The Atlanta Thrashers just completed a week-long camp for their prospects at the team practice facility in Duluth, Georgia. The camp consisted of off-ice physical training and on-ice drills, including two four-on-four scrimmages. The coaching staffs of the Chicago Wolves (AHL) and Gwinnett Gladiators (ECHL) led the drills as NHL coaches can not instruct college amateurs per NCAA rules.
The purpose of the camp was to enhance and develop player skills, they were not there to compete for NHL jobs--that happens in about seven weeks. Still, that didn't stop most of the Thrashers top brass from watching these young guys to get a look at what they can do. Both pro and amateur scouts were in the stands along with the GMs of the Wolves and Thrashers.
Your blogger was also there for four of the seven days and here are my observations. Of course, I'm not a scout but I've watched a lot of hockey over the years and I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express recently.
The Thrashers have a large number of promising young defensemen. These are guys you don't even have to squint hard to imagine them playing in the NHL someday. At the top of my list is Grant Lewis who has a rangy frame, great balance on his skates and makes good reads. Early on he was impossible to beat but he did give up a few goals and chances as the forwards got into a groove. His shot isn't amazing and I doubt he will score a lot of goals in the NHL but he did show a real flair for jumping up into the offensive zone to create odd man rushes. He controls the puck with ease and confidence and could rack up some nice assist totals.
Another defensive standout was Chad Denny who has a good frame for physical contact (though he may need to improve his conditioning) and a very hard shot. Denny lacks the skating flair of some other prospects but he is quick enough to stay with his man and his positioning and reads were very good. Another thing I liked about Denny is that he is hungry for the puck on offense. Sometimes defensemen are reluctant to shoot but with Denny there is no hesitation if there is a lane he just lets if fly without over-thinking.
This was my first chance to see Swede Tobias Enstrom who just signed with the team this summer. Thrashers management have mentioned him as a young player who could make the NHL team out of training camp this fall. The first day I was quite disappointed in his defensive positioning and ability to read the play. Enstrom is very small by NHL standards so his positioning will be essential in the NHL. Later in the week he looked much better. Enstrom's strongest attribute is his passing. Nearly every pass I saw him make was tape-to-tape. Perfect passes are crucial for split second scoring chances and he has the ability to make them. He also displayed the abilty to see where a player is about to be and pass to that spot.
Arturs Kulda was drafted out of Europe and then came over to play in the OHL last year. He was taken very late in the draft but really impressed me with his ability to read the play and use his body to take away the lane to the net. He is not flashy but very effective in his coverage. Kulda dares you to try and go through him to get to the net.
Scott Lehman struggled last year in the ECHL and was beaten on numerous occasions at camp by other forwards. He will need to make major improvements to reach the NHL.
Other quality defensive prospects who did not attend camp are AHL veterans Nathan Oystrick, Mark Popovic and Boris Valabik who will all be at NHL camp this fall. Another promising young defender Andrei Zubarev will play in the top league in Russia. He may sign with the Thrashers next summer.
2006 1st round pick Bryan Little was in camp. He displays good speed and very good passing. Little was one of the top scorers in the OHL last season and I was a bit surprised to see him struggle to beat defensemen one-on-one at times. Maybe he's just better in games than in practice but I anticipated a bit more flash from him.
Brett Sterling made one tape-to-tape pass after another in camp. He doesn't have blazing speed but he is very smooth in almost everything that he does on the ice. Despite being small of stature Sterling moves right into the high-traffic areas around the net. He ended up being knocked into several goalies during the camp--something I imagine he is quite used to.
Another favorite of mine is Riley Holzapfel who was taken in 2006 in the 2nd round. He has put up good offensive numbers in the NHL and could develop into either a second or third line forward depending upon how he develops. He does many things well and could be a great complimentary player in the NHL.
Jordan LaVallee is a strong candidate to make the Thrashers as a checking forward in my opinion, he brings good speed and size to the table and he plays a straightforward game. He is not flashy but hard working and effective. Certainly he is bigger and faster than recent checking liner J.P. Vigier.
Spencer Machacek was the Thrashers highest pick (3rd round) in the most recent draft. He brings a combination of physical play, decent speed and hands. He looks like he has the foundation to become a NHL player to me.
Over at Baseball Prospectus they use the term "wish-casting" which means roughly "projecting something that you can't reasonable forecast based on the available data." In the real world there is a certain amount of wishcasting that goes on with prospects who can not reasonable be forecast to make the NHL. Why bring this up? Because the next group of forwards requires a bit of wish casting in my opinion in order to see them as regular NHL players in the future. My wishcast group includes Andrew Kozek, Tomas Pospisil, Chad Painchaud, Guillaume Desbiens and Myles Stoesz. Kozek and Pospisil require the least amount of wish casting but both players have talent but need to become much more consistent to have a shot. I like Desbiens but his skating isn't up to the NHL. Stoesz has surprising skill for a tough guy but that role requires a lot more skill than it used to and I'm not sure he can reach that level.
Moving from the category of "wish casting" to "very unlikely" we come to final group of forwards. Mikka Tuomainen has great size but simply lacks NHL speed. Mike Hamilton did almost nothing to be noticed all week. Rylan Kaip is defensive minded player who lacks NHL puck handling ability and Joey Crabb can do a lot of things but his skills aren't NHL caliber.
Ondrej Pavelec is an elite goalie prospect and may be competing for a NHL job in another year. It is tough to evaluate goalies just from watching them in drills so I'll leave it at that.
Dan Turple covers a lot of net and put up some good numbers in the OHL but was roughed up pretty good by ECHL shooters. Will need to show improvement at that level before advancing.