Taking NHL lessons into the AHL playoffs

by Jon Cooper || AtlantaThrashers.com

Bryan Little

Bryan Little may look the same as he did in a powder blue Atlanta Thrashers jersey — albeit with a little shorter hair — but it is a more confident center who is wearing the Chicago Wolves’ burgundy and gold as they skate for a berth in the Calder Cup Finals. The same can be said of defenseman Boris Valabik.

The Atlanta Thrashers’ season may be over but for Little and Valabik, two of the franchise’s top prospects, there’s still plenty of hockey to be played. And it’s playoff hockey, which is special even if the Cup on the line bears the name of Frank Calder (the National Hockey League’s first President) not Lord Stanley.

"There are no easy playoffs anywhere in the world, whether it’s the Hungarian League or the NHL," said Valabik, a 22-year-old native of Nitra, Slovakia, and first pick of the Thrashers in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (10th overall). "Everybody wants to win. It’s going to be a lot of fun and hopefully we are going to go all the way. I honestly believe that we have what it takes to win."

Both Little, who played in two games for the Wolves in last year’s playoffs, and Valabik, who spent all of 2006-07 in the Windy City, showed the Thrashers that they have what it takes to at least play on the NHL level in their own unique ways.

Little, the Thrashers’ first pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (12th overall), had two separate stints with Atlanta in ’07-08, making the team out of Training Camp.

He made a great first impression, as in the season-opener, the 20-year-old native of Edmonton, Alta., became the first player in Thrashers history to score in his NHL debut. Little would score two more goals and dish out six assists over the next 29 games before being sent back to Chicago on Dec. 11, a move that didn’t surprise him.

"[Then-Head Coach and General Manager Don Waddell and I] both knew my confidence was struggling a little bit and I was fighting the puck," admitted Little. "[Waddell] sent me down there to get more ice time, play more minutes and handle the puck more down there and get my confidence back up. When I did get back up I did feel more confident and I thought I played better the second half than I did at the start of the season."

His bolstered confidence showed, as after his Feb. 26 recall, Little tallied seven points (3g, 4a) in 19 games, finishing the season with 16 points (6g, 10a), 18 penalty minutes and a minus-two rating.

He admitted that going back to the AHL helped him learn to appreciate the NHL lifestyle.

"It was kind of a wake-up call," said Little. "The overall thing was just don’t take anything for granted and keep my confidence up next year because I’d much rather be here all season than down in [the AHL] again."

Valabik didn’t get as much exposure to the NHL, but the taste proved equally intoxicating.

Boris Valabik

At 22, the hulking defenseman, played the final seven games of the 2007-08 season with Atlanta, totaling 42 penalty minutes (29 in the March 28 game at Carolina). That came on the heels of a successful second season in Chicago, where he tallied eight points (1g, 7a), and racked up 229 penalty minutes.

Valabik showed he could score, tallying twice in Chicago’s 3-0 Game Six clincher against Milwaukee, doubling his season total and matching his output from 2006-07. While the timing couldn’t have been better, he knows that his future role will require contributing more with the big hit more than the big shot.

"That’s the kind of player I am. I’m a defensive defenseman," said Valabik, who has garnered 413 PIMs in two seasons with the Wolves. "As a guy like that you need to take the body, you need to fight every once in a while, step up for your teammates. It’s not my job to fight, but when I see my teammate in trouble I kind of feel the need to step up."

Valabik felt that need on March 28th, when he went after Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo after Corvo delivered what Valabik considered a cheap shot on Eric Boulton.

"Nobody told me to do it," he said. "I just feel like it brings the team a little closer together."

Both Little and Valabik are enjoying the run with the Wolves, who feature seven other players that were with Atlanta at some point during the 2007-08 season. And while the Calder Cup Playoffs are top priority, both Little and Valabik know the ultimate reward awaits in September, when the Thrashers invite both of them back to training camp.

They both know they’ll be wiser than when they came into camp last year.

"I can’t believe last year I was playing in juniors and already, this year, my first pro season is done," said Little. "I kind of know what to expect now next year going into camp and how long and how tough the season is.

"I didn’t really expect to be here for that many games," he added. "Being here for half the season was really good for me. It was really good to see what the NHL was like and it will help me work harder this summer to be here all year."

Valabik agreed.

"I got a taste of the good life. Once you know what it feels like, you obviously want to work even harder to stay here and so it was a good experience," he said. "I kind of know what to expect now because until now it was all just guessing. I’ll work hard this summer and I’ll know exactly what I’m supposed to work on because of the chance I got."