- Scott Burnside, NHL
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If the Atlanta Thrashers keep this up, they'll have to change their marketing slogan from Blueland to Goonland. It's already a nickname that's taken hold as far as some NHL coaches are concerned.
In a surprising turn of events, the Thrashers not only are off to an embarrassing start to the regular season with a 2-5 record, in which their high-powered offense has registered just two goals in their five losses, but also have become a lightning rod of criticism from fans, media and other coaches following a series of ugly on-ice incidents.
The latest blemish on what has otherwise been a wildly rosy start to the new NHL campaign took place Thursday night in Atlanta when Thrashers tough guy Eric Boulton leveled Tampa Bay rookie defenseman Paul Ranger with what appeared to be an elbow to the head late in a 6-0 rout of the Thrashers by the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Ranger, 21, who is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, was left with a hairline fracture of his jaw and a concussion and is lost to the team for five to seven days.
Boulton, 29, standing at 6-feet, 224 pounds, has been suspended, effective with Saturday's game against New Jersey, pending an in-person hearing with league discipline czar Colin Campbell on Monday, which means a suspension of more than five games is in the offing. Boulton reportedly waived his right to the in-person meeting in the hopes of having the incident dealt with quickly, but the NHLPA refused, delaying the face-to-face meeting until Campbell is available in Toronto on Monday.
Campbell could not be reached for comment by ESPN.com.
The hit on Ranger follows an ugly skirmish last Friday in Atlanta when, with the Leafs en route to a 9-1 pasting of the Thrashers, a Boulton hit on Eric Lindros touched off a wild melee. That slew of fights was followed shortly by a head-high hit by Andy Sutton on Darcy Tucker that left Tucker bloody and Sutton suspended for four games.
Taken in isolation, the Sutton hit and the Boulton hit might not seem so egregious. Tucker had the misfortune of hitting his head on a partition on an end section of protective glass, and Ranger appeared to be turning to look for an errant puck when he was hit.
But given the context of the game situations (the Thrashers being thrashed in each case) and the pattern of violent play at a time when the league is determined to put its best face forward in the aftermath of last season's lockout, it's clear the league will be sending a not-so-subtle message to Hartley and the rest of the Thrashers to shape up.
"It's two incidents basically a couple of games apart. It's bad timing," Hartley said in an interview with ESPN.com Friday morning. "We're playing obviously awful right now, so obviously everything is thrown at us and rightfully so. Right now, we're getting what we deserve, it's as simple as this."
That said, Hartley said he fully supports the league in whatever disciplinary decisions are made.
"People in the league, they have a mandate, they have a mandate to act in the best interest [of] the league, which is the sport of hockey," he said. "It's a tough job. It's a dirty job that those guys have and they do it very well. When you're at the receiving end, you always want a lot, and when you're at the other end, you always defend yourself."
Hartley, who has been the bench boss in Atlanta since Jan. 14, 2003, and who won a Stanley Cup in Colorado in 2001, insisted there hasn't been any intent for his players to target opposing players. In the case of Ranger, Hartley said the young defenseman whiffed on a passing attempt and turned his body in an awkward position when Boulton hit him.
"The puck kind of gets a little bit behind him and [he] turns his head for the puck, but Boulton has already committed for the hit," Hartley said. "I watched the hit many times this morning, and was it a vicious hit? I don't think so. Obviously there's an injury."
"I saw Mike Peca run Keith Ballard, I saw him run in with his two gloves right in his face the other night. I saw Brad May take a run at [Mattias] Norstrom. Norstrom's head banged. I thought Norstrom was dead. I look at those two hits, and I look at Sutton and that kid. Obviously there was blood on [the Sutton hit] and [now] there's word that maybe the kid will have a broken jaw or something like this. But our two guys, were they going on a mission? Absolutely not.
"You look at both situations, you can look at every possible angle on every tape, but obviously there's injuries."
Toronto coach Pat Quinn and Tampa coach John Tortorella were both enraged by the respective incidents. Quinn accused Hartley of fostering a head-hunting mentality amongst his players and accused the Thrashers of cowardice.
Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. made an unprecedented appearance in Hartley's postgame press briefing and challenged Hartley's take on what had taken place in a brief, angry exchange with the coach.
Tortorella lashed out at Boulton, who played in the East Coast Hockey League last season, where he had 124 minutes in penalties in 48 games.
"The [expletive] guy should be playing in the [expletive] East Coast Hockey League and takes out a [expletive] National Hockey League player," an angry Tortorella told reporters in an obscenity-laced response. "He'll get suspended, but who [expletive] cares. Nobody wants him on the ice anyway. It's [expletive]."
Hartley visited Tortorella in the visitors' coaching room after the game, but he said it was to catch up and was not related specifically to the Boulton hit.
"Torts is my buddy. We always see each other. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, he would call me, I would call him. I won the Cup, he called me. He won the Cup, I called him," Hartley said. "We grew up together. We had our battles and we learned to respect each other. I just went to wish him luck in his season and have a chat with him and I asked him how the kid was.
"I told him I hope the kid was alright and it's unfortunate," Hartley added. "I will not throw Boulton under the bus. I don't appreciate what Torts said about Bolts but, hey, that's the way he is."
What is perplexing about the turn of events over the past week or so is that the Thrashers looked to be the poster team for the new NHL. Once one of the most frugal teams in the NHL, Atlanta made a splash in the offseason, acquiring Marian Hossa and signing free agents Bobby Holik, Peter Bondra, Jaroslav Modry and Niclas Havelid, illustrating the point that even small-market teams have the wherewithal to draw big-name players now that all teams have to operate under a salary cap.
Thrashers GM Don Waddell said he doesn't believe Hartley sent any of his players out to intentionally hurt opposing players. Said Waddell: "We've never had the reputation through tough losses. I don't want to be known as a GM of a team that deliberately goes out to hurt people."
Waddell said he endorses the league's mandate to reduce blows to the head. "I support that, I wouldn't want it to happen to our guys."
And given the wide-open play mandated by new rules and the enforcement of old rules governing obstruction, the Thrashers looked to be one of the most explosive teams in the league. But apart from beating up on the Washington Capitals twice, the Thrashers have fired only blanks, prompting regular catcalls and boos from the normally appreciative Atlanta crowds.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed all of training camp before signing a $32 million, five-year deal, has one goal, while Hossa and Holik have been largely pedestrian. Against Tampa, the Thrashers offered up just 15 shots, prompting Hartley to schedule an 8 a.m. ET practice Friday.
Goaltending has been a huge issue, as Atlanta has relied on minor-league goaltenders Michael Garnett and Adam Berkhoel for the past week, and they have been shell-shocked. Journeyman NHLer Steve Shields has been signed to an AHL contract and might get a look next week if news continues to be bad surrounding the recovery of top netminders Kari Lehtonen and Mike Dunham.
Of course, if it weren't for bad news, the Thrashers would have no news at all, at least in the early going.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance