2010-11 NHL season preview: Atlanta Thrashers
Last season: (35-34-13, 83 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference) Considering that the Thrashers got rid of Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen, it’s a solid testament to the team that they actually stayed in playoff contention until (just about) the very end. Still, it’s probably best that former GM Don Waddell, who is now the team president, might leave the personnel decisions to new GM Rick Dudley, even if Dudley hasn’t received high marks from Jeremy Roenick.
Head coach: Dudley (and by extension, the Thrashers) are being accused of being a Southeast version of the Chicago Blackhawks. Ramsay’s been an assistant coach for ages and a head coach for brief periods of time, most recently with the Boston Bruins, so experience shouldn’t be an issue. New ideas and innovative thoughts? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.
Key departures: F Maxim Afinogenov, F Clarke MacArthur, F Colby Armstrong, F Johan Hedberg, D Pavel Kubina, F Todd White. Really, the biggest departures happened before last season concluded, with two should-have-been franchise players in Kovalchuk and Lehtonen leaving via trades. Afinogenov put up a nice bit of points last season (61), but his one-dimensional game won’t be missed. Both MacArthur and Armstrong wanted far more money than they were worth while Hedberg was squeezed out and Kubina left via free agency. The only guy that left during the offseason they really should miss is Kubina.
Key arrivals: G Chris Mason, F/D Dustin Byfuglien, F Ben Eager, F Akim Aliu, D Brent Sopel, F Andrew Ladd, F Nigel Dawes. Much like he makes waves when he cannon balls into swimming pools, the trade to bring Byfuglien is the splashy move. Mason, however, might be the bigger acquisition. The other two trends in Atlanta were a) adding former Chicago Blackhawks and b) adding black players. Both are interesting strategies, with the latter being a clever play on local demographics (while hopefully being a good opportunity for minority hockey players).
Under pressure: The team will have a grace period for at least a year, but perhaps Byfuglien will be under the heat a little bit. The pressure would be greater if the big guy came into camp overweight or played at the more numbers-oriented position of forward, but as a defenseman, that might be diffused a little bit. Other than that, management is under the most scrutiny.
Protecting the house: Mason brings a nice amount of experience and stability to a goaltending position that was often in a state of chaos with departed former No. 1 Lehtonen (Mason can also bring an astounding, Abe Lincoln reminiscent playoff beard to the table if Atlanta gets that far). Ondrej Pavelec showed flashes of brilliance last year and it’s good that he’ll either be a backup or a 1b because it didn’t seem like he was quite ready for the top job. This duo of goalies is better than the steady-but-unspectacular pair in Tampa Bay.
I was inclined to say that Byfuglien is better off as a forward since that’s a thinner position while Atlanta might be (borderline) stacked on D. The team has a host of solid-to-good offensive types, with Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey drawing the biggest minutes. Johnny Oduya (the kids like to call him, “Oh do ya?”) and Brent Sopel round up a group that might lack a true elite player but looks impressively deep on paper.
Top line we’d like to see: Evander Kane-Bryan Little-Byfuglien. I’m not the world’s biggest Nik Antropov fan, so I opted for this old trio of forwards. Kane is an up-and-coming forward who might be most famous for dropping the Penguins’ Matt Cooke with one punch. Little is an underrated scorer who is one season removed from a 30-goal campaign. Byfuglien is a crease-crashing nightmare when he’s focused. Sure, this is a pretty impotent top line, but it would be fun to watch.
Oh captain, my captain: The Thrashers haven’t had a captain since Kovalchuk was traded, and honestly, there isn’t an obvious choice for that position right now. Maybe Bogosian becomes a star and leader, perhaps Little takes on a bigger role or maybe the team waits for a voice to emerge in the locker room. But, really, you shouldn’t just name a captain for the sake of naming a captain, so don’t begrudge the team for taking its time.
Street fighting man: Ben Eager gets into scraps (though he often comes out on the losing end) while Eric Boulton was their top pugilist last season. Chris Thorburn and Jim Slater are still hanging out in Atlanta. Boulton hasn’t seen a fight he didn’t like much either, leading the team with 13 fights last season. Let’s just say that Atlanta might not be that much tougher to beat on the scoreboard this season, but you’ll leave their games sore and bruised far more often.
Best-case scenario: Atlanta harnesses its greatest strengths (defense, stable goaltending) and bludgeons their way to a solid sixth seed. That combination bodes well for a match against a weak Northeast Division winner (likely Buffalo or Boston) that provides a favorable opponent. The Thrashers sneak into the second round, but then their lack of forward talent is exposed.
Worst-case scenario: Byfuglien floats through the regular season while the Thrashers struggle mightily to score goals. Bogosian doesn’t make the jump many hope for, leaving Atlanta with a bunch of second pairing-caliber defensemen. Ramsay appears better suited for an assistant role. The Thrashers find themselves in the Florida Panthers zone of being too good for a lottery pick but too bad for a playoff spot.
Keeping it real: Atlanta is truly an unique entity in the Southeast Division. While the Capitals, Lightning and Hurricane are built to run and score, the Thrashers seem like they’re built to bully. Their defense is pretty deep, but not quite great while their goalies are solid but short of star status. The forward group is pretty thin, though, and that’s what will keep them from being a playoff team. They might benefit from tanking to add a blue-chip offensive weapon, but they’ll likely be on the bubble and finish just a few points short of a playoff berth.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Atlanta gets a 2. The Thrashers should be fairly competitive if they can create goals from the blue line out and don’t be surprised if they manage to sneak into a seventh or eighth seed. Still, they don’t seem like they’re quite ‘there’ yet. I’d love to see them snag a solid-to-great center or two next summer to help complete the puzzle.