While watching the joke of a game between the Thrashers and Flyers on Sunday afternoon, I came to a chilling conclusion that no fan, follower, casual observer, or even ardent hater wants to come to:
I’m watching a defeated hockey team.
The Thrashers are playing with no discernible sense of fun or enthusiasm, and if the thousands of empty seats at Phillips Arena weren’t damning enough, then all you have to do is look at the statistics.
Over their last five games, the Thrashers have scored exactly zero goals in the first period. That isn’t exactly a recipe for success, and I’m sure that the team is well aware of that fact.
John Anderson has been very vocal about his team throughout the season, and his roots as an AHL coach are certainly on display in the city. His discussions of “crap-o-meters” may amuse outsiders who are only looking for funny sound-bites, but to fans of the team (the few that there may be) are getting fed up with the state of things, and as a hockey fan, I can’t say that I blame them.
This team, which was a playoff contender in years previous, has come into this season and laid a massive egg. Players like Bryan Little and Slava Kozlov have failed to produce up to expectations, and the team is struggling mightily because of it.
Commentators for today’s game against the Flyers were stunned at the impact that losing and lack of production from teammates is having on captain Ilya Kovalchuk, as he was visibly slower handling the puck and not as aggressive on the attack during a third period that saw the Thrashers close to within a goal of the Flyers before losing.
The loss put the Thrashers back into the throes of one of their worst streaks of the season, losing six of their last seven games (including a loss to the lowly Islanders at home). They have been outscored 23-10 during that span, and have been shut out twice. This bad stretch has dropped their record 18-31-5 on the season, and further solidified their status as one of the two worst teams in the league.
So what do the Thrashers do now as the trade deadline is approaching? Should they abandon ship, trade Kovalchuk, and try like hell to tank the rest of the season to improve their draft standing (and their shot at Victor Hedman or John Tavares)? Or, in the opinion of others, should they try like hell to re-sign Kovalchuk before he hits the open market next year and promise him you will solidify the team around him?
The Thrashers are a team going nowhere fast. They aren’t going to make the playoffs this year, and the team will continue on this spiral if they don’t do something fast.
They are having difficulty filling Phillips Arena to any degree, as they are offering lower level tickets for less than $40, all-you-can-eat packs, and even giving away 15% of the arena’s tickets for FREE to each game through promotions, and even with all of this, they are only attracting 14,497 fans per game, which is second to last in the NHL. They are also second worst in percentage of seats filled (78.2%) in the league.
With all of this, it is hard to believe that there is a way to help the franchise both be competitive and attract new fans to the arena. Well, there are three steps I would like to see the Thrashers take to become more relevant in the Atlanta sports scene.
Step one would be for the team to take a similar approach to the one taken by the New Jersey Nets and Florida Panthers. For those of you who don’t know, the two teams have made an agreement that Nets season ticket holders who travel south during the winter months will be able to exchange their tickets for comparable tickets to a Panthers hockey game, and vice versa.
This kind of cross promotion is a brilliant idea to help fans of the NBA connect with fans of the NHL and get to enjoy both sports, and this is something the Thrashers should explore. Whether it is with fellow Atlanta denizens the Falcons, or with an NBA team from colder locales (think Philadelphia or Boston), the team would benefit from having this kind of relationship.
The second step is to attempt to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk. I know that the sexy thing to talk about right now is trading him to a contending team and at least get something for him while they can. They did this with Marian Hossa and got some decent players back in return.
What is different about this situation is that these rumors are coming out as Kovalchuk is in the second-to-last year of his deal, and the Thrashers still have an opportunity to travel down both roads. They should make every effort to re-sign Ilya, and even if they can’t, at least they can trade him next year, and they will appear to be the victims in the situation, a victim of Kovalchuk’s greed.
The third and final step is to make a clean break from the image of the Thrashers as a place where young players go to get good and earn big contracts from other cities. The Rays did this in the off-season in 2008 by dropping the “Devil” from their names, and they rode the wave of positive mojo all the way to the World Series.
Now, I’m not saying that this action in of itself will lead to a Cup Finals appearance for the Thrashers, but I do think that the morale of the team and city would be helped greatly by a re-branding similar to that of the Rays. Changing the name and colors of the team would help spark new sales of merchandise, and would also allow the team to turn the page on a bad part of their history.
This of course has absolutely nothing to do with improving the product on the ice by smart drafting or well-advised free agent acquisitions, but just the mental lift may be the ticket for this team who is trying to recapture its magic from a few years ago. Call me naïve if you want, but I feel like that could potentially help them more than we would think possible.
These are the first steps toward improving the Atlanta franchise. These may not be the biggest Earth-moving shake-ups that are being tossed about the blogosphere, but they are common sense approaches that the Thrashers should take if they want to once again move toward being relevant in the NHL.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.