Atlanta Thrashers 2005-2006
GENERAL MANAGER: Don Waddell, 7th year with the team
HEAD COACH: Bob Hartley, 3rd year with the team
Prior to the official lockout, Atlanta moved to upgrade their defense with the additions of Niclas Havelid and Jaroslav Modry, opting not to re-sign original Thrashers Chris Tamer and Yannick Tremblay. Many may argue that Havelid and Modry are not exactly what you might consider upgrades (considering what Atlanta had before, they are definitely a notch above). Not saying they are a panacea for the Thrashers, but they are a step in the right direction. Who knows, with the right schemes and coaching, they can be better than just what you see on paper.
In addition, the Thrashers also brought in veteran Scott Mellanby. He is getting pretty long in the tooth and has lost a few steps, but there are two attributes he still has in abundance; hard work and leadership. Chances are he will not see a great amount of ice time but his presence as a leader will be quite helpful to a team that has sorely lacked that quality in previous years. This is assuming he’ll make the team of course, which is still up in the air. But even if he sticks around and isn‘t dressed many nights, his leadership will still be a benefit in the locker room and in practice.
The Thrashers are now looking to make it to the playoffs, not just this season but on a consistent basis from here on out. The first four years of the franchise was tough on the fans, rather painful to watch. But the plan was always for a slow and steady build up, something the team thankfully did not deviate from. The last NHL season showed the first signs of the build-up paying off. It didn’t result in a playoff berth, but it showed a more competitive and more talented team looking to take another step once play resumes.
The new rules should benefit a team like Atlanta. They now have five or six forwards with a great combo of speed and skill. And coach Bob Hartley was offensively aggressive under the old system, you have to believe that he will continue to encourage this behavior. While every team will have to go through a learning process under the new rules to get a feel for what can work, I believe that the Thrashers should transition well into this new system. It is a style the team has been playing since Hartley joined, so their learning curve will not be as steep as many other teams. Only time will tell of course, but a more openly offensive game looks to benefit the top players that the Thrashers have now.
A forgotten element in this new system is the role of defensive forwards and/or strong two-way players. Their responsibility will be heightened due to the influx of many offense-friendly rules. With the acquisition of Marian Hossa, the signing of Bobby Holik, and the growing defensive presence of Patrick Stefan, the Thrashers now have three skilled forwards who are very good in their own end. And since it is very likely each of these players will be on different lines, Atlanta will have at least one strong defensive forward on the ice for the bulk of a game. Offense is where it’s at in the new NHL, so it’s vital that the forwards be able to help out in defense. The Thrashers may not be the best in this department but these three should prove to be a tremendous help.
TO TAKE CHARGE!:
It’s all about BH.
Atlanta has been a changed team since Bob Hartley took over as head coach. He stresses the team, not the individual. He demands that every player work hard, in practice and on every shift. He does not play favorites, every player must play to a high standard. If that player doesn’t, Hartley does not hesitate to sit a player or bench them during a game.
Several times in the last NHL season he did this, though for time’s sake I won’t highlight every time. The casual observer wouldn’t know of all the specific team dynamics; what happens between player and player, player and coach. It happens with every team but you rarely if ever hear about it unless you follow that team closely. I will say the players on Atlanta definitely got the message that Hartley was sending and responded quite positively.
Even those who aren’t everyday fans can recall this treatment, since it happened to the highest profile player on the team (just to drive the point home, Hartley had no qualms about treating any other player the same way). Once or twice, Kovalchuk wasn‘t dressed. During a game, he was benched for an extended period for his poor play; in that particular case it worked, when he was allowed to go back on the ice he came out like he had something to prove (which he did by scoring the winning goal in the last minute). Obviously, the discipline and/or the lesson doesn’t always yield such immediate results. But that’s never the point, according to Hartley at least. Practice hard, learn, play hard, learn; always repeat.
ON THE RUSH (OFFENSE):
The Thrashers offense can now be legitimately classified as scary. Top six forwards: Kozlov, Savard, Hossa, Kovalchuk, Holik, Bondra. Size, speed, skill; in all sorts of different combinations. I would include previous point totals, broken down into even strength and power play; now that just seems a bit useless. The game will be changed, the players will react differently. Predicting any point totals based on past numbers will mean nothing. In my mind, putting in numbers here would be more of an opinion than anything observation-based.
