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Thrashers want kids with skills and smarts

Tuesday, 07.22.2008 / 9:00 AM / Prospects

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

An imposing physique and tremendous shot are nice, but Atlanta Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr needs to see a few intangible qualities from potential prospects who hope to reach the NHL.

"Skating is always taken for granted, and most guys who aren't good skaters likely won't be drafted anyway," Marr told NHL.com. "The things I'm looking for are the intangibles, like his experience, his competitiveness -- is he first on the puck and does he even want the puck? I've been doing this long enough to kind of pinpoint those guys who are solid skaters with good hockey sense. You want guys who will be difference-makers because those are the types of players you want going at the opposition in a game."

Marr, who is responsible for evaluating players, preparing the club's draft ratings and monitoring the development of player prospects, admits each player is evaluated individually.

"The maturity of each player is different, and some may need time to develop to catch up with their bodies," Marr said. "There's that experience factor as well. Some are playing juniors and on championship teams and others are in college. Experience certainly counts in preparing for the pro ranks and, not to mention, being in the right place at the right time. When you are given an opportunity, whether it's at developmental camp, training camp or in an exhibition game, you must make the most of that opportunity."

One such player was center Bryan Little, who, when given the chance with the big club last season, produced. Little, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder who was selected in the first round (No. 12 overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft, had six goals and 10 assists in 48 appearances for Atlanta in 2007-08.

"Bryan played a lot of games last year and got good NHL experience," Marr said. "We put him in different situations, and he proved to be pretty effective on faceoffs and came through with a few important goals. He had a season and a half of development last year after a great summer workout in '07. If he continues to work hard, I see no reason why he wouldn't stick with the team this year."

Among players with at least 300 faceoffs taken last season, Little ranked fourth on Atlanta with a 45.1 winning percentage. He also was 11th on the team with 26 takeaways.

While the 20-year-old Little is no longer considered a prospect, here are a few hidden gems in Atlanta to keep a close eye on as the 2008-09 season approaches.

CENTERS
 
Riley Holzapfel -- There is nothing complicated about Holzapfel's game. He competes and works extremely hard and that, according to Marr, will only benefit him in 2008-09. Drafted by the Thrashers in the second round (No. 43) in 2006, the 6-foot, 180-pound center takes a hard-nosed, physical approach to the game. He totaled 18 goals, 41 points and 43 penalty minutes with a plus-3 rating in 49 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League this past season. Holzapfel sustained a concussion that sidelined him at the start of the season before joining the Canadian World Junior Team. In 2006-07, he had 39 goals, 82 points and 94 penalty minutes in 72 games with Moose Jaw. He will likely begin the season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and hopes to make the jump to the big club at some point this winter.

"(New coach) John Anderson likes what he sees," Marr said. "He finishes his checks and can position himself in front of the net very well. He's a player we hope will stand out at training camp."

Angelo Esposito
-- The 6-foot-1, 180-pound center, who came to the Thrashers at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh along with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and a first-round draft pick (center Daultan Leveille) for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, is an excellent skater with great potential.

Esposito captained Team Canada at the 2006 Under-18 Junior World Cup and played at the 2007 World U-18 Championship. In 2005-06, he scored 98 points (39 goals), the second-highest total for a rookie behind Claude Giroux (103 points with the Gatineau Olympiques) in the Quebec Major Junior League. Alongside wings Mathieu Melanson (86 points) and Alex Radulov (152 points), the top line for the Quebec Remparts was the most productive scoring line in the entire QMJHL and helped lead the club to the Memorial Cup.

ATLANTA THRASHERS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 76
(14th eAst/28TH NHL)
Change from 2006-07 -21
Home Points 41
(14th eAst/27th NHL)
Away Points 35
(14th East/26th NHL)
In 2007-08, Esposito had 30 goals and 69 points in 56 games with Quebec. Marr is hopeful Esposito, selected No. 20 overall in the 2007 Draft after being talked about as the potential No. 1 pick, will enter training camp with greater determination.

"Angelo needs to have that summer that will make a difference and turn some heads," Marr said. "We're being positive and patient with his development. He just needs to get physically stronger to become that good point producer in the NHL. I feel he has put a lot of pressure on his shoulders and he just needs to play his game and be the best he can be. He must understand that he doesn't need to carry the team but play a part in the team.

"If Angelo can take a similar approach as Bryan (Little) did last summer, he'll be just fine."

General Manager Don Waddell agrees with Marr.

"This is a critical year for (Esposito) in his development," Waddell said. "He has good skills and great hockey sense. He just needs to take his game to the next level and be consistent with it."

Jonas Enlund -- The smooth-skating center, who has yet to be signed by the Thrashers but attended developmental camp in July, completed his second full season with Tappara Tempere in the Finnish Elite League in 2007-08 with 19 goals and 41 points in 56 games. While he doesn't possess blazing speed, Enlund, chosen in the sixth round (No. 165) in the 2006 Draft, will play both ends and has a knack for making plays whenever in possession of the puck.

"Personally, I'd like to see Jonas shoot the puck more because whenever he had the puck, he really makes things happen," Marr offered.

