Thrashers begin offseason earlier than expected

Updated: April 19, 2006, 8:54 PM ET
Associated Press

DULUTH, Ga. -- Marc Savard arrived at the Atlanta Thrashers' training complex with a dour look, then worked his way around the building taking care of obligations that would have been better put off for a month or two.

He signed some sticks and pucks. He met with the coach. He went through a physical.

Sixteen other teams were getting ready for the NHL playoffs. Savard and his teammates were getting started on the offseason.

"Mentally, it's tough," Savard said. "We battled so hard every night. To come up short is really draining. Every guy gave it all he had. We really wanted to make the playoffs."

The Thrashers were in contention until the next-to-last day of the regular season, their hopes finished off by a 6-4 loss to Washington after they took a one-goal lead to the final period. Atlanta finished with 41 wins and 90 points -- both franchise records -- but came up two points shy of Tampa Bay for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It was a bitter blow for the 7-year-old franchise, one of only two in the NHL that's never made it to the postseason (Columbus, which entered the league a year after the Thrashers, is the other).

"It's even tougher to get so close and not make it," said center Patrik Stefan, the only player who's been with the team throughout its existence. "If you're 20 points away with 10 games left, it's a little bit easier to prepare for it. But we were battling almost until the last game."

Bruce Levenson, part of the team's eight-man ownership group, said the team's failure to make the playoffs could be attributed directly to a rash of goaltending injuries. Starter Kari Lehtonen was bothered most of the season by a groin problem, and missed the final six games with a sprained ankle. Backups Mike Dunham and Steve Shields also spent time on the injured list. Pasi Nurminen tore up a knee before the season even began.

"One thing I learned this year is how important goaltending is," Levenson said. "If we had half-decent luck with our goalies, there's no question we would still be playing."

Even though the Thrashers fell short of their own stated expectations -- back in February, general manager Don Waddell went so far as to issue a guarantee of sorts that his team would make the playoffs -- there are no plans for a major shake-up.

Waddell's job appears safe. So does Hartley's. Both will be meeting with the owners next week to go over the roster and begin making plans for 2006-07.

"I can tell you unequivocally that those guys will be back next year," Levenson said.

The Thrashers' most obvious priority is re-signing Savard, set to become an unrestricted free agent after a career season (28 goals and 69 assists). Defenseman Niclas Havelid and 38-year-old winger Peter Bondra are at the end of their contracts. Captain Scott Mellanby is considering retirement.

"I'd like to be back here, but that's up to management," Savard said. "We'll see what happens."

After the lockout, Atlanta looked like a playoff contender. Bondra and Bobby Holik signed on as free agents, largely because they believed the team was destined for a breakout season. Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries were acquired in a blockbuster deal that sent Dany Heatley to Ottawa. Lehtonen, one of the league's top goaltending prospects, was set to take over in the nets.

But the Thrashers got off to a miserable start, endured a seven-game losing streak just before the Olympic break and couldn't hold off Tampa Bay and Montreal down the stretch.

Atlanta had no trouble finding the net. Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals, 46 assists), Savard and Hossa (39, 53) all surpassed 90 points. Slava Kozlov chipped in with 25 goals. In all, nine players reached double-figure goals, and the Thrashers tied for fifth in the league in scoring.

Keeping the puck out of the net was another matter. Only six teams -- including the league's bottom four -- gave up more goals than the Thrashers.

Five goalies manned the nets for Atlanta. Lehtonen played in just 38 games, many of them at less than full strength. Michael Garnett, who was supposed to spend the year in the minors, ranked second on the team with 24 games.

"If I had to put my finger on one thing, it would be the goaltending situation all year," Savard said.

While Kovalchuk is the face of the franchise, Lehtonen might be the most crucial player of all. The 22-year-old Finn was treated by several specialists in an attempt to prevent him from going through another injury plagued season like this one.

"He's an important part of our future," Levenson said.

Speaking of the future, look for the Thrashers to go into next season sounding a lot like they did this year.

"It was such an amazing finish with these guys playing at a playoff level the last several weeks. I can't wait to get into the real playoffs," Levenson said. "I have every expectation that we'll be there next year."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press