I’ll just let your imagination take over here. With the exception of Holik on that list, all of the players are highly skillful. Hossa and Kovalchuk in the overall, Savard in passing, Kozlov in stickhandling and decision making, Bondra in the speed and the shot. Throw in a couple of defenseman like Sutton and Modry who move the puck well and have accurate shots, and you have the makings of a very potent power play. Considering the speed and slickness of these players, they will be a tough mix to contain at even strength with the new rules. And in grinder-types that have some offensive pop such as Stefan and Petrovicky, the Thrashers can roll out eight forwards that can make it difficult on opposing defenses.
I would include offensive Dmen, but there’s not too much of a need. Sutton and Modry could be considered decent-to-good in that category but after that, not much going on really. deVries might provide a little offense, maybe. It will be more about smart puck movement from the defenseman than gaudy offensive numbers.
COVERING THE D-ZONE:
This has always been the Achilles’ heel for the Thrashers in the past. This year’s version is a vast improvement from what the team is used to. While I’m not saying that this is a stellar group, it is also not nearly as bad as many seem to believe. I’m apt to get a bit “defensive” about such comments, because I believe most fans see the names and dismiss them with a wave (or a finger in some cases).
Atlanta has nine possibilities for the six spots: Sutton, Exelby, Havelid, Modry, Coburn, deVries, Hnidy, Kloucek, Popovic. Individually, no one really stands out. There is no number 1 in the bunch, some would argue there isn’t even a number 2. Can’t exactly disagree with that. But if you look at the players themselves, that only seems to be a detriment to the offense.
Sutton is a monster who can skate well (extremely well for his size), doesn’t use his size as much as he could but he is tough to get away from, good offense when given the chance. Exelby is very sound positionally and will only get better with more experience, very consistent, loves to hit but rarely if ever does it if it will put him out of position. Havelid isn’t flashy in any way but he has always seemed to be someone who can be counted on to play a good and consistent game (ie, he won’t hurt the cause unlike some Dmen who try too hard to show that flash). Modry is more of an offensive defenseman but under Hartley he will play good defense or find himself in the press box a lot. Coburn is a talent (as I’ll set out a bit later), team will have to put up with a few youthful trials but he will be quality in a short amount of time. deVries has always been a rock regardless of where he has played, performed best under Hartley so he should prove a solid anchor. Hnidy and Kloucek should battle it out for the six and seventh spots; both quite physical (Kloucek could prove to be a hidden gem if he can finally get over his injury problems).
Not fancy, not flashy, no big names. But unlike every other year for the Thrashers, no weak links either. And not surprisingly, the effect of coaching and structure does not seem to factor into many opinions that I’ve seen. I know that I’ll take some flak for my assessment here, and on the surface I can’t really blame you. But I’m hoping some will actually look beyond the surface; see the whole instead of the one. At least put it in your memory banks and don’t be surprised if this defense performs better than you thought.
GUARDING THE NET:
Kari Lehtonen looks to be ready for his first full NHL season. Only time will tell if the youngster is up to the task. But if his first four NHL games are any indication of his play, there shouldn’t be a problem. He is a very cool customer on the ice, always under control. Almost looks at times like he is not trying hard enough, but he definitely is. His quick reflexes and good positioning should make it easier to transition into the new rules and new equipment of the NHL. He may not post God-like numbers in his first full year, as some people are expecting out of such a phenomenal player. But then again, fans for the most part put too much hype upon players and expect them to be great from the very start. Lehtonen will have his rough patches, as every young player does. But every scout who has seen him says he is the real deal, rare that so many agree about one prospect. No offense to the people here, but I’ll take the word of many experienced scouts over the fans any day of the week.
The Thrashers have brought in Mike Dunham as a backup. Tough to say if he will reach his form of a few years ago, but nonetheless he is a quality keeper to have as a backup. This, unfortunately, became Atlanta’s best option when Pasi Nurminen blew out his knee in a freak accident and was forced to retire, and Jani Hurme failed his physical and was sent back to Finland. Quality #1b, #2 goaltenders are tough to find, and losing two of them certainly won’t help the Thrashers. But it’s not like the injury bug hasn’t visited the Atlanta goal before; they’re becoming experts on how to adjust.
