The Thrashers Top 20 prospects have not changed much since the beginning of the season, as all continue to make good progress towards playing in the NHL. Each player is listed with their position, current team, and age.
1. Kari Lehtonen, G, Atlanta Thrashers (Age 20)
Not only is Lehtonen the top prospect in the Thrashers organization but he is widely considered to be one of the best in the entire league. He spent most of this, his rookie year, with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL, and was selected to play in the AHL All-Star Game. He made his NHL debut on March 19 in Atlanta against Florida. Known for his size, quickness and calm play, he’ll almost certainly make the Thrashers roster next season, if it is played. His smooth transition to North America can be improved by staying in better shape.
2. Braydon Coburn, D, WHL Portland Winter Hawks (Age 19)
Coburn hasn’t had a great year statistically, with only 30 points in 55 games and a –19, but is playing well defensively and is still considered one of the top 10 prospects in the NHL. Unfortunately his year will be remembered as being the player that Marc-Andre Fleury’s missed clearing attempt hit at the World U20 Tournament, causing the Canadians to lose to the USA in the gold medal game. Coburn will remain in juniors until the NHL labor situation is resolved.
3. Jim Slater, C, NCAA Michigan State (Age 21)
The Michigan State junior is one of ten candidates for the prestigious Hobey Baker award, given to college hockey’s best player. Slater led MSU and ranked fifth in the nation in scoring with 48 points in the 2003-04 regular season. He’s not considered a favorite to win the award, but it is quite an honor regardless. Slater, the captain at MSU, was named a First Team All-Star in the CCHA this season. Given the labor situation, Slater will likely stay at Michigan State and play his senior year in 2004-05.
4. Karl Stewart, LW, Atlanta Thrashers (Age 20)
Stewart has spent most of the season with the Chicago Wolves where he is tied for the lead in assists among AHL rookies with 30. He is also ninth among rookies in points with 38 in 61 games. In addition, he leads all Thrashers prospects playing with the Wolves. Stewart plays a good two-way game, creating breakaways with his speed, but doesn’t always cash in. His edginess could get him called for more penalties than he does. Stewart needs to fulfill his potential at the AHL level before advancing. He’ll likely split time between the Wolves and Thrashers next season (assuming a normal season).
5. Michael Garnett, G, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 21)
In many team’s systems, Garnett would be the top goaltender. He spent most of this season in the ECHL with the Thrashers new affiliate the Gwinnett Gladiators, putting up great numbers and playing in the ECHL All-Star Game. Called up to the AHL in January due to injuries, he’s done well there too, with a 2.21 GAA and a .927 save percentage in 10 games, though he isn’t facing the toughest opponents as either Lehtonen or Cassivi get the tougher matchups. Garnett will play full time in the AHL for the Wolves in 2004-05.
6. Tommi Santala, C, Atlanta Thrashers (Age 24)
Santala has had a rough adjustment to North America this season, starting with the Thrashers but being sent down for poor play. He definitely looks better at the AHL level, making plays and creating chances, but at age 24, he needs to make that translate to the NHL level quickly. Santala will get another chance at a full time roster spot on the Thrashers next season.
7. Kurtis Foster, D, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 22)
Foster has made good progress improving his deficiencies and rounding out his game in the past year. Improved defense and poise with the puck are evident, and keep him logging a lot of minutes, including the penalty kill. His plus/minus is much improved, now at –2. Foster’s 29 points in 65 games leads Wolves defensemen, and he’s also fourth among AHL defensemen with seven power play goals. He will be given a chance to earn a spot on the Thrashers roster next season.
8. Zdenek Blatny, LW, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 23)
Blatny’s stock has really gone up in the past year, as he looked good in callups to the NHL and better than ever at the AHL level as well. The difference goes back to last season when he was switched to a checking role and found his niche. His offensive ability is still evident, but it isn’t good enough along to secure an NHL job. If continues to work hard and can keep his game at a consistent level, he should see more time with the Thrashers going forward. This is a contract year for Blatny and it’s likely, though not certain, that he’ll be resigned.
