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By Scott Burnside
The Thrashers finished with just 76 points last season, the fourth-lowest total in the NHL, and were once again a draft lottery team. Yet, it's funny how perception is a funny thing. Thanks to a 12-6 run down the stretch, there is a feeling among some observers that Atlanta has turned a corner. And, to be sure, there are signs of life in the Deep South for a franchise embroiled in an endless ownership squabble and with on-ice futility (the team has won zero playoff games in franchise history) that has seen its fan base dwindle to a handful of hard-core followers.
The promise of young players such as defenseman Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little, Tobias Enstrom and Evander Kane (the No. 4 pick in June's draft), along with veteran additions Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov, suggest the Thrashers could vie for the team's second playoff berth. Maybe.
"Everybody doesn't give us a chance, and maybe deservedly so from last year. We weren't a good hockey team," sophomore coach John Anderson told ESPN.com. "We needed some stuff to be done, and I think we became a much better hockey team.
"Some of the additions we've made -- Kane, Antropov, Kubina -- we are a better team on paper. But we're going to have to go out and prove it and do the things that we did at the end of last year. Nobody's giving us a chance, so we'll have to prove ourselves and we'll have to earn our respect out there."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Thrashers this season:
1. Ilya Kovalchuk
Everything begins and ends with the elephant in the Thrashers' dressing room: captain Kovalchuk and his impending unrestricted free agency. When the team made him captain last season, he embraced the role and played inspired hockey to finish sixth in NHL scoring with 91 points. His 43 goals gave him five straight campaigns with 40 or more goals and he has twice topped the 50-goal plateau.
"I think he felt proud when he was named captain, Anderson said. "Obviously it wasn't that tough of a choice, but I think he felt more responsible for the rest of the team and the organization. I saw it in his play and he picked it up right away."
So, is there enough interest on Kovalchuk's part in signing on in Atlanta for the long haul, or does GM Don Waddell start the auction now? Two seasons ago, Waddell tried to convince Marian Hossa to hang around and ended dealing him at the last minute to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. He won't do the same thing this season, but can the Thrashers afford Kovalchuk if he wants to stay? No question Kovalchuk is by far the biggest star that could hit the open market next summer and Waddell will have to handle this one deftly no matter how the drama unfolds.
2. Kari, Kari, Kari
It's hard not to ask questions about a goaltender that was supposed to provide a netminding foundation for a franchise and has yet to deliver the kind of consistency that we have seen from his contemporaries, like Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh. Not only has Kari Lehtonen been inconsistent in goal but he has struggled to stay healthy and was absent at the start of training camp with lingering back problems after signing a one-year deal this summer. Word was Waddell looked to move Lehtonen but couldn't find a taker. Unless Lehtonen can get healthy and make good on the promise that led the Thrashers to make him the No. 2 pick in 2002, this figures to be his last kick at the can in Atlanta. The question is, who would want him?
3. Plan B
There are some who believe it is Ondrej Pavelec, not Lehtonen, who represents the team's best chance at goaltending stability moving forward. After a stellar 2008 playoffs for the Chicago Wolves, Pavelec's numbers took a dip last season, and he struggled during a brief taste of NHL life (he went 3-7 with an .880 save percentage and 3.61 GAA). Is he ready for NHL action if Lehtonen can't go?
Johan Hedberg is the team's longtime backup, but he's not someone who can be counted on to carry the load for more than brief periods of time. Former Detroit Red Wing and St. Louis Blue Manny Legace is also at camp. Anderson, desperate for someone to step forward as a No. 1 man, said the job is wide open.
"Goaltending's going to be a huge thing for us. We need somebody to take the reins, and it's a great situation for every goalie here because it's wide open," he said. "We'll see what happens in training camp, but I need a guy to step up and take the reins, and that should legitimize us."
And don't think Pavelec isn't going to get a shot just because he's young.
"Listen, I love giving young kids a chance if they can play," Anderson said. "But if you're not going to perform, I don't care whether you're young or old, you're not going to play for us because I'm not getting any younger and careers are fleeting moments. I want us to win right away."
4. Lighting it up
Offense wasn't the Thrashers' problem last season; they were ninth in goals per game thanks to Kovalchuk and a solid, talented cast that includes veteran Slava Kozlov, the team's designated power-play and shootout maestro, Little (31 goals) and Todd White (22 goals). Those four players tied for the team lead with 12 power-play goals each as the Thrashers boasted the 11th-best power play in the league. Those numbers might even improve as Bogosian gets more comfortable handling the puck on the man advantage and with the addition of Antropov, who had 28 goals last season in New York and Toronto.
5. Big additions
They might not have been the most talented free agents on the market, but they certainly were the tallest. Kubina and Antropov represent 12 feet, 10 inches of newcomer. Kovalchuk had a hand in suggesting Antropov's addition, although he might not end up playing with the big center, who has great hands but has shown a penchant for streaky play and lazy penalties in his career. Kubina, another former Leaf, has good skill and size and, although never a fan favorite in Toronto, should upgrade a blue line that has always been the team's weakest link.