TALKING ABOUT MY GENERATION!:
Jim Slater: Projected as a second, third line center. Very gritty and tough, but has enough skill to play on a scoring line. He has impressed in camp thus far, and is definitely being considered to make the final roster. It would probably be best for him to go down to Chicago in the AHL, and get playing time on the 1st or 2nd line. His feisty attitude will always be there, better for him to get professional playing time on a scoring line rather than part-time duty on a checking line in the NHL.
Braydon Coburn: Strong, not flashy but effectively physical, not flashy but has good offensive ability (sensing a pattern here?). He’s not going to wow anyone with what he does on the ice, different from the two defensemen drafted around him. But that’s a plus; he’ll fall under the radar of many. Besides, you don’t have to be flashy to be effective, and he seems to be effective in every aspect. His chances of making the final roster are getting better each day. Tough to say if he actually will, but either way it should work out for him. Regardless of if he does or not, it won’t be long before he is in the NHL full time.
Alex Bourret: A “bowling ball” of a forward, taking out anyone in his path. Nasty just doesn’t seem to be an apt enough description for him. For such a mean player, he actually has soft hands. He played well in Traverse City and the early part of training camp; he more than held his own in his first real competition with professionals. Bourret has already been sent back to his junior team, it was never Atlanta’s intention to keep him up this year. But next year, or most likely in two years, he should have little trouble making the team.
Special mention – Jordan LaVallee: Looks to be one of the steals of this year’s draft in the 4th round. He looked very comfortable in the Traverse City tournament. Don’t be surprised if he makes it to the NHL in a couple years.
Extras: Lessard, Boulton, Slater, MacKenzie, Abid, Barney
Extras: Hnidy, Kloucek, Popovic
Now, take these combos and throw them in a blender. You may get lucky enough that it will spit out the combos Atlanta will use during the year. Bob Hartley constantly changes lines until he finds good chemistry between players. Even then he will change up the lines if he feels the situation call for it. You can try your own combination of the top seven forwards (Stefan being the seventh), but I can almost guarantee that you will be at least a bit surprised by how Hartley puts them together.
By and large, media outlets have the Thrashers finishing 7th or 8th in the East. Some have them finishing out of the playoffs, while a select few have them slightly higher (5th or 6th). Fan opinion seems to be less generous, at best it’s 50-50 for Atlanta making the playoffs. If they don’t struggle with injuries as in previous years, all I can say is that they should be in contention for their first playoff berth.
If they do happen to make it into the playoffs, exiting in the first round seems likely. But bigger surprises have happened. At best, I see a second round exit. However, just getting to the playoffs will make the year for Atlanta.
Sorry to disappoint on this one. Never predicted before, feel absolutely no need to do it now. Look at how many people were way off the mark in an unbalanced NHL when it was easier to see who was going to be good and who was going to be bad. Now the league is much more balanced, what makes you think that any prediction will even be close? This isn’t even taking in account intangibles such as injures.
Sorry to rain on the parade (and for sounding like an old codger), but I find any prediction at this point very much useless. I understand it’s fun and sometimes interesting to put out a list and debate over it. I just think it’s a waste, and even more so this season.
So I’m not going to pick a spot where I think the Thrashers will finish; quite frankly, I don’t have a clue. They have the potential to win the division, they also have the potential to finish several spots out of the playoffs. Take your pick. It’s not that hard to poke holes in theories for them being good or bad (that goes for pretty much every team). So if you make your own predictions for Atlanta, don’t be surprised if I simply dismiss it or fire back with a few cannons (depends on how I feel that day).
All opinions in this preview factor in the inclusion of Ilya Kovalchuk for the entire year. Given all the real facts that are known (albeit a small amount of them), I firmly believe he will be signed in time to start the season. So I have not included “what if” scenarios based on his potential exclusion from the team. If he is not signed in time, then the situation will of course be different. But the preview would be far too long and far too fragmented to be even a decent read if I included both scenarios.