Esposito looks to come back stronger from injury

In a quiet and empty rink, well before 32 other Thrashers prospects take the ice, Esposito continues to rehabilitate the injured right knee that has stalled his professional hockey career.

The former first-round draft pick, called by some the prize of the Marian Hossa trade two years ago, is working out as best he can at the six-day Prospect Development Camp.

"I actually got out there before everyone for about 35 minutes on my own," Esposito said Friday. "I was just by myself. My trainer gave me some exercises and I did them."

Not yet six months after reconstructive knee surgery, the center will not do skating drills with the other prospects this weekend but will take part in conditioning exercises. Esposito and Thrashers general manager Don Waddell agree he is a month ahead of schedule in his rehab. Whether he will be ready for the start of training camp in September remains to be seen.

"He won't be ready for our rookie camp but he could compete in our training camp, or we'll push it back into the first week of October," Waddell said. "Initially they thought he would return in the middle of November but he should be close to being ready by the start of the season.

Esposito is thinking sooner than later.

"I'm expecting to be here for training camp and participate at my full level," the 20-year-old said. "I'm just going to come into training camp and do my best, work my hardest. If I make the team, that's great. Obviously, that's my goal."

Esposito's injury came at a time when he was finally starting to reach the lofty expectations pinned to him as the 20th pick in the 2007 draft by Pittsburgh. He made Canada's Junior Team — on his fourth try — and won a gold medal at the 2009 Junior World Championships. He had three goals and an assist in six games, scoring a goal in Canada's 5-1 win over Sweden in the title game.

Moving on to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league last winter, he found his stride, recording 24 goals and 18 assists in 35 games for Montreal when it all crashed to a halt. In a game February 11th against Victoriaville, he tore his ACL and underwent surgery four days later.

"It was really a fluke," Esposito said. "Someone just fell on my leg and it twisted in. It was tough. I had two rough years, before my draft year and after my draft year, and things really started to look good. I had a good [training] camp in Atlanta and won the gold medal with team Canada. The season was going great.

"It was a rough bump but it's part of life. It's what makes you a better hockey player, a better person."

It was a learning experience for Esposito, who returned home to Montreal. He dealt for the first time with the ups and downs of rehabbing a major injury. Some days were good. Many days were frustrating with no improvement despite the hard work. It could eventually help him with the grind of an NHL season.

"We know cases where guys come back stronger," Waddell said. "What they lose is the competitiveness of being on the ice, just getting better through the experience factor. From an injury standpoint, I don't think that will be a problem for him. It's more that he's not going to play hockey from February to October."

Esposito said he has used the rehab time to work on his upper body and gained needed weight. He weighs 197 pounds, 12 pounds heavier than the start of last season.

"My biggest strength is my skating," said Esposito, who signed a three-year contract after last season's development camp. "I'm a fast skater. I use my speed on the ice and open the ice for my teammates. That's what I've got to bring.

"I think over the last four years of junior hockey I've really developed my two-way game. . . . Overall, I'm a better player."

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