2008-09 Team Preview: Atlanta Thrashers
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideOnly the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning had fewer points last season than the Atlanta Thrashers, who missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons of play.
They have yet to win a playoff game and, more importantly, appear to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of hockey fans and corporate bean counters in a city awash in corporate money. At least for now. The Thrashers have seen their season-ticket base dwindle to a fraction of its original mark and need to put a product on the ice that will encourage fans and sponsors back to the rink. Unfortunately, that's going to be a tall order for a team that looks as though it's built more for a draft-lottery run than a playoff run.
GM-for-life Don Waddell added an interesting piece in free-agent defenseman Ron Hainsey, who can move the puck, has good size and should help improve a power play that was 23rd overall last season. Jason Williams should also help out up front if he can stay healthy and will likely start on the team's top line. Still, this is a team that continues to lack a center to play with star Ilya Kovalchuk and real leadership in the dressing room.
John Anderson, who has a wealth of experience and success at the minor league level, is getting his first taste of NHL coaching and has a big challenge in front of him. "There's no comfort in people saying this is a bad hockey team," Anderson told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "It's embarrassing. We need to change our system. We are absolutely changing our system. I hate the fact that people think we're not a good hockey team."
Even with Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa for most of the season, the Thrashers ranked 22nd in goals per game. That number could improve if Williams, who once scored 21 as a member of the Red Wings, can fill a top-six forward role, likely playing with Kovalchuk, perhaps as the No. 1 center. Bryan Little had impressive moments as a rookie and looks to slide into the No. 2 pivot role with Todd White, miscast as a No. 1 center last season. Erik Christensen will also have a shot at one of the top two center spots as Anderson will look for some chemistry in camp on which to build.
Having Slava Kozlov, whose point production dropped from 80 to 41 last season, back on track would be a nice piece to Anderson's puzzle. The interesting player to watch will be Angelo Esposito, who came over from Pittsburgh in the Hossa trade-deadline deal and will get every chance to make the team and prove he has the tools to play in the NHL (something critics suggest the 19-year-old doesn't have). Tobias Enstrom, an eighth-round draft pick who just signed a four-year contract extension, was a revelation a season ago with 33 points and Hainsey should help keep the puck moving, especially on the power play, which was a disappointing 23rd overall in 2007-08.
The Thrashers were tied for dead last with Tampa in goals allowed last season. With all due respect to Hainsey et al, the offseason additions don't suggest a dramatic improvement is in the offing. There remains the potential for too many turnovers and too little in the way of toughness around the Thrashers' net to keep them from moving even into the middle of the pack defensively. It will be interesting to see what the plan is for the third overall pick in the June, Zach Bogosian, who had scouts drooling leading up to the draft, but who was slow to get into full contact in training camp. Under Anderson, all Thrashers defensemen will be encouraged to take advantage of open ice and skate with the puck. Along with cutting down on goals allowed at full strength (they were 28th), the Thrashers will also need to dramatically improve their penalty kill (27th).
Three years ago, this area looked to be one of the team's solid foundations. Now, after a series of up-and-down years, Kari Lehtonen is more question mark than franchise netminder. There are more than a few observers who believe Ondrej Pavelec, who led the Thrashers' AHL affiliate in Chicago to a surprise Calder Cup championship last spring, is the best netminder in the system. Lehtonen signed a one-year deal in the offseason and will again be ably backed up by Johan Hedberg. Still, this appears to be a make-or-break year for Lehtonen, whose inconsistency, lack of focus and penchant for appearing unhappy with his teammates have made him less than a favorite in the dressing room. If Lehtonen can stay healthy and focused, the Thrashers have an outside chance of staying in the playoff hunt. If not, expect Lehtonen to be in another jersey a year from now.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Atlanta was the acquisition this past weekend of defenseman Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim. He joins Ron Hainsey, as well as 2008 first-round pick Zach Bogosian as newcomers to Atlanta. That trio, along with Tobias Enstrom, Nick Havelid and Garnett Exelby, give the Thrashers a solid core on the blue line. When I was with the Lightning last season, had we not traded Brad Richards at the trade deadline, I would have had to be talked out of drafting Bogosian first overall. He is going to be a dominant player in the NHL as he matures and develops.
