Commentary

Can Thrashers write new chapter?

Updated: February 10, 2011, 6:02 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- We've seen this movie before, haven't we?

And we don't mean that part of "Gone With The Wind" where the South burns down. No, we're talking about the other Southern tragicomedy known as the Atlanta Thrashers.

Ten straight NHL seasons without a playoff win. One playoff appearance. Six or seven "Get Smart" "missed it by that much" moments, including last season, when the plucky Thrashers were in the top eight for a while even after trading franchise winger Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey.

So many promises of something new, so much of the same. Even when all the signs point to the team turning a corner, the slightest hiccup is a portent of familiar disaster.

No one is suggesting the Thrashers' recent slide is good. The team has won just twice in its past 13 outings heading into Friday's home game against the New York Rangers. It has been outscored 56-28 over that period. In nine of those 13 games, the Thrashers have failed to score a power-play goal and have allowed at least one power-play marker.

Although he is within a few days of returning, All-Star defenseman Tobias Enstrom has been out with a broken finger, and his defensive partner, Dustin Byfuglien, is mired in a mighty drought with one goal in his past 14 games.

Yet, despite all that, the Thrashers were ninth in the Eastern Conference as of Thursday morning, just one point out of the final playoff spot. Not 10 or 12. One.

In Buffalo, the Sabres are positively giddy at the prospect of being four points out of the playoffs. Heck, they're talking in hopeful tones in Toronto (eight points out) and even in New Jersey, where the Devils are 15 points out.

But here in the land of the lost, one point out feels worse, feels terminal. More to the point, it feels the same.

Thrashers GM Rick Dudley gets it.

"People in Atlanta, they're used to be disappointed in the team," he told ESPN.com. "Everybody would like to panic at this particular moment, but we think we've done some pretty good things."

Dudley, widely acknowledged as one of the best judges of hockey talent in the game, figures the Thrashers have 14 pieces "of what could be an elite team."

"We've shown that we can be a good hockey team," Dudley said. "I know we're going to be a very good team."

For most of the first half of this season, the Thrashers were playing well, challenging for the Southeast Division lead and sitting comfortably in playoff position. There was much discussion about whether this version of the Thrashers could be the team that finally caught the public's imagination here in Atlanta and made it forget the past. You don't turn around a decade of misfires with a few weeks of inspired play, but the idea that fans could embrace and grow with this team was a tantalizing notion.

Adding a sense of urgency to the story were the persistent rumors that groups in Winnipeg and Quebec City were angling to buy the team and move it north, just as the Atlanta Flames once headed to Calgary. Those rumors gained credence when league officials, including NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman suggested publicly that the Atlanta fan base needed to show itself to guarantee long-term stability for the franchise.

Then, ownership admitted in a recently filed lawsuit against its own lawyers that it had been trying to dump the team for years despite repeated public statements to the contrary.

President and former GM Don Waddell has been working like a dog to try to find investors interested in helping keep the team in Atlanta. But you could hardly blame the few fans who have stuck around in Atlanta for shrugging their shoulders in resignation when the team hit the skids in recent months.

Therein lies the challenge for Craig Ramsay, the veteran hockey mind who is trying to coach this bunch out of its current slump and away from its own tawdry past. Because this team is fully in control of its own destiny, regardless of how it feels.

"It is a concern," Ramsay acknowledged when asked about the team's history of failure. "We dealt with it in one of our discussions last week. We have a lot of people here now, myself included, who aren't used to that. Don't like it. Don't want to be part of that."

Although this is technically Ramsay's first kick at the coaching can from the get-go (he previously filled in as coach in Philadelphia and briefly in Buffalo), he has been around the game 40 years as a player and longtime associate coach. He was part of the "safe is death" mantra that helped catapult Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup in 2004.

He takes responsibility for the Thrashers' recent stumbles, admitting he might have tried to play it a little too safe.

"That's why I really kick my own butt, stop thinking so safe. I hate that word," Ramsay said. "Sometimes you try and outsmart yourself. Our concept is to 'go.' If in fact we take care of our business, our 'go,' then we don't have to worry about some of the other things that have happened in the past.

"We're a new group of coaches, we're a new group of people in here, and we don't have any interest in what's happened in the past, so we're not going to look that way, we're not going to think that way."

Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey said the team has relied too heavily on a handful of players -- Byfuglien and Enstrom and captain Andrew Ladd -- to do too much. Ladd has been part of two organizations, Carolina and Chicago, which shed the perpetual loser mantle and went on to win Stanley Cups.

It's been disappointing to see this young team get away from its earlier identity of skating and working hard, Ladd told ESPN.com.

"For a young team, that has to be our M.O. You've got to bring that every night," Ladd said.

You can talk all you want about whether or not Atlanta is a good hockey market. When you don't win any playoff games for a decade, the market isn't the issue, it's the team.

Does this group becomes part of that gray, forgettable past, or can these Thrashers somehow chart a new course and defy it?

Ramsay thinks he's seen a change, even if those changes haven't necessarily translated into points.

"We've done a lot of things better because the pace has been better," Ramsay said. "'Safe is death' is true, it has been true. I probably of all people have backed off it and I'm just trying to just get back there. One thing leads to the other, but to me, the pace is the most important thing that will lead to others."

Dudley, likewise, believes it will happen here.

"We're going to come out of this. I just hope it's soon enough," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.