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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Updated: September 30, 4:07 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: Atlanta Thrashers

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Marian Hossa can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

Last season, the Thrashers won their first Southeast Division crown and earned their first postseason berth. So why does it feel as though the team is sliding backward? Perhaps because it is. The Thrashers gave up a bevy of draft picks and top defensive prospect Braydon Coburn to bring in veterans Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk for the playoff push, a push that lasted about a week.

Tkachuk went back to St. Louis after his typically uninspiring playoff turn, while Zhitnik, who will turn 35 early in the season, remains on board at an inflated salary of $3.5 million this season. Ken Klee, Joel Kwiatkowski and former Toronto prospect Karel Pilar join a blue-line corps that will struggle to be average, in large part because the team has failed to draft and develop its own NHL-caliber players. Up front, there is talent but more than a few questions, including the head space of Ilya Kovalchuk, who saw his point production fall 22 points in 2006-07.

Marian Hossa can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he's coming off a miserable playoff performance. The team still lacks a true No. 1 center, although Todd White -- signed away from Minnesota -- will inherit the job by default. The AHL's top goal scorer, Brett Sterling, will get a chance to prove he's NHL material, and Eric Perrin will get a new start after coming over from Tampa Bay. Off the ice, there appears to be little money in the Thrashers' coffers to bring in top-notch players, as witnessed by GM Don Waddell's bargain shopping this offseason.

OFFENSE
The Thrashers will remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch with flashy Kovalchuk and immensely talented Hossa. Slava Kozlov remains a calming, consistent presence up front and is coming off a career-best 80 points. The lack of consistency down the middle continues to be a challenge for coach Bob Hartley, and the lack of a true puck-moving defensemen will continue to blunt the Thrashers' power play, which ranked a disappointing 22nd last season. Bryan Little is considered the team's best offensive prospect, but it might be too soon for him.

DEFENSE
Although the back end might not remind anyone of the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, the Thrashers did manage to lop off 30 goals against from 2005-06. That's more a function of goaltending stability than anything else, but the team will have to at least hold that level to qualify for the playoffs. Zhitnik looked lost in the postseason after logging big minutes following his acquisition from Philadelphia at the trade deadline. With Coburn gone, the team's best defensive prospect is Mark Popovic, who is expected to make the big club. Boris Valabik, all 6-foot-7 of him, remains a project. The problem for the Thrashers remains a lack of creativity and offensive production from the back end. Zhitnik still has some pop, but he shouldn't be your go-to guy. Tobias Enstrom, the 239th pick in the 2003 draft, has received some ink at camp, but, at this point, he's more Roy Hobbs than Nicklas Lidstrom.

GOALTENDING
The bloom is off the rose a bit for super-prospect Kari Lehtonen, who was expected to be the team's long-term answer in goal. The No. 2 pick in 2002 was terrific at times in the regular season, when he went 34-24-9 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. But he imploded in the playoffs, allowing 11 goals on 73 shots in two games and ultimately giving way to Johan Hedberg. Will the bizarre playoff experience (he started Game 1, then started Game 3 even after Hedberg was sensational in Game 2) have an effect on his mental standing coming into this season? Lehtonen has shown himself to be mentally tough through the early stages of his career, and he'll have to be now. Hedberg was better than average in relief, and it quickly could turn into a platoon situation if Lehtonen falters.

COACHING
Hartley continues to work over some pretty gaping holes in the lineup, not to mention traumatic off-ice situations since taking over as coach in January 2003. There was the car crash that took the life of forward Dan Snyder and injured star Dany Heatley. There have been goaltending woes and almost no homegrown depth with which to work. Last season, when it looked as though the Thrashers were going off the rails, Hartley guided the club to an 18-8-2 record to seize control of the division. Still, the bottom line is winning; Hartley will have to not only get his club back to the playoffs but also likely win at least one round to reasonably expect to keep his job.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

EXTRA CREDITS
• Thrashers Home
• 2007-08 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Photos
• Search: Thrashers

LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 43-28-11
• Division: First in the Southeast
• Conference: Third in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by the Rangers



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Lehtonen

Goaltender: Kari Lehtonen
The likable Finn has the tools to be a Vezina Trophy candidate, but he has to show more consistency to get there.

Defenseman: Karel Pilar
The 6-foot-3 native of the Czech Republic was once thought to be a cornerstone of the Leafs' blue line, but heart problems derailed a promising career.

Forward: Brett Sterling
There's no questioning Sterling's skill after he led the AHL with 55 goals. But, at 5-foot-7, can the Los Angeles native replicate that kind of production at the NHL level?

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
The Thrashers' first-round debacle against the Rangers was an opportunity missed in a market that is still iffy on hockey. With ownership still in a state of flux despite a recent court ruling in favor of the existing group, the future remains cloudy in Atlanta. If the team can't lock up Hossa to a long-term deal, it could spell even further decay.

Where They Will Finish
The Thrashers will finish fourth in the Southeast Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Atlanta Thrashers will finish this time around? Who will lead the Thrashers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Kovalchuk

There are strong fantasy players abound in Atlanta. Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk should be gone before your draft hits the third round, and Slava Kozlov won't be far behind. Rookies Bryan Little and Brett Sterling have tremendous sleeper value if they wind up playing on the top two lines. Kari Lehtonen is a borderline top-10 fantasy goaltender, someone you can use as your No. 1. Don't spend time mulling over the defense -- only Alexei Zhitnik has value. -- Sean Allen

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