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Esposito finally fulfills WJC dream

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

"I had dinner with Angelo the Tuesday night before the Canadian tryout squad was announced. He was excited about the opportunity and excited about how the season was going. It's nice that he gets another crack at (Team Canada) because he didn't get that chance over the summer. He could have just packed it in at that time and said 'You know, it's not going to happen for me.'"
-- Thrashers' GM Don Waddell

Atlanta Thrashers Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell is pleased to see prospect Angelo Esposito will play for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa later this month.

After failing to make the cut three times -- only the second player in Team Canada to ever suffer that fate -- Esposito was among the 23 players named by coach Pat Quinn to the team that hopes to win its fifth straight gold medal in the prestigious U-20 tournament.

Not only is Esposito finally making the team a feel-good story, but it is further validation of Waddell's belief that the star-crossed 19-year-old will someday play an integral role with his franchise in Atlanta -- perhaps more sooner than later.

"We have strong beliefs that he's going to play for our hockey club in the very near future and that's why we signed him in July," Waddell told NHL.com. "He got himself in great condition over the summer, had a great prospects tournament in Traverse City (Mich.) and then followed up with a great training camp."

Dan Marr, Atlanta's director of amateur scouting, was thrilled upon hearing the news of Esposito's selection.

"We always looked at Angelo's situation as having the glass half full and not half empty," Marr told NHL.com on Monday. "Think about it, he's been invited to Canada's camp for four straight seasons so he's obviously got something going for him. The WJC is a 19-year-old tournament so it's a big difference when you're 17 or 18 because not too many under-aged players stand out. But he persevered and did what was asked of him and it will only continue."


In June, Esposito's junior rights were traded by the Quebec Remparts to the Montreal Junior of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In 21 games with Montreal (16-14-1), Esposito has posted 27 points with a plus-5 rating. He also has a team-leading 15 goals and 7 power-play goals.

"I had dinner with Angelo the Tuesday night before the Canadian tryout squad was announced," Waddell said. "He was excited about the opportunity and excited about how the season was going. It's nice that he gets another crack at (Team Canada) because he didn't get that chance over the summer. He could have just packed it in at that time and said 'You know, it's not going to happen for me.' "

To his credit, Esposito has maintained a positive frame of mind despite three previous unsuccessful tryouts for the WJC and his exclusion from the summer tryout camp that Team Canada runs for players considered among the favorites for the U-20 team.

That disappointment came on the heels of a series of setbacks in 2007 that saw him go from being a favorite to play for the 2008 World Junior team before an early-season groin injury forced Esposito to withdraw from the preseason Super Series against Russia; a development that all but derailed his bid to make the World Junior team that winter and set up the scenario where he followed in the inglorious steps of Detroit Red Wing Dan Cleary, the only other Canadian to be cut by Team Canada from three U-20 squads.

Despite those setbacks, and a career-changing trade that saw his NHL rights dealt at last season's trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Thrashers in the Marian Hossa deal, Waddell has witnessed a renewed vigor in Esposito's game.

"He's been very positive and very upbeat and we talked a lot about having fun, which he said he is for the first time in a long time," Waddell said. "To be the best player you can be, you have to enjoy going to the rink every day and having fun."

Esposito knows nothing will come easy, but he's not about to throw in the towel, either.

"I had a really good camp in Atlanta and when I came back to junior I started off a bit slow, but the last month I've been playing very well and my game is getting better and better every day," Esposito told the Canadian Press. "My consistency has been a lot better. I'm stronger, faster and more confident."

According to Marr, , Esposito put on some additional strength this summer to bulk up to 189 pounds on his 6-foot frame. It was something that didn't go unnoticed.

"Strength is always something these players could add," Waddell said. "He's got the spark, he's got the skating and he's got the hands. Anytime you can add strength to that combination, it's going to make you a better player."

Originally selected by the Penguins in the first round (No. 20) in 2007, Esposito was dealt to Atlanta, along with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and a 2008 first-round draft pick (center Daultan Leveille) for Hossa and Pascal Dupuis last Feb. 26.

"Angelo has experienced so much pressure for so many years and was rated as one of the top kids back when he was only 14," Waddell said. "When there's that kind of pressure and media hype on a teenage kid, it's tough to handle. When we traded for him, we sat down with him and eventually signed him. We just wanted to remove all the obstacles in his life and allow him to just enjoy playing hockey again."

Waddell is convinced Esposito can help lead Team Canada to victory in the World Junior Championship, which begins in two weeks.

Esposito captained Team Quebec at the 2006 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge to a gold medal and then was named captain for Team Canada at the 2006 U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, where he won another gold medal.

"There's a certain maturity level in learning this game, and I think the coaches this year have done a tremendous job with him," Waddell said. "I've heard some positive things and I know our scouts have seen him a lot. There are a lot of things that have to come together with maturity, ability and coaching and that seems to be the case with Angelo this year."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.
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