Yesterday I posted the first in a series looking at the invitees to Thrashers rookie camp. If you're curious about Akim Aliu, Jimmy Bubnick, Alexander Burmistrov, or Patrice Cormier, start there. Today we look at four more forwards: Angelo Esposito, Michael Forney, Levko Koper, and Andrew Kozek. We'll finish the rest of the forwards tomorrow and start to look at defensemen after that.
Here's a player who has not had much luck... to put it lightly. In his first year of junior hockey with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, Esposito scored 98 points and was selected as the offensive rookie of the year. Going into his second year, it looked as though he could be the first overall selection in the NHL draft. As the year went on, his production slowed (finishing with 79 points), and he eventually fell to the 20th overall pick. Still, being a first-round draft choice in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at.
In his third year of juniors, his point total fell yet again, this time down to 69 points. Angelo was traded to Atlanta near the end of the year along with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, and a 1st round pick that became Daultan Leveille. He was also traded between junior teams to the Montreal Juniors during the off-season.
Angelo's production finally ticked up with the Juniors, netting 24 goals (and 18 assists) in 35 games before tearing an ACL in his right knee. The injury would end his season, though he was expected to be ready to go for Thrashers training camp in 2009.
In 2009, Esposito attended the Thrashers camp but started the season with the Chicago Wolves. He picked up 4 assists in 12 games before another season-ending injury, once again an ACL tear in his right knee. Neither of these injuries could be classified as Angelo's "fault" - the first came when another player fell on his leg, the second when his skate got stuck in the ice - though there is clearly some concern about how his knee will hold up after two surgeries. (From what I've heard, he's doing much better after surgery #2 than surgery #1.)
I still have a lot of hope for Angelo. He's an incredibly talented hockey player. He's been living with Zach Bogosian and the two of them have been working out all summer. (If you haven't seen Zach recently, by the way, he's a beast.) Angelo will likely come to camp in the best shape ever. It would take quite a coup for him to make the Thrashers this year, as he'd have to jump ahead of both Alex Burmistrov and Patrice Cormier for a job as 3rd line center, but with a good year in Chicago, he could make a strong case to join the Thrashers for the 2011-2012 season.
I believe, if his knee is fully healed, he'll join the Thrashers for training camp and play at least a few pre-season games with the team.
Forney started his hockey journey as a Thrashers draftee at the University of North Dakota where he never got to see much ice time. His first year, he had a shoulder injury that required two off-season surgeries. He was healthy his second year, but he just couldn't manage to earn much ice time in a very talented lineup. That led him to leave UND and play hockey in the USHL.
His first year in the USHL was solid: Forney led the team in goals (26), was second in assists (34), and was a +33 in 59 games. After two years of under-performing, he was finally showing the promise that led the Thrashers to draft him in the 3rd round in 2006. He started the next season with the Chicago Wolves, but played only 3 games before being demoted to the Gwinnett Gladiators where he put up just 26 points in 63 games.
If there's any clear sign that a player will not make the NHL, it's playing in the ECHL. Still, Forney is young and lost a crucial bit of development time while at UND. If Forney can stick with the Chicago Wolves this season (and play well), he'll be worth watching over the next couple years.
Is it possible he could make the NHL? He's got the right tools. He's got great stick-handling, a good shot, and can skate. Very often while watching prospects, I'll catch a flashy move and think, "Who was that? Forney?!" In fact, he probably has more of those flashy impressive moments than just about any other guy on the ice... it's just a matter of him putting it together during games. [Note: this does come from seeing him a small number of times during prospect camp.]
I don't often make it to Gwinnett for games, but if you're at a lot of Gladiators games, feel free to leave a quick Forney scouting report in the comments. I'd be curious to hear what seems to be holding him back over the long-haul.
Koper is a solid two-way winger who has played four seasons for the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. After three seasons of increased production, he tailed off just a bit in his fourth year, though it was due to a fall in assists (his goal total increased slightly.) Koper is not big, but he has enough of the right assets to earn a checking- or energy-line role with the Thrashers while earning some time on the penalty kill. In fact, you wouldn't be too far off to compare him to another winger from the WHL who is working toward a role with the Thrashers, Spencer Machacek. Levko is two years younger than Spencer and has very similar-looking point totals (adjusting for age differences.)
Koper will likely return to his junior team this year. [ed. note: I had originally said Chicago, that was a mistake on my part.] After that, it'll take a couple solid seasons with the Wolves for him to earn a spot here and he's got a lot of depth to pass in order to reach the Thrashers. Still, Levko's a complete player, and we think he's got a shot at making the NHL someday.
Like Michael Forney, Kozek is a player who frequently impresses me when I see him on the ice. He's got a good shot - perhaps in the top tier of our prospects - and seems to always be in scoring position. His best offensive year during college at the University of North Dakota where he was part of a three-way tie for team lead in goals. You might recognize another of the three: T.J. Oshie. Kozek had 18 goals that season (with only 3 assists).
He spent last season with the Chicago Wolves picking up 12 goals and 10 assists in 69 games. These numbers aren't great, but Kozek wasn't getting a whole lot of ice time. For him to have a shot with the Thrashers, he's going to have to start by earning more time with the Wolves. However, he's not a particularly big player (5-11, 190lbs) and needs to work on his skating. He is unlikely to play for the Thrashers on a consistent basis.
Fun fact: while in college, Kozek scored a hat-trick against Peter Mannino (who is now his teammate on the Wolves.)