By Christine Troyke
With spots still to be won and lost at the various levels of the Atlanta Thrashers' organization, Jeff Pyle will have a front-row seat for the early returns.
Pyle, head coach of the Thrashers' ECHL affiliate in Gwinnett, is part of the staff in charge of the NHL club's team at the Traverse City Prospect Evaluation Tournament. This year the annual event includes up-and-coming young talent from eight NHL franchises. It starts today and runs through Tuesday at the Center I.C.E. Arena in Traverse City, Mich.
Atlanta's roster is highlighted by some of its most recent top draft picks, including forward Bryan Little (12th overall, 2006), goalie Ondrej Pavelec (41st overall, 2005) and defenseman Chad Denny (49th overall, 2005).
Pyle is well acquainted with a few of the other invitees. Chad Painchaud, Scott Lehman and Dan Turple all played for the Gladiators as rookies last season.
Pyle isn't sure which, if any, players on the Traverse City team will be assigned to Gwinnett for the 2007-08 campaign. But the tournament does give him a chance to check out his and other young prospects.
"I'm hoping those guys (at the tournament) are going to get a shot at the next level," Pyle said. "Guys like Painer and Scotty.
"My main thing going there is I'm just happy to be part of it. There's a lot of hockey people there and if you're a real hockey nut, all the teams practice, too. Last year, I just sat for half a day watching practice."
Todd Nelson, the assistant for Atlanta's American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago, is coaching with Pyle.
The Thrashers will compete in the tournament's Eastern Conference with Detroit, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay. The Western Conference includes Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota and St. Louis.
Each team may have a maximum of four players with one year of professional experience. In order to participate, all skaters must have been born no later than 1984.
Pyle said this year the team doesn't have some of the more experienced college guys that helped the 2006 squad to the championship game.
"I think the guys that went into the original (Thrashers' prospect) camp in July, some of the guys that shined won't be here," Pyle said. "Like (Colton) Fretter and Brett Sterling. Now you're going to see a guy like Bryan Little being one year older.
"Some of these kids that are the next vision of what Atlanta is trying to get done, have got to step it up. It'll be interesting seeing how it plays out."
At the conclusion of the tournament, players will be selected to participate in the Thrashers training camp, which begins with physicals and medical testing on Sept. 13 at the IceForum in Duluth. On-ice workouts begin Sept. 14 and are open to the public.
The Atlanta Thrashers' schedule for the Traverse City Prospect Evaluation Tournament:
Today: Practice from noon-12:45 a.m., game against Detroit at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday: Practice from 9:45-10:30 a.m., game against New York Rangers at 3:30 p.m.
Sunday: Practice from noon-1 p.m.
Monday: Practice from 10:30-11:15 a.m., game against Tampa Bay at 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday: Seventh-place game at 2 p.m., fifth-place game at 2:30 p.m., third-place game at 6 p.m. and the championship game at 6:30 p.m.