jeff Campbell for half the year certainly helped Schell accumulate points. He averaged 2.18 points per game when playing on a line with Campbell to start the year before Campbell’s Nov. 13 call-up to Grand Rapids. Schell is averaging just 1.10 points per game without Campbell, though these past 10 games have been with a tougher schedule and with some injuries to the team. Pyle is of course happy with him, but continually complains that he won’t shoot the puck enough. Schell has taken only 47 shots in 21 games, though two of his eight goals have been game-winners.
While other Thrasher-contracted players assigned to the Gladiators are all in the first year of their contracts, Schell is in his last. Even if he’s not retained by the Thrashers this summer, with what he’s accomplished, he’s certainly set himself up for a long career in hockey.
Dan Turple, G
The best goaltender in the OHL last year as an overager, Dan Turple led the league in save percentage, goals-against and shutouts. But he hasn’t yet found his groove in the pro ranks.
Turple and Caruso have split the time in net evenly, except during Caruso’s call-up to Chicago. Turple’s best features are his size at 6’6 and his quickness. But he hasn’t been playing so as to take advantage of his strengths lately. He’s taking himself out of position, which of course minimizes the chance that the puck will simply hit his big frame.
Turple has had a few good games, including a shutout, which have served to underline his inconsistency. He has the fourth-worst save percentage in the league at .877 (minimum 360 minutes played), a 5-5-1 record and a 3.65 goals against.
No longer borrowing Pasi Nurminen’s old Thrashers mask, he has his own pro look going as well.
His new mask has the Chicago Wolves logo on one side and the Thrashers on the other. As goals, these places seem a long way off right now.
Finding confidence seems to be the leading issue for Turple, who turns 22 in a month.
“If we play well in front of him – confidence is a big thing,” the no-nonsense Pyle said. “When your team is sucking in front of you, it’s tough to have your A game.”
Scott Lehman, D
Lehman, a rookie out of the OHL Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, has the worst plus/minus on the team at –12, to go along with five assists and 36 penalty minutes in 21 games.
How does –12 happen? Among Lehman’s issues is that he pinches far too often, and does not have the speed to recover his position. He fails get the puck deep in the offensive zone, and turnovers here lead to rushes the other way. He and partner recent Jamie Milam often struggle to clear their defensive zone, getting caught out for long shifts.
Lehman played with second-year pro Matt York a lot at the beginning of the year, but then was playing on the third pairing with fellow rookie Milam for a few weeks. This weekend he has been back again with York.
Lehman gets a chance to play in all situations. He is usually good along the boards, but the physicality that he shows there would be useful in the rest of his game. He will fight if challenged, and in fact has recently been sporting a black eye.
Pyle likes his grit and his attitude. “If I tell him this is how I want it done, he does it. He’s not a bitcher, kind of a quiet kid,” he said.
There is a lot of room for improvement as the season progresses. Playing a simpler game would probably solve a lot of problems.
Colton Fretter, F
Fretter is on a Wolves contract, but included here as the Thrashers remain interested in this former draft pick. And why wouldn’t they be? Fretter is second in rookie scoring in the league with 24 points in 21 games, and tied for second in the entire league in goals with 14.
It was hoped that Fretter would follow the model of fellow 2002 Thrashers draft pick Pat Dwyer (CAR), who played 14 games with the Gladiators in 2004-05 before moving on to the AHL and an NHL contract. But Fretter is outscoring his model, by far. He had 13 points in his first 14 ECHL games, compared to Dwyer’s five (though he is two years older than Dwyer was at the time.)
More importantly, Fretter has shown some impressive skill along the way. On Nov. 25 in a game against Columbia Inferno, he scored a huge individual-effort goal. Fretter shook off three defenders on his way to the net, then deked goaltender Todd Ford (TOR) to go backhand to the top shelf. It was a show of skill almost never seen in this league. Fretter jumped against glass in celebration as he tied the game at 1-1. If the goal had been scored in the playoffs rather than early in a regular season game, it would surely go down in team history.
Not known to be so specialized in goal scoring during his career, Fretter’s prowess this season stands out. His shooting percentage is right at 20 percent, a high number to maintain.
Pyle has naturally been extremely pleased with Fretter and his play. In addition to playing him o the top line, he’s planting the 5’10 Fretter in the high slot on the power play, a spot from which Guillaume Desbiens had a lot of success last year.
“You don’t have to be big, you have to be in the right spot and know how to support guys. He’s been consistently our hardest-working and one of our best players. He’s not going to be as big and physical as Dezy so he has to be smarter and in the right spot. And he’s been really good.”
Lane Manson, D
After two years with the Gladiators, this summer Manson’s camp asked for a different assignment. On the last year of his rookie contract, Manson is playing for the ECHL Dayton Bombers where he has one assist, is –1, and has 21 penalty minutes in eight games.
In reference to playing in the American league, or a player thinking he should be playing there, Pyle cut to the chase. “Bottom line, if you’re not getting it done here, next year when they make the call…” he said, leaving the outcome of not being the chosen one unspoken. “You’ve still got to be going as hard as you can possibly go.”
Pyle is unhappy most of all with his defensemen right now, who are committing giveaways, not getting the puck deep, and not making the simple plays. The loss of Paul Flache due to broken vertebrae has only compounded the problem.
“We need to play better in front of these kids,” he said, referring to his two goalies. “I feel bad for them.”
After a largely unsuccessful North Division road trip this weekend, the Gladiators return home Dec. 8. Changes on the blue line should not come as a surprise given the recent deficiencies.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.