Two years ago, the Thrashers’ future looked bright. A final push made by Don Waddell when he acquired Keith Tkachuk, that year’s biggest deadline day catch, and the Thrashers’ first ever playoff appearance meant the team was going in the right direction. The people of Atlanta had high hopes the following season, but the team sputtered all season and it cost them Marian Hossa at the deadline. The team, once again, was back to square one.
The Thrashers are once again by Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who may very well be considered one of the best snipers of his generation. However, for the first time in a long time, Kovalchuk will not have a 30+ goal scorer on his line, which means that the Thrashers are counting on him even more to provide the majority of the offense. In the past, Dany Heatley or Hossa had been able to take some pressure off Kovalchuk, but heading into this season only Slava Kozlov (17) has more than 15 goals. He will also once again be without a premier set-up centre, but don’t expect the Russian to fire any less pucks or score any less goals. Jason Williams was signed to help out in that department and realistically he can only be viewed as a band-aid solution. The spot to centre Kovalchuk will be his to lose, and new coach John Anderson can elect to go with more smarts (Todd White), more size (Erik Christensen), more speed (Bryan Little), or more skill (Eric Perrin). After that Kozlov will be expected to provide some secondary offense. With no significant changes up front, don’t expect them to finish higher than 20th in GF. However, should the Thrashers finish near the cellar once again, it could be the last they ever see of their star.
The Thrashers’ defensive corps should also not be underrated. Although they had the league’s worst shots for-shots against ratio and the second-worst defense, they aren’t expected to repeat this horrific numbers. They’re aided by their biggest free agent splash this year in Ron Hainsey, who left Columbus for greener pastures. Hainsey is coming off a productive season in Columbus and will no doubt help Atlanta in the offensive department. Niclas Havelid also has the ability to shut-down the opponents’ top scoreres, while the surprising Tobias Enstrom will once again be the puck-moving specialist. Look for him to man the other point on the PP with Kovalchuk. Veteran Ken Klee and Garnet Exelby will round out the top 5, while the sixth spot is Boris Valabik‘s to lose. Valabik was drafted 10th overall in 2004, and with his 6’7″ frame has been compared to Zdeno Chara, but has yet to play up to those comparisons. The player with the most intrigue this season will be Zach Bogosian and his quest to make the team. The recent draftee has the NHL skills and smarts, but Waddell has to decide if Bogosian would be better off playing 25 minutes a night in Peterborough or 6 minutes a night in the NHL.
The biggest enigma in the Thrashers’ locker room isn’t the direction of the team or leadership, but Kari Lehtonen. The Finnish netminder was drafted 2nd overall in 2002 and was tagged as the goalie of the future, and had the skills and talent, but never the body or consistency. The 25 year old had posted a career-high 34 wins the season before and made the playoffs and managed to play 68 games. However, the injury bug would bite again and limit him to 48 games, the least posting the worst win total (17) in his North American pro career. Johan Hedberg is back to back up Lehtonen and could see plenty of playing time should Lehtonen go down with injury yet again. The talented Ondrej Pavelec will start on the farm, but don’t be surprised to see him as a mid-season call-up and perhaps steal a few games and play spoiler down the stretch.
Atlanta still has a little more work to do before reaching the cap floor, and once they do, there’s no sign that they’ll go any higher. They have re-signed all of their key RFAs, but with the team not expected to do well Atlanta Spirit (the owners) will not be looking to potentially lose more money. The Thrashers’ biggest concern this year isn’t worried about the quality of product on the ice, but rather trying to convince Kovalchuk to stay, although the two should be related. Kovalchuk has two years remaining on his contract, including this year, but management doesn’t want to wait to get Kovalchuk on board for the next 6-8 years. To do so they have to win some games, and that may be the biggest challenge facing them. With a stronger Southeast Division they won’t be a player in the last season playoff hunt, which means perhaps a shot at the number one pick in 2009.
With Hossa’s departure Hainsey is expected to alleviate some of the holes, along with Enstrom who is expected to improve on his impressive 38-point NHL debut season. Havelid is one of the premier shot-blockers in the league and was sixth among defensemen with 184, but will expected to step it up a notch along with Exelby. The success of Atlanta doesn’t hinge so much on the players this year, but the coach. If Anderson, who has had success with Atlanta’s AHL affiliate, can infuse a new system that Kovalchuk can buy into, perhaps it may convince him to stay. Anderson has coached many of the young players coming up through Chicago and his familiarity with them will no doubt aid him. Waddell is hoping that Anderson could become the next Bruce Boudreau, although to be fair to Anderson, Boudreau did have the better roster.
Ilya Kovalchuk – Jason Williams – Colby Armstrong
Slava Kozlov – Todd White – Eric Perrin
Brett Sterling – Erik Christensen – Chris Thorburn
Brad Larsen – Bryan Little – Eric Boulton
Tobias Enstrom – Niclas Havelid
Ron Hainsey – Garnet Exelby
Ken Klee – Zach Bogosian
Kari Lehtonen – Johan Hedberg
scratches: Marty Reasoner, Jim Slater, Boris Valabik
Head Coach: John Anderson
GM: Don Waddell
Projected Finish: 5th Southeast, 14th East