Thrashers must alter plan without Heatley

Atlanta was full of optimism before a car accident put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

Originally Published: September 24, 2001
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

In the wake of the devastating car accident that left fourth-line center Dan Snyder in a coma and star Dany Heatley's future with the team uncertain, the Atlanta Thrashers face some of the most important questions in the team's short history.

With the timetable for Heatley's return from a broken jaw and an injured shoulder, knee, lung and kidney, uncertain at best and ominous at worst, the Thrashers have two choices in salvaging a season that began with tremendous optimism. Neither is particularly palatable.

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH. . .
8th
STRENGTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Emerging teams usually get the defense first and struggle to score. The Thrashers have the dynamic offense in place, and now with Hartley imposing his will, the defense should come around.

WEAKNESS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This is still a team without a true leader on defense. Perhaps one will emerge in Andy Sutton, but the team has been mistaken about this in the past (remember Uwe Krupp? Or Richard Smehlik? No? Neither do the Thrashers.)

BEST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . . . .
The Thrashers feel they stole Ivan Majesky from Florida (they gave up a second-round pick, 38th overall, in the June draft for the big Slovak). He toiled almost 21 minutes a night for Mike Keenan and should fit in with Hartley's defensive scheme.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . .
You've got new owners with self-described "deep pockets" who claim to be passionate about making the playoffs. So they make a statement by ... doing nothing. GM Don Waddell tried but could not land Ken Klee (did we mention a void in defensive leadership?) and made a call about Joe Nieuwendyk. But the proof is in the lineup, and adding fourth liners like Bill Lindsay and Randy Robitaille don't cut it. Not yet.

PLAYER TO WATCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Majesky will illustrate whether the Thrashers have turned enough of a corner to compete for a playoff spot. He brings imposing size and improving skills to a defensive unit lacking both.

FANTASY FIX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pasi Nurminen: There is talk of the playoffs in Atlanta, but the Thrashers aren't going anywhere without a No. 1 goaltender. They thought Byron Dafoe was the answer, but Dafoe's struggles have opened the door for Nurminen, who was effective in 46 starts. The problem is for all their improvement under Hartley, the Thrashers are still going to surrender a lot of shots. That makes it difficult for a goalie -- any goalie -- to prolong hot streaks.

AT A GLANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2003-04: Schedule | Roster
2002-03: Schedule/Results | Stats
One is to hang on and hope that there is enough depth and heart to keep the team in contention until Heatley returns, hope that Ilya Kovalchuk and Shawn McEachern and Marc Savard and Slava Kozlov and youngsters like Kamil Piros can somehow pick up the offensive slack and that defensively the team can close ranks in the face of an inevitable drop-off in offensive productivity. If the Thrashers choose it their odds of making the playoffs for the first time decline dramatically.

The other option is to put new ownership to the test. The team's new ownership group insisted they have deep pockets and are committed to the playoffs when they were introduced early in training camp. This could be their first chance to prove it by working a deal for Pierre Turgeon or Radek Bonk or some other point-producing forward, even if it means upsetting the team's salary structure for the short term. For a team that has skillfully prepared itself for the end of the current collective bargaining agreement, this isn't a particularly pleasant option either.

But in the face of the team's most difficult time, it is time for difficult choices.

Offense

In Heatley's absence and in the absence of any other bona fide NHL scorer, the Thrashers suddenly go from being the top-scoring team not to make the playoffs last season to one with vulnerable offensive depth.

McEachern, the captain, will likely move onto the top unit with Marc Savard and Slava Kozlov leaving untested Kamil Piros to help set up Kovalchuk and 1999 No. 1 draft pick Patrik Stefan.

Only five players have scored more goals before their 20th birthday than Kovalchuk's 67, and he will shoulder a much greater burden now both in terms of production and in terms of becoming the complete player Heatley was. (Heatley went from a minus-15 through the first 38 games of the season to a plus-7 through the last 39 under Hartley.) That will mean killing penalties and working hard to provide an example for the rest of the young forwards.

Hartley will also have to find another quarterback for his power play that showed signs of coming to life, finishing tied for 12th in the league after being 29th, 25th and 26th the previous three years.

Among those players who will play a bigger role, free agent acquisition Randy Robitaille who once upon a time had 30 points in 40 games in Pittsburgh but who has been chided by Hartley in camp for not being gritty enough.

Finnish star Tommi Santala will also stick with the big club and could provide some additional scoring punch.

Defense

Hartley acknowledges that they will not be able to make up the 50 or so goals Heatley and Snyder would have brought to the table. If they're able to somehow chip in 20, the pressure will be on the team defensively to shave 30 or so off the other end of the score sheet. It is a significant challenge but this is a team that appeared headed in the right direction prior to the accident.

The team has tried to make itself bigger in the offseason while still maintaining discipline, adding 6-foot-5 Ivan Majesky from Florida who will likely play with Andy Sutton (6-6), their best defenseman before he was injured in the latter half of the season. Garnet Exelby is also expected to make life more difficult for opposing forwards after playing 15 games with the big club last year.

An experienced if ordinary crew, including Yannick Tremblay, Frantisek Kaberle and Daniel Tjarnqvist, must embrace Hartley's pressure scheme as well if the team is to improve from the soft defensive play that has been the Thrashers' hallmark since entering the league five years ago.

Even with Hartley aboard, the Thrashers still gave up a league-high 284 goals and too often allowed the odd-man rush from the neutral zone or gave up good scoring chances in their own zone.

The addition of Brad McCrimmon as an assistant coach should make sure the blueliners are held accountable. And no one wants to make the bear-like McCrimmon angry.

Goaltending

The assumption from the start of training camp was that a slimmed-down Byron Dafoe would be the de facto starting goaltender. Hartley quickly and consistently dispelled those rumors saying he will play the best goaltender at any given time even if that means playing someone 70-plus games. An understandable strategy given that the Thrashers were cooked early when they failed to win a game in their first 10 starts.

Salary (Dafoe makes more in base salary than anyone on the team) will not be a factor, Hartley insisted. Given that, Pasi Nurminen, who turned in yeoman service when Dafoe went down with a groin injury in what turned out to be a disastrous first season in Atlanta (4.36 GAA, .862 save percentage), must be given the slight nod heading into the season. Nurminen said he's worked on controlling his emotions, not worrying so much over bad goals or games, to improve his consistency.

If the native of Finland can reproduce his solid numbers of a year ago (2.88 GAA, .906 save percentage), the Thrashers may finally get out from under the yoke of inferior goaltending that has slowed their development as a franchise.

Unfortunately Nurminen's predecessors all imploded when given a similar opportunity, a trend that will also have to be reversed if the Thrashers are to contend.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.