Atlanta Thrashers Mid Season Report

Atlanta has had what could delicately be called a roller coaster season thus far. Blockbuster trade, goaltending merry-go-round, a spark from unexpected sources, a less than cordial homecoming and giving someone “the finger”.

Team: Atlanta Thrashers

Record: 21-18-6

Place in Conference: 7th in the East, 2nd in Southeast Division

Injuries:

Bobby Holik – Broken Foot (out 10 days, on IR)

Ronald Petrovicky – Oblique Muscle (out a week, day-to-day)

Brad Larsen – Groin (out 4 weeks, day-to-day)

Peter Bondra – Groin (out 6 weeks, on IR)

Mike Dunham – Groin (out 8 weeks, day-to-day)

Steve Shields – Knee (out 6 weeks, on conditioning stint)

Everyone on the list, with the exception of Holik, should be returning within the next week (two at the very outside). Mike Dunham has just been activated and will be back in the lineup, Brad Larsen is also playing a conditioning stint in Chicago.

Point Leaders: Ilya Kovalchuk – 34g, 32a, 66pts

Marc Savard – 20g, 42a, 62pts

Marian Hossa – 22g, 33a, 55pts

Current Situation:

The Thrashers look to finally be on track after a disastrous run of goaltending injuries. They are 12-2-3 in their last 17. The run of good play actually started during the time in which the top three goalies were out. Rookie Michael Garnett, after struggling early when he was thrown into the fire, adjusted quickly and gave the team confidence in their goaltender (something that had been sorely lacking during the first two months of the season).

The goaltending circus actually started before the season when Pasi Nurminen sustained a freak knee injury and was forced to retire, while Jani Hurme didn’t pass his physical once again. He did pass the physical recently but is languishing in Chicago due to some lackluster play and a lawsuit against the Thrashers (that tends to get a player benched). Lehtonen was hurt in pre-season, then in the first game of the regular season and missed three months. Mike Dunham was injured twice, the second injury causing him to miss two months, Steve Shields was signed on an emergency basis but was also injured and has been out for six weeks. Atlanta set a record by using five different starting goalies in the first ten games of the season.

Along with Garnett’s improved play, the third line of Larsen-Holik-Vigier (put together in the reshuffle after the Bondra injury) gave the team a much needed spark. Simply, they played hard and hustled every single shift. This rubbed off on the rest of the team, along with Hartley constantly dogging them to do so (seriously, their practices are rather brutal but they seem to have better in-game fitness because of it). After Larsen’s injury, rookie Jim Slater filled in on that line with the same type of gusto; helped even more so since he probably has twice the speed of Larsen.

Kari Lehtonen’s return was delayed due to the strong performance by Garnett (back to back shutouts). But true to his word, Hartley handed over the reigns to Lehtonen. Admittedly, he has been a tad rusty in his first handful of games but that’s to be expected. Three months off of in-game NHL action, it takes time to adjust. But Kari has been improving each game and has shown no ill effects from the time off (injury-wise). With Dunham healthy again, the Thrashers have a stable goaltending situation for the first time this season. And every fan is crossing his/her fingers hoping that the curse of Atlanta goaltenders has subsided for the time being.

And of course, the big time players have stepped it up in this current run. Savard (which I personally don’t understand why some are surprised at his performance) is the cog in the playmaking. Kovalchuk, little needs to be said of his abilities and results. But the most consistent and quite possibly the most important player in this run of good form has been Marian Hossa. He is nearly impossible to knock off the puck, he creates openings offensively for himself and others with said puck possession, he is very smart and very responsible defensively, and he goes flat out all the time. Simply put, he is a stud.

Strengths:

The offense, of course. With the three prominent players mentioned above, along with Slava Kozlov and Peter Bondra (when healthy), the Thrashers do have some of the more potent offensive combinations in the league. Bob Hartley is a very aggressive coach and with a more open NHL, has little hesitation to play a risky style with the players he has. A quote of his from earlier in the year sums it up nicely, “We don’t have the personnel to play conservatively.”

Work ethic and fitness levels are vigorously preached by the entire coaching staff. Hartley himself has no reservations about sitting out any player or benching any player during a game if he feels they are not working hard enough. It may result in what can seem like strange coaching decisions (scratches, limited ice time), but the players get the message and usually respond.

And another strength I need to mention (in case you don’t see the pattern forming here) is Hartley. He holds every player up to a very high standard, regardless of who they are. He may not be the easiest coach to play for, but he has had pretty good results in every level of hockey. There has to be a reason for it.

Weaknesses:

The defense, of course. This comes as a surprise to no one. The defense for Atlanta is not all that great, and this cannot be blamed on the terrible run of goaltending injuries. Thrasher defensemen are not very mobile (with the possible exception of Havelid). Time and again, they have been burned by quicker forwards. And that trend is likely to continue in this faster NHL. To top it off, the decision making of the defense has not been all that good either. Too many errant passes and slow clears have been a constant worry. Exelby and Havelid have been very solid all year, but they are the exception. If Atlanta hopes to get into the playoffs, these trends will have to be reversed.

Consequently, the penalty kill has been a problem. The Thrashers rank near the bottom of the league in this category. While at times they have looked very good, there are too many instances where they have looked well below average (and such instances tend to linger for several games at a time).

Even with the goaltenders getting back to health, this position could be seen as weak for Atlanta. It’s possible that each goalie can stay healthy and find their form as the second half progresses. But the injury concern will always be there. Only time will tell on this one.

Needs:

Health. First and foremost, health. This has been an Achilles Heel for the Thrashers in the past few years. Having a continuity in line pairings, defensive pairings, situational pairings, etc. helps to develop a better sense of chemistry throughout the team. This is vital for Atlanta to be successful and make a run at the playoffs.