WINGS

Brett Sterling -- Sterling was a top-three finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in 2004-05 and a top-10 finalist in 2005-06 at Colorado College. In 2006-07, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound left wing won the Dudley Garrett Award as the American Hockey League Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Wolves, topping all rookies and finishing fourth in the league with 97 points in 77 games. He led the AHL in goals (55), becoming the first rookie to do so since 1989, and garnered the Willie Marshall Award as the top goal scorer. He was also MVP of the 2007 AHL All-Star Classic.

Drafted by the Thrashers in the fifth round (No. 145) in 2003, Sterling had a goal and two assists in 13 games with Atlanta last season. Sterling actually made the Thrashers roster out of training camp last season, but was eventually sent to Chicago, where he had 38 goals and 71 points with a plus-7 rating in 70 games for the Calder Cup champions.

"Right now, Brett has to understand that he is a marked man since he's a goal-scorer, so players will try and take liberties with him," Marr said. "That's something he's just going to have to battle through and not allow it to effect his performance."

Spencer Machacek -- The Lethbridge, Alberta, native began his major junior career in the Western Hockey League with the Vancouver Giants. The 6-1, 195-pound right wing recorded 45 points in each of his first two seasons, playing a key role in the Giants' 2007 Memorial Cup championship when he registered 20 points in 22 playoff games. The third-round draft pick (No. 67) in 2007 was named captain of the Giants this past season and posted career-high totals of 33 goals and 78 points in 70 games.

"Spencer has gotten a lot stronger and seems much more determined," Marr said. "He has shown the last couple of years that he can play alongside skilled players and have much success. He has that Gary Roberts-type ability on the ice and just needs to get stronger."

DEFENSEMEN

Boris Valabik -- At 6-7 and 230 pounds, Valabik needn't take a back seat to anyone. Atlanta's first-round choice (No. 10) in 2004 has proven to be a physical presence along the blue line, as evidenced by his 229 penalty minutes in 58 games with Chicago of the AHL. In addition to collecting eight points, Valabik finished with a plus-21 rating. The Slovak native also played in seven games with the Thrashers last season, totaling 42 penalty minutes.

"He's paid his dues and received a good taste of the NHL life last season," Marr said. "Both Don (Waddell) and John (Anderson) feel he's NHL-ready right now. Now, that doesn't mean he'll be getting tons of minutes, but I think the plan is to insert him into a regular rotation because when he gets out there, he's a spark. His off-ice conditioning is outstanding, and he also possesses a short learning curve. I think he had a good audition for our team at the end of last season."

Grant Lewis
-- Following four seasons at Dartmouth, where he accumulated 77 points (64 assists) in 120 games, Lewis scored two goals and 14 assists with a plus-16 rating in 43 games with the Wolves last season. The Thrashers selected Lewis in the second round (No. 40) in the 2004 draft. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is regarded as an offensive defenseman with excellent vision.

"Just when things started going well for Grant in Chicago last season, he couldn't stay healthy long enough to regain that form," Marr said. "He's real strong off the puck and his ability on the power play is a plus. When healthy, he could have an impact. If he gets stronger, this could be a breakout year for him."

Arturs Kulda -- The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Latvian who was signed to an entry-level contract on May 22, has been a pleasant surprise. In 2007-08, Kulda scored 34 points with a plus-9 rating in 55 games with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League and was even signed by the AHL's Chicago Wolves to an amateur tryout, finishing with one assist and a plus-3 rating in five games.

The Thrashers' seventh-round pick (No. 200) in 2006 is destined for AHL duty this fall and, according to Marr, has done an exceptional job in seizing the opportunity to showcase his ability despite being a late-round selection.

GOALIES

Ondrej Pavelec -- Pavelec finished 28-11 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in 43 appearances with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior League in 2006-07. He then, according to Marr, had "a phenomenal year" in the AHL with Chicago last season, going 33-15-4 with a 2.77 GAA, two shutouts and a .911 save percentage. The native of the Czech Republic is projected to be a starting goalie down the road, as he possesses an uncanny knack for stealing games. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he also is an intimidating presence between the pipes.

Pavelec, Atlanta's second-round choice (No. 41) in 2005, was promoted to the big club in November and made seven appearances (3-3, 3.11 GAA, .905 save percentage). He won three straight games, including a memorable 31-save, 2-1 triumph against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 6.

"My impression was that the NHL players had confidence in front of him and training camp will certainly dictate how much he plays this season," Marr said. "Don's (Waddell) plan is to have Ondrej playing somewhere this season. Whether it's with Atlanta or in the AHL, we'll have to see."
 
Alex Kangas
-- Kangas, a fifth-round pick (No. 135) in 2006, was named to the United States Hockey League All-Rookie Team in 2006 with Sioux Falls after going 20-6 with a 2.15 GAA and .930 save percentage. In his first season at the University of Minnesota in 2007-08, he replaced incumbent starter Jeff Frazee and finished 12-10-9 with a 1.98 GAA and .930 save percentage. The 21-year-old native of Rochester, Minn., will enter his sophomore season with the Gophers this September.

"He's been taking a lot of summer classes and has been working extremely hard," Marr said. "He really wants to apply himself academically, in addition to working hard on the ice, and is a player we have our eye on."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.

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