Look around all the major hockey sources and their preseason power rankings; you will see the Atlanta Thrashers, nearly every time, are predicted anywhere from 25-30 in the league. It’s easy to give a top-5 list of why Atlanta won’t see postseason action, but without following the team, such predictions are backhanded and meaningless. This is how I now translate the media’s general consensus:
30. Atlanta Thrashers. They sucked two years ago, they sucked last year, and they’ll suck this year. I can’t name anyone on the team except for Ilya Kovalchuk, while I turn a blind eye to rising star Zach Bogosian, 30+ goal scorer Bryan Little, career seasons for Todd White and Marty Reasoner, and the Thrashers being one of the hottest teams in the league the last half of the 2009 season. After all, it’s Atlanta. Trade Kovalchuk, move to Hamilton, another high draft lottery, golf, etc.
The Thrashers, now entering their 10th season as a franchise, have made a post-season appearance once, and left the playoffs without a single playoff win, so yes, it is very easy to say the team is doomed to fail, fold, and move on. Somebody will have to have the controversial, deviating opinion of this disrespected team, and I guess that somebody will have to be me. I offer five of my best reasons that the Atlanta Thrashers will fly back into the playoffs.
5. Size does matter. Age does, too. If you’re not confident in the Thrashers defense, then become confident in the defensive bodies. The Thrashers have added some big guys in 6’6″ 230 lb Nik Antropov and, on the blueline, 6’4″ 240 lb Pavel Kubina. In addition, it is reported that Chris Thorburn has put on bulk, and Evander Kane, Atlanta’s 3rd overall pick in 2009, has put on 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
If that’s not enough, the Thrashers only have one defenseman under 6 feet. The rest include 6’2″ 200 lb Zach Bogosian (at only 19 years old), 6’3″ 205 lb Ron Hainsey, and 6’7″ 240 lb Boris Valabik. In order for Atlanta to address its defensive woes, the team will have to get bigger at every position first to deliver the big hits and keep guys out of their own zone.
So far, things are looking up. These guys are tall. And young.
The Thrashers will look to follow the Blackhawks in the west. Get younger. Get faster. The core of the team consists mostly players before their prime. Players like Bryan Little who scored 31 goals, Tobias Enstrom, and Zach Bogosian will be given the minutes. Evander Kane will be given every opportunity to make the team out of training camp.
The post lockout NHL mandates youth and speed, and Atlanta is well equipped with it, backed up by veterans with serious size.
4. Depth, depth everywhere! It is no secret that Kari Lehtonen has spent his career plagued with injuries, and to few people’s surprise, he will likely miss the beginning portion of the season. Coach John Anderson went as far to say that it is not safe to assume Kari Lehtonen will be the number one goaltender for the season. Fortunately, the start could go to one of four other goaltenders, if not Lehtonen later on: Johan Hedberg, Ondrej Pavelec, Drew MacIntyre, and Manny Legace who is on a professional tryout. Hedberg has served as the Thrashers backup for the last three seasons. Ondrej Pavelec has had less than impressive stats in the NHL, but turns heads in the AHL and is a coveted prospect by a number of teams. Drew MacIntyre is even more impressive in the AHL with two games of NHL experience with Vancouver. His first preseason game with the Thrashers allowed 5 goals on 36 shots for a 5-0 loss at Nashville but blanked the Predators in the following shooutout.
Not only is depth happening in goal, but the Thrashers will send quite a few reliable insurance policies to the AHL in event of injury or housekeeping. Anthony Stewart and Jason Krog provide the Thrashers some experienced NHL players while the young talent continues to develop in Riley Holzapfel, Angelo Esposito, Spencer Machacek, Arturs Kulda, and Paul Postma.
My guess is for the first time in Thrashers history, there is an actual tryout occurring at training camp instead of inviting prospects to come play, knowingly destined back to Chicago or the junior leagues. Don Waddell has stated that the final roster at every position for this season will consist of tough decisions, which ultimately means some decent talent will be sent back to the system. This depth will be important in the event of injury to keep talent flowing smoothly throughout the system.
3. Kovalchuk will likely re-sign. Whether it’s a short term deal or long term, there are many articles, interviews, and opinions of others that lead me to believe that Kovalchuk will give this team a shot after this season. For those who compare Kovalchuk to Hossa, remember that unlike Hossa, Kovalchuk’s agent is actively making a counter-offer.
What did Kovalchuk ask for? A top-six forward. Don Waddell granted that wish, and a particular player that Kovalchuk asked for at that. A top-four defenseman. Done. A commitment from ownership to invest in the Thrashers. Halfway there. Now that Steve Belkin has his share in the team again, Atlanta Spirit can now dig deeper in the pockets. Question is, will they?
In addition, Kovalchuk is pleased that Maxim Afinogenov is on a professional tryout with the Thrashers.