6. Team defense
Part of the reason the Thrashers generally stink defensively is their almost annual goaltending woes. But team defense is Anderson's top priority. If the team is going to jump into the playoff discussion, it will have to improve mightily on the 3.40 goals it gave up on average (29th in the NHL). Realistically, the Thrashers will have to shave about half a goal a game off that if they're going to be in the mix, and that's a pretty big mouthful.
The Atlanta Spirit (spiritless, surely) -- the group that owns the Thrashers, the NBA's Hawks and Philips Arena -- is beating the bushes for additional investors as it continues to try to sort out an internal legal squabble that has marred the group's tenure in Atlanta.
Although there are plenty of rumors the NHL team will be sold and moved, there are a host of reasons that almost certainly isn't going to happen, including contracts tied to naming rights and a guarantee from the current group that it will not try to relocate for another four years. Although much of the blame for the team's lack of success falls at the feet of Waddell, the fact that the owners have been unable to resolve their differences has forced the team to perpetually do things on the cheap. That, in turn, has hurt the on-ice product, which hurts attendance, which hurts the bottom line, which handcuffs management. You get the picture.
Will this dysfunctional ownership group bite the bullet and sign on the dotted line when Waddell tells the group it's going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million annually to keep Kovalchuk in the fold? Stay tuned.
8. Another Kane
What are the chances that two kids named Kane end up winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in the space of three years? Hmm. Although he comes without the profile of the top three picks in this past June's draft (John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene) or 2008 Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane, Evander Kane, the No. 4 pick, is going to get every shot to be an NHLer right off the hop.
"He can fly, skate, strong, a nice kid," Anderson said. "Again, a good young person who will get a great opportunity."
The 18-year-old sniper had 48 goals and 96 points in 61 games for Vancouver of the Western Hockey League last season, but Anderson wants to make sure he ends up in the right place for the Thrashers."We want him to keep scoring," Anderson said. "Does he fit in the top two lines, or does he need to learn how check?"
9. A scheduling note
The Thrashers hit the Olympic break playing six of eight on the road, then play nine of 11 at home after the break. That's a good thing -- assuming the Thrashers are better at home than last season, when they were a desultory 18-21-2.
10. Olympic exposure
It's quite possible Kovalchuk will captain the Russian Olympic team, and Enstrom will be in the running for the Swedes. Pavel Kubina should suit up for the Czechs, and Ron Hainsey could be patrolling the blue line for the U.S. squad.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 35-41-6
• Division: Fourth in the Southeast
• Conference: 13th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome from living in Atlanta, but we're buying that the Thrash are on the right track. And they'll be markedly better than last season. But in a division in which the other four teams also are trending up, it won't be enough to make the playoffs, as the Thrashers are looking at another fifth-place finish in the Southeast.
• The longtime NHLer and career minor league coach finally got his shot at the bigs last season. He admits that perhaps he overestimated how quickly his new players would take to his systems.
"I don't assume anymore," Anderson said. "I think these guys know the stuff, and they didn't. I thought they would pick it up quicker, they didn't."
A year later, with personnel comfortable with what he wants done, this season will be a much better indication of Anderson's NHL coaching acumen.
"If you have guys for a couple of years, you understand when we want to change something," Anderson said. "Here, it took awhile to be able to put all our repertoire together; it took until December before everybody kind of got it. By that time, it was too late. We were already buried. It was so hard to crawl out of that hole."
F -- Ilya Kovalchuk
• Continues to impress in a leadership role with the Thrashers. Overshadowed now by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, but still a dominant presence.
F -- Bryan Little
• Looking to build on a 31-goal campaign. Playing with Kovalchuk won't hurt.
F -- Nik Antropov
• Lanky center was one of two major offseason additions. Streaky, but good skills.
D -- Zach Bogosian
• People will soon be talking about him in the same breath as L.A.'s much-heralded Drew Doughty.
D -- Ron Hainsey
• Bucking for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Best Bet: Ilya Kovalchuk, F: The Thrashers star forward suffers somewhat in the plus/minus department, however, Atlanta added some pieces that could improve its forwards' goal differential. The Thrashers need only to have some consistency in net to be a solid team this season, so Kovalchuk could play his way into much higher value than a No. 2 or 3 forward. But for now, that's how he should be treated.
Risky Move: Pavel Kubina, F: The addition of Kubina takes what looked like an average top four defense in Atlanta, and turns it into a group that is quite enticing in fantasy hockey. Kubina leads the way for potential value thanks to his power-play prowess and penchant for taking penalties. The plus/minus is not going to be for the faint of heart, but you can bank on 10 goals, 40 points and almost 100 penalty minutes. If you can mitigate his minus-15 somewhere else on your team, Kubina has strong value that may get overlooked in the draft.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Atlanta Thrashers finish this season in Southeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.