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Esposito looks for a role with the Thrashers

by John Manasso
DULUTH, Ga. -- Angelo Esposito spent most of his summer in the heat of Atlanta -- but far from the beach where most 21-year-old native Montrealers would expect to be during the off months of the hockey calendar.

However, life has not offered the expected to the once-highly rated Thrashers prospect. In December, Esposito needed surgery on the ACL in his right knee for the second time within a year -- meaning that in the last 12 months, he has only 12 games of American Hockey League action to show for in the way of a budding career.

Amid that hardship, Esposito has shown a resiliency that he will need to continue to draw upon to arrive at his ultimate destination. By the end of July, he was skating hard for the first time in more than seven months, and more recently he has participated in informal workouts at the Thrashers' suburban practice facility with other players the team has under contract.

It's quite a comedown for a player once expected to step into the League and become a star.

"He was rated the No. 1 pick in the draft," Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said. "They put him up on a pedestal. Mario Lemieux -- I don't think he's going to be that. But he has all kinds of assets.

"I don't think he's a 200-point scorer. The expectations, from a province [Quebec] so hockey-crazed, built him up into something he shouldn't have been. I can tell you this: I've been impressed from the first day I met him. He's genuine and hard-working and he gets along with everybody and works his [rear end] off all the time."

Dudley also wanted to dispel another notion about Esposito that has become widespread and perhaps was among the factors that caused him to fall from a potential No. 1 overall pick to No. 20 where he was selected by Pittsburgh in 2007. Esposito, Dudley said, is not a prima donna.

"Nothing like that at all," he said. "He's one of the best kids. He wants nothing more than to play. Give him a role and he'll do it."

Esposito proved that in 2009 with Team Canada's gold medal-winning team in the World Junior Championships. Having been cut three times before in his attempt to make the team, he went out for the fourth time. People told him he was crazy.

"Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to play on that team," he said.

His roommate at the tryout camp was Patrice Cormier. They were longtime rivals in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- playing against each other 10 times a year and almost coming to blows on one occasion -- but they were the only French Canadians at the camp.

Players who failed to make the team were notified by phone. Those who made it received a knock on the door.

"We didn't get a phone call so we got to celebrate together, me and him, and got a big hug," said Cormier, now a fellow Atlanta prospect who is also working out and trying to make the team as a rookie. "It was a pretty special moment to share with him."

A top scorer in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Esposito was asked to play a role at the WJC. He did -- and he excelled at it, starting on the fourth line and killing penalties. By the gold medal game, he was playing on the first line and scored a goal.

"I went in there and I think I kind of stepped up my game there," he said. "I just worked hard and I just took it day by day there and things went my way."

On a Thrashers team that returns four players who have reached the 20-goal plateau at the NHL level and which also includes the likes of up-and-comer Evander Kane, the No. 4 pick in 2009, and playoff star Dustin Byfuglien, Esposito is not going to crack the lineup as a top-six forward. Again, he will have to find a role.

"You have to have some people on your roster who can create turnovers and bump and grind and play well defensively," Dudley said. "[Esposito] does have the speed. He can contribute offensively and can have a pretty well-rounded game. He can be a top-nine forward. He has the speed to forecheck."

Said Esposito: "I'm ready to adapt. I know what kind of player I am. My game's built around my speed and I open the ice for my linemates and I've just got to make sure I play physical and an aggressive game."
"He's one of the best kids. He wants nothing more than to play. Give him a role and he'll do it." -- Atlanta GM Rick Dudley

Esposito came to Atlanta in a 2008 deadline deal in which the Thrashers sent Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Esposito and a first-round pick.

Armstrong and Christensen have since departed Atlanta while Hossa has gone on to become the first NHL player to play in three straight Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams, finally winning in 2010 with Chicago. If Esposito can become an effective player, Atlanta will be able to show something for the trade besides one 20-goal year from Armstrong.

Dudley was asked if he thought Esposito would make the team.

"I don't know," he said. "This will be an interesting camp. I've been watching him skate with a number of NHL players. It's not camp and it's not game time, but he looks good. He looks real good. Last year he was a ways off, but now I'd say he's much closer.

"But we'll see. The Atlanta Thrashers would be thrilled if he could get to this level as quickly as possible."

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