Thrashers: This years surprise team?

The free agent frenzy is mostly over and teams are getting ready to open their training camps. It’s time to really start looking at the upcoming NHL season. Today I am going to look at a team that I think could really surprise people this upcoming season. No, I don’t think they can win the cup but I think they can make the playoffs and maybe even win their division if all things go well. That team is the Atlanta Thrashers.

In 2003-04 the Atlanta Thrashers finished second in their division behind the Tampa Bay Lighning but only 10 in the conference and 13 points out of the playoffs. It was not a great season for the Thrashers overall. It was a great season for Ilya Kovalchuk who ended the year tied for first in goals scored and tied for second in points. Kovalchuk is one of the best young players in the NHL and has a bright future. Atlanta needs to get him signed on a long term contract and if they do the Thrashers too will have a bright future.

At the end of 2003-03 we got a brief glimpse of another key component of future Atlanta Thrasher teams. That being goaltender Kari Lehtonen. In 4 games Lehtonen was 4-0 with a 1.25 goals against average and a .953 save percentage. Lehtonen played, and played awfully well, for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL last year. He played in 53 games and posted a 38-17-2 record and a goals against average of 2.27 and save percentage of .929. There is no reason to believe that Lehtonen isn’t ready for the NHL and isn’t ready to play at a high level in the NHL. And the Atlanta Thrashers will benefit greatly as well. In 2003-04 as a team Atlanta was 25th in goals against average and 27th in save percentage. Byron Dafoe and Pasi Nurminen just did not provide the quality of goaltending of a playoff calibre team. Kari Lehtonen should change that for the Thrashers. They have also added Mike Dunham who should be a solid backup for Lehtonen.

On defense the Thrashers look much improved as well. They don’t have the big names or even the star players that other teams have but they are a quality bunch and reasonably deep as well. The top six defensemen look something like this:

Greg DeVries
Niclas Havelid
Andy Sutton
Jaroslav Modry
Shane Hnidy
Tomas Kloucek
Garnet Exelby

Newcomers DeVries and Modry will add some quality defensive ability to the Thrashers while Havelid should add some offense from the blue line as well. Andy Sutton is a decent all-round defensemen and the others are solid depth defensemen. But the big upside comes from great young prospect in Braydon Coburn who might be ready to make the jump to the NHL. Coburn has all the skills to be a top rate defensemen in the NHL and will be given every opportunity to make the Thrashers this season. In fact, it might even be expected of him to make the team. Overall the Thrashers defence is decent but not spectacular.

Up front the Thrashers have a ton of talent and skill. The possibility of facing a top line of Ilya Kovalchuk-Marc Savard-Marian Hossa should strike fear into any opposing team. Those 3 guys combined for 96 goals and 221 points in 2003-04 and that is with Savard only playing 45 games. This line should easily score 100 goals and might even push 120 if they all stay healthy. That’s scary good if you ask me.

The second line won’t look to bad either with newcomer Holik likey centering Slava Kozlov on the left wing and Ronald Petrovicky on the right side. But there are still rumours that the Thrashers are the likely destination for Peter Bondra and if that happens you will likely find Bondra replacing Petrovicky. Either way, that is a pretty solid second line. Add in guys like Patrik Stefan and Randy Robitaille and the Thrashers should have a very good top 3 lines. There is a ton of skill there that should do very well under the ‘new look’ NHL.

If the Thrashers can get Ilya Kovalchuk to sign a contract and Lehtonen performs like I expect he will, I don’t see why the Thrashers won’t make the playoffs in a fairly weak division. And if John Grahame and Sean Burke can’t adequately replace Khabibulin there is a chance they could threathen the Lightning for the division title. I don’t expect that to happen but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.