Atlanta Thrashers Mid-Season Report
After the terrible tragedy, not much was expected of Atlanta. But they started this very emotionally charged season with a bang, coming out of the gate quickly. And that spirited play continued after the emotion of the early season, due in large part to Bob Hartley who has done an incredible job of keeping this team together.
Ilya Kovalchuk filled the offensive void left by Heatley’s absence and took this team as his own, carrying them at times. And despite losing one of the better forwards in the league, the Thrashers have surprisingly been one of the best offensive teams in the league, playing a wide-open and entertaining style of hockey. Unfortunately, the defense has been less than stellar. And a rash of injuries is now starting to plague the team. We’ll see if Hartley has any more tricks left in his bag.
Offense: Kovalchuk, Savard, Kozlov, McEachern and Kaberle have led a very impressive display of offense thus far. The grinders have a lot to do with that as well; Cowan, Petrovicky and Robitaille have chipped in more than most would have thought.
Coaching: Bob Hartley has given this team the confidence that they can win every night despite the fact that most other teams have more talent. And he has held them together emotionally as well, a factor which is more important than any other given the circumstances of this season.
New ownership: Anything that gets the team away from AOL/Time Warner is a good thing. From what little I’ve seen, the new owners have a dedication and passion for making this a good team. Money should not be an issue, no matter what the outcome of the new CBA will be.
Defense: Inconsistency on the defensive side has been a big problem for Atlanta this year, and is something that needs to be addressed if the team is going to fight for a playoff spot. They’ve shown at times they can play a defensive game, but it isn’t always there.
Injuries: Losing two starters from the outset wasn’t a great omen for a team that wasn’t very deep to begin with. But Atlanta made the best of it. Now they will be tested again. Tremblay and Majesky have already missed significant portions of the season, Savard came back from torn ligaments but is out again with a concussion, Cowan and Aubin are also out with concussions, Lindsay is gone for the season, Sutton is out indefinitely with a broken foot, Klocuek is as ever hurt.
Dan Snyder: The biggest down of them all. For the players, the emotion of his passing has slightly diminished, to the point where they can each accept what has happened and move on. But that emotion will never completely fade, he will always be a part of each players’ thoughts. That’s what I have witnessed by closely watching these players. There will always be reminders of Dan Snyder, but each man on the team is doing his best to turn those reminders into something positive. It can’t always be done, but I have seen that the effort to do so is there. As for Dany Heatley, his burden is overwhelming. One large step in his return to a semblance of normality will be teammate Slava Kozlov, who unfortunately went through a very similar experience 12 years ago.
Grades – Forwards
Ilya Kovalchuk: So young, so passionate, so skilled. Leads the league in scoring despite having a rotating group of line mates for the entire season. The sky is the limit. A+
Marc Savard: Despite tearing ligaments in his ankle, he came back quickly and continued to show his tremendous offensive skill. And yes, he is definitely a first line center. A
Slava Kozlov: Very calm on the ice, he makes the players around him better. Has a knack for scoring at crucial times. A-
Shawn McEachern: Leads by example, always plays hard no matter what. And his increased offense has been a pleasant surprise. B+
Jeff Cowan: Does the dirty work, and very surprisingly has added some offense to his game. When healthy, he makes the team much tougher to play against. B+
Patrick Stefan: Looks good at times, looks bad at times. The skill is there, but he still hasn’t exactly figured out what his game is going to be. C-
Ronald Petrovicky: The energy guy who somehow has turned into a goal-scorer. Plays every shift like it’s his last. A steal from the waiver draft. B+
Randy Robitaille: Hasn’t been flashy, but has been effective. Could be better if he added a bit more consistency to his game. B-
Serge Aubin: Has played well despite being put in some offensive situations for the first time. Injured recently, which does hurt the team. B
JP Vigier: Started off playing very physical which helped his game, but has gotten out of that habit recently. And his game has suffered for it. C-
Ben Simon: Played his role as agitator well since the trade. B-
Francis Lessard: Team goon, but has shown more discipline recently. Always works hard despite limited skill. C-
Bill Lindsay: Another hard worker, brought up as a veteran presence. But unfortunately his season is now over after surgery to repair a fracture larynx. C-
Zdenek Blatny: Limited games but has done his job thus far. B-
Grades – Defensemen