Personnel-wise, the Thrashers are in need of a steady two-way defenseman. Or at least a steady defensive defenseman. While their defense corps is not all that bad, a calming and reliable player on the backline could do nothing but help them. Due to the pro-rated status of the salary cap, a defenseman of nearly any salary will fit into the budget (though obviously Waddell will be looking for someone in the last year of their contract). Should Atlanta still be in the playoff hunt at the trading deadline, don’t be surprised if they try to acquire such a defenseman.

I’m gonna go off format for a bit, and talk about a couple of topics that I feel just had to be included in this review.

Many fans from many different locales have given their unmistakable opinions about hockey and the fans in “non-traditional” markets. For the sake of good taste, we won’t go into the specifics and/or validity of those opinions. And two recent instances have given these people more ammunition to bash the team and its fans, and oh boy did they. You don’t have to look to hard to find these opinions. “Classless” was the dominant response I saw regarding both these incidents (of course there were many others besides that). The instances I speak of are Dany Heatley’s first visit to Atlanta since the trade, and the finger-pointing involving Kovalchuk and Crosby.

Long before the Senators made their first visit to Atlanta this year, I knew that Heatley was going to be serenaded by a chorus of boos. Not a stretch to say that the media and the players saw this coming as well, but they rightly stuck to the positive side of the story and emphasized the good aspects. But let’s face it; whether or not we agree with the fans, they had their reasons for giving Heatley a less than cordial welcome back to Atlanta. Only the strict minority of vengeful and over-righteous booed because of the accident itself. Such people don’t deserve response. No one with an ounce of heart begrudges Heatley for wanting to leave Atlanta; too many bad memories for him in the city. It’s more than understandable to the fans that he would want to leave.

But most were irked because of the way in which that Heatley left. I’ll put up a few points to illustrate:

- he sold his house in Atlanta a month before he went to the team and asked to leave

- he actually asked Don Waddell to be released outright, so that he could have a wider freedom to pick where he wanted to play (that didn’t fly of course, even in light of the cir¢umstances the Thrashers were not going to let him go with no return)

- the request came a month before training camp, putting the team in a tough spot to trade him quickly (luckily for Atlanta, and Ottawa given their situation, a trade was worked out that benefited both teams)

- the press release given directly after the trade had the look and feel of a pure PR piece (I know whereof I speak on this one); no genuine personal statement and/or comments which were expected given the cir¢umstances

- a statement made by Heatley saying that he was very happy to be in “a real hockey city” with “real hockey fans”; for many real fans in Atlanta this did not sit well at all

- he has yet to perform any community service in Atlanta. He had ample opportunity to do so before his move to Ottawa but did not. The law says that he can serve his community service elsewhere, but the fact that he choose not to do it in the community where his transgression was committed (and where his status could help more than is normal) doesn’t exactly endear him to the people of this community.

Many players in many “hockey” towns have been booed for far less. Being indignant about the reaction of most Thrashers fans on this better come with one hell of an explanation, one that isn‘t hypocritical.

On a somewhat lighter note, we go to the “point”. Wow, was this molehill made into Kilimanjaro! I can’t count how many media and fan comments condemned this, and in no subtle terms either. Truthfully, even I thought Kovalchuk was a bit over the top on this one. But (even at the risk of offending many) it came to be such a huge talking point simply because it involved Crosby. Anyone other than the golden boy, and this subject would have been dropped in a day. Be honest with yourselves, you know that would be the case.

Crosby has all the talent in the world, no denying that. He’ll most likely be a great player for many years to come. But right now, he’s suffering through the trials of youth. Thinks he knows more than he really does, and is a bit too arrogant about his position on his team (and in the NHL). Hopefully in time, he will learn those lessons and let his play do the talking instead of his yapper. Might take a while before that part of his youthfulness fully goes away, but it should happen eventually. It’s not a stretch to compare him to Kovalchuk in this way; when Kovy first came into the NHL, he was very brash and co¢ky. He has mellowed in this respect but still has flashes of this youthfulness, obviously. They are however much less frequent and as he continues to get experience (remember, he is only 22 and that is definitely still young) they should just fade away.

I don’t wish an ill will towards Crosby, not in that group that the kids today call “haters”. Just pointing out that he is young and is a rookie, he will not get treated too kindly. His youth, his talent and his constant yapping will make him a big target. So no one should be surprised if other incidents happen, and no one should really think that it’s because of his supposed “status“. If anyone was a top player on his team, let the prodding of others get under their skin as young people are wont to do, and did a pretty good amount of tongue-wagging; he would be a target. Doesn’t matter if he has received all the hype in the world or no hype whatsoever.

Expectations:

This sounds like it’s a round-about way of having people make predictions. For anyone that remembers me, you know that I don’t do predictions (as I’ve probably stated about 100 times in the past). Basically just giving your opinion, and one that’s likely too biased to serve any good. I’ll pass. But if you would like to, please feel free. Somebody probably has to.

I will say this though; right now, Atlanta looks like they finally have the wheels on the right track. They are playing as a team and are finally starting to get healthy. If they can continue to play as they have in the last month and avoid any other major injuries (especially to goaltenders), then the playoffs are very realistic. Still, it’s probably a safer bet to wait and see where they are in the standings at the Olympic break before getting too hyped about their chances for a playoff spot.

But I can safely say that this is the first time in the short history of the Thrashers that the fans have a real hope of making the playoffs. I’ve waited three decades to just feel what a run towards the playoffs is like, I can’t imagine what it will be like if they do indeed make the playoffs.

(crossing fingers!!)