Angelo Esposito isn’t looking for any sympathy.
The 19-year-old from Montreal is trying out for the Canadian junior hockey team for a fourth time after getting cut in his three previous attempts.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Esposito said. “There’s not too many players that get invited four years in a row, that are in the top 35 in Canada.
“A lot of people say, `What happens if you get cut a fourth time?’ But I’m not thinking about getting cut a fourth time. I don’t think it’s a good thing to think negative going into camp.”
The 38-player selection camp starts Thursday in Ottawa, where the 2009 world junior hockey championship opens Dec. 26. Head coach Pat Quinn will choose the 22-player roster that will seek a fifth consecutive gold medal for Canada by Monday.
The only other player to get cut three times from Canada’s junior team was Daniel Cleary, who currently plays for the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, from 1995 to 1997.
“I have a bit of experience at the camp,” is Esposito’s understatement. “I’m just going to go in there and work hard and my goal is to make this team.
“I’m stronger, faster and more confident. I have to make sure every time I’m on the ice, I’m competing and making sure I’m at my best every shift, every minute that I’m there.”
It seemed Esposito would finally get his chance with Canada’s junior team in the summer of 2007, when he was named to the squad facing Russia in an eight-game series commemorating the 1972 Summit Series.
But he withdrew from the team because of a groin injury. At the December selection camp for the 2008 world junior championship, Esposito fell far short of cracking the lineup. Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray said Esposito “wasn’t even close to a spot.”
Once a captain of Canada’s under-18 team, Esposito wasn’t invited to the Canadian team’s August camp because of a weak second half of last season, according to Murray. A strong start to this season returned Esposito to the good graces of Hockey Canada.
“This year, I think he has another level of maturity and determination, in talking to him and people around him,” Murray said. “He wants another opportunity, but there’s no guarantees. He has to come in and impress the coaching staff.”
Esposito, six feet and 190 pounds, is talented enough with the puck. He had 14 goals and 10 assists in his first 20 games with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Montreal Junior. It’s been his play without the puck that’s been suspect and he’s had a reputation for inconsistency.
The Atlanta Thrashers acquired Esposito’s NHL rights in a trade with Pittsburgh in February. The Thrashers impressed upon him that not building his strength and muscle hampered his development and that other players were passing him by because they were hitting the gym.
“Angelo took the message to heart and put on 15 pounds of good strength this summer,” said Dan Marr, the Atlanta Thrashers director of amateur scouting, in an e-mail from Europe where he’s scouting players.
“This strength gain allows him to keep himself in the play and skate through checks utilizing his NHL speed and smarts to potential.”
Esposito was projected to be a top 10-pick in the 2007 draft, but went 20th overall to Pittsburgh, who dealt him Feb. 26 to Atlanta in multi-player deal for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.
The Thrashers thought highly enough of Esposito’s potential to sign him to a three-year rookie contract in July. With the confidence of his new NHL team behind him, Esposito was Atlanta’s best player at their prospect camp in September, according to Marr.
“There has never been a question on his NHL talent,” Marr said. “We felt that it was only strength that was delaying him.
“He’s no different than any other player in that he had areas he needed to improve and was challenged to improve and he found the way to meet those challenges. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that he will live up to many of the early projections given him.”
Esposito had 30 goals and 39 assists in 56 games for the Quebec Remparts under head coach Patrick Roy before he was dealt in the off-season to his hometown junior team in Montreal.
Esposito says a fresh start with both a new junior club and NHL team helped him shed some of the baggage he felt he’d been carrying.
“There’s a lot that’s happened in the last two or three years here and now that it’s all under control, I have a new start in Montreal and it’s been a lot better for me,” he said.
“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. My consistency has been a lot better.”
Four goaltenders, 14 defencemen and 20 forwards will split into two squads and practise Thursday evening at Scotiabank Place.
Regina Pats forward Jordan Eberle is expected to make the trip despite needing treatment for a hip flexor injury suffered Sunday. He’ll be evaluated by Canadian team doctors upon arrival.
Intrasquad games are scheduled for Friday at Scotiabank Place, Saturday at Robert Guertin Arena in Gatineau, Que., and again at Scotiabank on Sunday.
Quinn is expected to choose two goalies, seven defencemen and 13 forwards for the Canadian team by Monday morning.