So, what? Kovalchuk will re-sign; how does this get the Thrashers to the playoffs? First, consider that Atlanta will have a committed captain from the start of the season. When Kovalchuk became captain, among many other factors, the Thrashers went 21-18, and higher concentration of winning came as that last half progressed. Ilya has made it clear that in order to make the playoffs, there will have to be 22 captains on the team, and he is setting the right tone and moving his teammates in the right direction. Kovalchuk signing will mean the difference between hockey and golf come mid-April, and it’s becoming safer to assume the former.
2. Offense; from blueline and forward. Among the first offseason moves was replacing stay-at-home and effectively ineffective blueliner Garnet Exelby. While a fan favorite, the on-ice product needed change, and the answer was Pavel Kubina from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Closer to the trade deadline last season, the organization was well aware the Thrashers were likely out of the playoffs, and with Niclas Havelid not intending on returning to the league, he deserved a final shot at the playoffs. The answer for Niclas Havelid was Anssi Salmela, a hand pick by Lou Lamoriello, a league-renowned drafting expert.
After an uninspired season by Eric Perrin, Atlanta had no intention re-signing him. His replacement? Not only within the system, but on the main roster—Colby Armstrong. By putting two effective forecheckers on the same line (the other being Marty Reasoner), the third line is strengthened, has additional scoring talent, and there is room for a more legitimate top-six player. That answer was Nikolai Antropov.
Why are these players so significant? Ask Mr. John Anderson, a four-time Turner Cup/Calder Cup champion coach for the Chicago Wolves, and he’s the proprietor of a genius, winning system. This system is all offense, effective offense, from all five skaters. It demands size, speed, and accuracy. When executed correctly, it keeps the puck in the opposing teams side, creates effective special teams, and scores often. All of these acquisitions are enormous moves in making the Thrashers performance more complex and ultimately successful.
Why didn’t Anderson’s system work in 08-09?
- Johnny was making his NHL debut in any coaching position.
- Johnny had no say in his roster. He had to make his system work with the players he was given.
- Nobody on the roster trusted his system, therefore nobody played it effectively. Toward the end of the season, the system was trusted, and the Thrashers started winning.
- Even to the end of the season, post-deadline, there were players that could not and would not take coach’s advice.
Why will Anderson’s system work in 09-10?
- Johnny has many mistakes to work off of and improve. He’s no longer a rookie.
- The organization has provided the players required for Anderson’s system.
- The organization has also ejected a myriad of players that just wouldn’t fit the system. Love ’em or hate ’em: Jason Williams, Mathieu Schneider, Erik Christensen, Eric Perrin, Garnet Exelby, and Nic Havelid.
- The season will start with the right players, and any movements and transactions will come as fine tuning throughout the season.
The Thrashers finished an atrocious season with the 9th best offense in the league with 250 goals-for, 3.05 goals per game. This team can score, and the responsibility will lie on the all puck-moving cast on the blueline to keep this team in the playoffs hunt.
1. The Thrashers proved they can be consistent. Though the Thrashers were far from perfect, the boys in blue (or burgundy) proved that they can win consistently both at home and on the road.
Atlanta set their franchise longest win streak during their hot streak at six games. The last three of those six games were played without Kovalchuk who was injured in Edmonton, and the Thrashers destroyed the Capitals 5-1 as Lehtonen made 49 saves all without a single minute of ice time for Kovalchuk. The Thrashers saw more sporadic wins and another 4 game win streak until the end of the season. Atlanta also went 2-2 on a Pacific road trip starting with two wins against Anaheim and Los Angeles, then losing to Phoenix in an 8 round shootout and Presidents Trophy winner San Jose 3-1.
As I’ve watched most Atlanta games very closely, I noticed consistent performance by the top six forwards once it solidified. The “Little-White-Russian” (Ilya Kovalchuk-Todd White-Bryan Little) line was renowned as one of the best in the NHL by The Hockey News, while Slava Kozlov-Rich Peverley-Colby Armstrong (The AK-47 line) saw some high scoring ice time.
Speaking of Rich Peverley, he is the diamond in the rough that will play a crucial role in the Thrashers’ postseason berth. A waiver claim from Nashville, Peverley ended his season putting up 35 points and an astounding +16 in 39 games. An excellent passer with a rocket shot, he is sure to turn heads in his first full season with Atlanta.
I’ve already mentioned, also, that the inconsistency issues have been addressed by subtraction. The exit of Jason Williams, Mathieu Schneider, Eric Perrin, Erik Christensen, and Garnet Exelby leaves only hard workers remaining.
Other players like Bryan Little and Marty Reasoner prove that there are players truly committed to consistency and getting back to the playoffs. As Ilya Kovalchuk is captain, he will make sure his entire roster is committed.
Of course, one injury or some other unusual circumstance could mean the end of any team, but assuming everything falls into place, I don’t see why the Thrashers can’t compete this year. They have some of the league’s finest scoring, and have addressed its inconsistencies and holes by subtraction of trash and addition of size, youth, and speed. This looks like a team that’s up to par with your average playoffs contender, and if this season can’t save the Thrashers, nothing will.