The other newcomer is coach John Anderson, one of the most successful coaches in minor league history. Anderson is not used to losing, and he has been very brusque in responding to the critics and doubters in Atlanta. He is intent on changing the attitude and expectations both in the locker room and in the hockey community.
Questions include whether Ilya Kovalchuk will ever commit his enormous talents to a team-first system and whether "can't-miss No. 2 overall" prospect Kari Lehtonen is the goaltender to lead the Thrashers to the promised land. The loss of Brad Larsen in the Schneider trade could open the door for one of Anderson's former charges, Brett Sterling, to make the big club.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 34-40-8
• Division: Fourth in the Southeast
• Conference: 14th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Thrashers' longest road trip of the season -- four games -- comes smack in the middle of trade-deadline time as they head to Anaheim, L.A., Phoenix and San Jose starting Feb. 15.
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• A cynic will suggest the reason John Anderson is the new Thrashers coach is that he would work cheap -- which he reportedly did. But you will scarcely find a person in hockey who doesn't wish Anderson well. As good friend Bruce Boudreau showed last season in Washington, it's never too late to bloom. Anderson has a bigger challenge than Boudreau did, but his success and experience at the IHL and AHL levels should give him credibility to start with. He'll try to play an open style, which should also endear him to Kovalchuk. Anderson has also worked with a lot of the young Thrashers, including Lehtonen. That should give him a leg up in assessing who's on topic and who's not.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Ilya Kovalchuk
The talented Russian star led the Thrashers with 87 points, 39 more than the team's second-leading scorer, Mark Recchi, who is now in Tampa. With 52 goals, Kovalchuk remains one of the game's most dynamic players, but given the paucity of talent around him and the limited possibilities for playoff success, it's no wonder the surroundings have started to wear on him.
F -- Jason Williams
To start the season, at least, it looks as if Williams will move from his natural position at center to the wing with Erik Christensen down the middle. Williams had 36 points in 43 games for the Blackhawks last season, but missed almost three months with a sports hernia. His health is a bigger question mark than his talent.
F -- Erik Christensen
One of two position players to come from Pittsburgh in the Marian Hossa deal (the gritty Colby Armstrong was the other), Christensen will get a chance to use his skills, soft hands and good puck sense with one of the game's most explosive scorers. The chances don't get any better than this for a young player hoping to prove his worth after getting lost in the shuffle in Pittsburgh.
D -- Tobias Enstrom
The diminutive defender wowed observers last season with his maturity and fearlessness. It will be interesting to see how Enstrom, a nice skater and puck handler, follows up his all-rookie performance.
D -- Niclas Havelid
The two Swedes played together most of last season, so Anderson will have to decide if that's a good pairing to stick with. Havelid has shown flashes of offensive ability and is an underappreciated defensive player.
Answer: Kovalchuk, the face of a faceless franchise, won't become an unrestricted free agent until the end of the 2009-10 season, but that won't stop the trade talk unless there are strong signs from the Russian star that he's interested in signing on for the long term. A lot of that will be determined by what kinds of strides, if any, the team can take this season. If Waddell is serious about rebuilding this team from the ground up, perhaps he should be looking to move Kovalchuk sooner than later, bringing in prospects and picks around whom he can rebuild the Thrashers. It would be a public-relations problem, but in a town that already pretty much ignores the Thrashers, building for a couple of years might save the team the embarrassment of being turned down, a la Hossa, next season.
Bust: Slava Kozlov, LW. Most of Kozlov's value came from the chemistry he had with Marian Hossa, so pending a miracle trade back to Detroit, make sure Kozlov doesn't end up on your team.
Outlook: This still doesn't look like a playoff club on paper, but there are pieces that can be salvaged for fantasy purposes. The addition of Mathieu Schneider gives Atlanta all the elements for a successful man advantage: a powerful point shot (Schneider), puck-moving defenseman (Tobias Enstrom), super sniper (Kovalchuk), corner mucker (Little) and crease junkie (Jason Williams). All five players should be drafted almost entirely for their expected production on the power play. -- Sean Allen