Garnet Exelby: A brutal hitter, but doesn’t get out of position because of it. Has shown great technique and poise for a rookie defenseman. A future brick wall for the team. A+
Andy Sutton: A monster on skates, but needs to use that size more and make some better decisions in his own end. Despite the faults, he has played very well and his injury will hurt the team. B+
Frank Kaberle: Not overly physical, but he is rarely if ever out of position. And he is finally showing that passing ability that he has always had. B+
Ivan Majesky: Solid in his own end, has been good when paired with Exelby. Just getting back from a knee injury, tough to say how that will impact his play. B
Chris Tamer: His leadership is his biggest asset, his slowness of foot might outweigh that on the negative side. Still a good warrior to have around. C-
Yannick Tremblay: Not always the most consistent Dman. And needs to realize the goal is only 6 feet wide, not 20. Needs improvement. D+
Daniel Tjarnqvist: An enigma, looks good on occasion and looks downright horrid on others. Needs to find that comfort zone. C-
Tomas Kloucek: Has looked decent when healthy, which is a rare thing. Hard to depend on a Dman who is apparently made of cheap glass. C-
Grades – Goaltenders
Pasi Nurminen: Acrobatic and flashy in his style, he has played well thus far. Recently he has had some bad games, mostly due to the fact that he is wearing down a bit. First time being the starter in the NHL, it was expected. Needs some rest, but he should be fine. B
Byron Dafoe: It was tough for him playing very little early in the season, but he handled it well. Has shown some signs of life in the last month, but spot duty in goal probably won’t help his play all that much. We’ll see though. C+
Grades – Coaches
Bob Hartley: He is the glue for this team. He has given the players a winners mentality. Demanding and hard, what the Thrashers have desperately needed. An excellent teacher and motivator, he drives each player to be better. And so far, that is working. At the mid-way point, one of the leaders for the Adams. A+
Brad McCrimmon: He is the tactician for the team. His experience and knowledge of the defensive game has been important to this team, despite their lackluster stat of goals against. His contributions are a bit tough to see right now, but they will pay off in the future. A-
Steve Weekes: Primarily the defensive coach, but as a former NHL goalie he works with the netminders as well. Another intense individual, he does a good job in keeping the players focused. B+
With pretty much every team bunkering themselves in from a money standpoint, changes will potentially be very risky. That being said, the Thrashers need to look for someone to captain their blueline. Someone who has been through the wars. As the deadline approaches, we’ll have a better view of who can be brought in. But Atlanta desperately needs to get that defenseman if they are still in the hunt after the next two months. This team has never mortgaged the future to get a player (never had the opportunity to before actually), and they won’t do it this time. The GM and his staff are too smart for that. They may over-pay a little, but nothing damaging to the future.
As for the name of this defenseman, pick one that fits the description and could be available. I sure as hell don’t know. I’ve never thrown out names of potentials, mostly because I don’t have a clue who my GM is looking towards. And I’m definitely not gonna start now, even if it would be fun just to toss around a few names. I’ll leave the name-game up to you.
From an offensive perspective, Atlanta needs little help. All they need is to get healthy and stay that way. Although getting a veteran for a reasonable draft pick seems like something this team would do if the opportunity presents itself.
What to Expect the Rest of the Way
That’s one hell of a question. Trying to guess what will become of this team has led to an awful lot of bad guesses thus far. They have done better than anyone thought (including me) and under some tough circumstances. When they struggle and people are starting to count them out, they rebound. I only know one thing for certain; this team will never quit. They have been installed with a sense of resiliency. Some obstacles may prove to be too much in the end, but I know that they won’t quit trying this season. That will show in their play for the remainder of the year.
I’ve never once said anything about how the Thrashers will finish the year. But for the first time, I will. If they can survive their injuries, I can see this team making the playoffs. Maybe winning the division or just sneaking into that last playoff spot. Why do I think this? Because they have heart, and a coach that gets the best out of his players. Some of you may think that I’ve over-done this emotional vibe quite a bit, but there is a reason behind it. Whatever you may think of the situation, this season for the Thrashers is and will always be about that emotion. For the family and friends, players and coaches, management and staff; those feelings won’t go away. All they can do is make the best of it.