9. Ilja Nikulin, D, RSL Dynamo Moscow (Age 22)
The question with Nikulin isn’t ability, it’s whether or not he’ll sign a contract and come to North America. For all his talent, Nikulin will do the Thrashers little good if he continues to resist the move to North America. Nikulin’s stock will fall the longer he waits.
10. Libor Ustrnul, D, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 22)
Ustrnul didn’t get a lot of ice time last year with the Wolves, playing only 40 games, and this year he’s been injured, playing in only 43 games. He simply needs to play more in order to develop. Currently Urstnul is out with a concussion and hasn’t resumed skating yet. He’ll likely spend all of next year, his contract year, with the Wolves again.
11. Jimmy Sharrow, D, QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads (Age 19)
Sharrow’s defense hasn’t been good enough to keep a job on the backline with the Mooseheads, who have again tried him at forward. Fortunately, good defense can be taught, so there’s still hope. He had 38 points in 52 games and was –22, though on a bad team. He’ll be back in juniors in 2004-05.
12. Derek MacKenzie, C, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 22)
MacKenzie played 13 games in the NHL this year, his first real test at this level. He didn’t impress, but few do in their first stint. He is having another good year with the Wolves, leading all Thrashers prospects in goals with 15 in 52 games. He’ll have a chance at a roster spot on the Thrashers next season, assuming he is re-signed, which he almost certainly will be.
13. Colin Stuart, LW, NCAA Colorado College (Age 21)
Stuart had 22 points in 30 games this season as captain. One of two graduating seniors in the Top 20, the two-way forward will almost certainly be signed to a contract this summer and play for the Chicago Wolves in 2004-05. He has the size and skating ability to make a smooth transition to the pro game.
14. Brad Schell, C, WHL Spokane Chiefs (Age 19)
Schell had a breakout year in Spokane this season. He led his team in scoring with 92 points in 71 games, was third in the WHL with 57 assists and was tied for ninth in the WHL with 35 goals. Drafted in 2002, Schell will need to be signed by the June 1 deadline to avoid going back into the draft (Lane Manson and Tyler Boldt are under the same deadline). Giving the lack of scoring depth in the system, the likelihood of Schell being signed is quite high.
15. Nathan Oystrick, D, NCAA Northern Michigan (Age 21)
Oystrick had a breakout year with Northern Michigan this season as he benefited from more ice time. The two-way defenseman had 8 goals, 28 assists, was +5 with 98 penalty minutes in 39 games. He made the CCHA Second Team All-Stars. He’ll make his Atlanta debut this summer at prospect camp and remain in college for his junior year in 2004-05.
16. Patrick Dwyer, RW, NCAA Western Michigan (Age 20)
Dwyer has quietly put up decent numbers again this year for Western Michigan, 26 points in 35 games, 13 of them goals. A senior next year, he has one more year to prove his case for being signed.
17. Jeff Dwyer, D, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 23)
Dwyer has finished his senior season at Yale and signed a tryout contract with Thrashers affiliate Chicago Wolves who are short on defensemen due to injuries. This will give the organization a good opportunity to determine whether Dwyer should be offered a contract this summer. A skill defenseman, he had 15 points in 30 games with Yale this year. He’s +3 so far in three games with the Wolves.
18. Tobias Enstrom, D, SEL Modo (Age 19)
Enstrom is a diminutive offensive defenseman, but he isn’t scoring. Last year he had six points in 42 games, this season he has only five points in 32 games, having missed part of the season to compete on the Swedish U20 team in the World Juniors.
19. Stephen Baby, RW, AHL Chicago Wolves (Age 24)
Baby has size, good hands and vision, goes to the net hard, hits, and is good along the boards. This all sounds good, but his skating is a big minus. If he could improve this aspect, he has a chance to play in the NHL. Baby will continue with the Wolves for another season in 2004-05.
20. Brett Sterling, LW, NCAA Colorado College (Age 19)
Sterling scored 28 points in 30 games as a sophomore for CC. Finishing third in scoring for the Tigers, Sterling missed the first part of the season due to an injury and a gold medal appearance in the World Junior Championship in which he scored three goals. He finished the season strong, recently named WCHA offensive player of the week. Next season will be important for him in determining his future.