After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 06-07, the Atlanta Thrashers looked like their usual selves after a disappointing 2007-08 campaign. Change has swept the Atlanta Thrashers as they are looking to rebuild if that was not already new. With a new coach in John Anderson, you never know what type of presence he can have on the team. He can be the influence to make the Thrashers return to the playoffs just like Bruce Boudreau’s impact on the Washington Capitals.
No I am not saying the Thrashers will make the playoffs. It really does look improbable. Besides Ilya Kovalchuck and possibly Kari Lehtonen if he gets his act back together, there is no other name in the Thrashers line-up that can contribute consistently enough and provide energy to be a legitimate playoff team. Then again, the Southeast division is the weakest division in hockey, but Washington, Tampa Bay and Carolina are definitely stronger than the Atlanta Thrashers, and barring a breakdown from ALL three teams, the Thrashers will not make the playoffs again.
The Thrashers have about $41 million used of the $56.7 million salary cap so you would think Atlanta had enough money to land a top free agent. But remember, being from a poor hockey market such as Atlanta does limit your spending since the team does not have enough revenue to cover a full salary cap then other expenses like arena maintenance, travel costs and so on. Atlanta did have on average 15,800 fans per home game, filling 85% of the arena’s capacity, which I do find a little surprising.
The Thrashers have the 3 alternate captaincy system with Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov and Nicklas Havelid wearing the A’s.
If I asked you what is the first player you think of when I say Atlanta Thrashers, odds are the answer is Ilya Kovalchuk. He should be the first player you think of. Kovalchuk is just an amazing gift of talent that is just in a bad situation. Kovalchuk is able to make all the plays himself and loves to score much like his Russian counterpart, Alex Ovechkin. You never have to worry about Kovalchuk producing because he definitely scores 40 goals this year and adds about 30 assists. The supporting cast though is fair, but not great. On the opposite side of Kovalchuk is recent pick-up Jason Williams. Williams is actually a very decent, underrated player that could take the heat off Kovalchuk, but he is a very oft-injury player, so the production will not always be there.
Along with newer faces, is Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, the two players received when Atlanta traded Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline. Armstrong has been known as an underacheiver by the league because he was never able to take advantage of sharing the ice with Sidney Crosby for the bulk of the last few seasons. Christensen does have the potential to bloom into a better player being unfortunately a center in Pittsburgh while Crosby and Malkin are taking the first two lines. He could be seeing ice time with Kovalchuk this season, which will definitely help. Also new are Brett Sterling and Angelo Esposito, both going to play their first full year, and they both have something to prove.
Combine these with guys like Todd Whilte, Slava Kozlov, Eric Boulton, Jim Slater Chris Thorburn, Bryan Little and Eric Perrin, the offense is pretty decent.
Where do I start? Defense will be for sure the Achille’s heal of the Atlanta Thrashers this year. Tobias Enstrom will probably be the team’s most offensive defenseman while newcomer Ron Hainsey has come to contribute to the offense as well. Garnet Exelby will also put up a good fight with some of the enforcers in the league. The defense corps though is not that stellar with aging veterans like Nicklas Havelid and Ken Klee, doubtful the guys have the speed to contain players within the division like Alex Ovechkin and Vincent Lecavalier. Throw in the fact this will be a developing year for Thrashers’ 1st round pick, Zach Bogosian, as he tries to adjust to the NHL game.
Can the real Kari Lehtonen please stand up? After a terrific rookie campaign in 2006-07, the injury bug bit, and Kari’s numbers naturally went down. If the Thrashers even want a CHANCE at the playoffs, they need a repeat performance of Lehtonen’s rookie season and maybe then some. Kari will probably end up seeing a lot of shots due to the poor defensive play of the team in front of him. Johan Hedburg was a reliable stop gap while Lehtonen was injured, and do not be surprised to see him get the call if Lehtonen is slumping. Hedburg though will not be able to carry the team into the playoffs, they need Lehtonen to do that.
So in a quick overview, the Atlanta Thrashers looked to be doomed for this season. While Bogosian is the future of the Thrasher’s defense, they do not have anyone now to gap between his development and prime. Atlanta is more likely to be scored on more than scoring themselves so it will not be surprising to see a lot of players with minus ratings. Unless they get another career year from Kovalchuk, a career year from Lehtonen, a career year from Enstrom, a career year from….. you get the point, the Thrashers will not make the playoffs this year. The Thrashers will finish has high as 13th and as low as last in the Eastern Conference.
On the bright side they get a chance at the Victor Hedman sweepstakes. If you have not been paying attention to hockey scouting recently, Hedman, a Swedish defenseman, has surpassed Canadian forward John Tavares as the top rated prospect for next year’s NHL Entry Draft.