Atlanta Thrashers season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

Atlanta Thrashers

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Last season began with significant expectations for a retooled Atlanta squad, expectations that took a major blow just 20 minutes into the regular season when rookie goaltending phenom Kari Lehtonen went down with a groin injury. The Thrashers went through a raft of goaltenders as they tried to stay in the playoff hunt while Lehtonen recovered. They did stay close, but Lehtonen went down again late in the regular season and Mike Dunham spit the bit in the team's penultimate game. Once again, Atlanta was shut out of the playoffs, falling two points short. In the offseason, the Thrashers got a little grittier by adding Steve Rucchin, but a lot less explosive with the departure of Marc Savard (97 points) and Peter Bondra (21 goals in spite of a groin injury). In a market that still views the Thrashers as a kind of curiosity, missing the playoffs for the seventh straight season will be potentially devastating to a franchise whose ownership remains in a state of troubling flux and likely will cost GM Don Waddell and coach Bob Hartley their jobs.

Offense: Atlanta's 276 goals were tied for fifth overall in the league, and even though Savard and his 97 points have gone to Boston, the Thrash should remain an explosive team with the likes of Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov, who combined for 261 points last season. Niko Kapanen comes from Dallas and will get a chance to showcase his offensive skills on one of the team's top two lines. Even without gifted Savard, the Atlanta power play should remain potent (it was seventh overall last season). As with most teams, depth will be critical, and the Thrashers have done a poor job of developing their own talent outside high draft picks such as Kovalchuk and Lehtonen. One decent homegrown player is Jim Slater, who has good skill and terrific energy. Having a healthy Bobby Holik, a force down the stretch last season, will give the offense a boost, too, although it might be too much to expect him to be a first- or second-line center.

Defense: The Thrashers have always been a team that played defense as if the players' pants were on fire. The team's offense often compensated for the defensive flaws, but not often enough. Quite simply, there is no way Atlanta can make the playoffs if it can't do much better than 24th overall in goals-against. One way to improve overall team defense will be to stay out of the penalty box. Physically, the blue line got tougher with the departure of lead-footed Jaroslav Modry and the arrival of hard-hitting Vitaly Vishnevski from Anaheim. Garnet Exelby continues to be one of the game's big, young hitters, and Andy Sutton at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds has the potential to be imposing. The big question mark on defense is whether Braydon Coburn, the eighth overall pick in 2003, is ready to grow up and be an NHL defenseman.

Goaltending: It doesn't get any simpler than this. If Lehtonen can stay healthy enough to play in 60-65 games, his inherent skill will get the Thrashers in the postseason, where anything is possible for this team. The soft-spoken Finn spent most of the summer in Atlanta working out, so signs are there that he has turned the corner in terms of his physical preparation. Waddell tried to bring in a better safety net in backup Johan Hedberg, and there's Fred Brathwaite, who likely will begin the season in Chicago with the AHL Wolves.

Coaching: Hartley took a lot of heat last season, unfairly so, when his team got in a couple of dust-ups with Toronto and Tampa Bay early on. But remember, Hartley is a man with a Stanley Cup ring and he knows how to get the most out of his players. If there has been a criticism of Hartley through the years, it's that he tends to ride his best players as opposed to rolling out four lines and six defensemen. But as Hartley often says, if you have thoroughbreds, you have to let them run. And it's not as though he has been blessed with the kind of depth he had in Colorado. Still, Hartley will have to be careful how he uses Lehtonen to get maximum production from him without hampering his effectiveness.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
11th A lot of things will have to go right for the Thrashers to make the playoffs, including the emergence of scoring stud Kovalchuk as a true leader. It says here it won't happen. Atlanta finishes fourth in the Southeast, 11th in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Even
Stock even (but teetering). No team needs to make the playoffs more than the Thrashers in a town where college football is king, Michael Vick is a prince and hockey is the frog.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Goalie Kari Lehtonen might have been limited to only 38 games in a disappointing rookie season, but he has top-10 upside at his position and will be picked as a No. 2 option on most teams. Don't fret about Marc Savard's departure, either. Atlanta will find someone to feed Ilya Kovalchuk on the power play, and whether it's Bobby Holik, Slava Kozlov or Steve Rucchin, who steps up to fill the void, the winner will be quite the fantasy bargain. I'm banking on it being Kozlov. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Thrashers:
1. Ondrej Pavelec, 19, G, C. Breton (QMJHL)
Statline: 27-18-0 record, 2.51 GAA, .929 SV%
2. Boris Valabik, 20, D, Kitchener (OHL)
Statline: 52 GP, 1 G, 9 A, 216 PIM
3. Alex Bourret, 19, RW, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
Statline: 67 GP, 44 G, 70 A, 133 PIM
4. Jim Sharrow, 21, D, Gwinnett (ECHL)
Statline: 23 GP, 3 G, 7 A, 12 PIM
5. Nathan Oystrick, 23, D, N. Michigan (CCHA)
Statline: 38 GP, 9 G, 20 A, 58 PIM
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Atlanta Thrashers
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record41-33-8 (90 points)
DivisionFinished third in Southeast
ConferenceFinished 10th in East
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Steve Rucchin
With all due respect to one of the few products of Canada's university hockey system, the 35-year-old shouldn't be counted on as a second-line center, which is what he's expected to be here.
Winger: Marian Hossa
One of the most talented, smartest players in the game, Hossa will have to provide some more leadership skills to get this team over the hump. In other words, this is his team now and he needs to prove it.
Defense: Vitaly Vishnevski
The team cleared out one mistake by trading penalty-prone Modry, and Waddell had better hope he didn't make another by bringing in Vishnevski, who is physical but had best stay out of the box himself.
Goalie: Kari Lehtonen
Pressure? Just the future of the franchise. But if there's one kid who can take the heat, it's this unflappable Finn.

Key Moves
The Thrashers disposed of an undisciplined, yet talented presence in Savard and brought in untested talent in Kapanen and veteran discipline in Rucchin. Maybe it's the new math, but it just doesn't seem to add up.

SportsNation
Rating the Thrashers
The Atlanta Thrashers finished 10th in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Thrashers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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