Atlanta Thrashers Season Preview
Don Waddell has been the only general manager named to work the Thrashers since 1999. He has made the necessary, albeit drastic, changes to get his club into the playoffs in 2007.
Bob Hartley has added another accomplishment to his career by bringing the Atlanta Thrashers to their first post-season appearance in 2007.
This is the toughest year for the Atlanta Thrashers after making the playoffs for the first time in club history. They made it and now they have to repeat the same success in the regular season. The Thrashers are in the playoffs mode for sure, but it is no guarantee that they will play in the 2008 playoffs as the competition got tougher. Let’s also not forget how bad the Thrashers looked against the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The Thrashers have to build from where they left off and so GM Don Waddell did not make any significant moves in the off-season other than signing veteran center Todd White. The former Seanator and Wild has had a good career with his good hockey sense, smart play, and adds some good offense as well, not to mention good playoff experience. The players need to meet their expectations. Goaltending will be solid if Kari Lehtonen remains fairly healthy, and Johan Hedberg is a very good back-up goalie for insurance. The defense remains a big concern, however, as changes on the D occurred. For better or worse? Find out later on, but here’s a hint, it’s not looking good.
To Take Charge
Last year I mentioned that Ilya Kovalchuk was in charge of this team since it played without Dany Heatley. I have to admit that I was about to nominate him again as the man in charge for the Thrashers, but I’ll cut the guy some slack this season and give attention to Marian Hossa. Hossa, this is your year to push the Thrashers forward. You always do well in the regular season, but against the Rangers in the playoffs you were a total ghost. Hossa needs to step it up when it counts.
On the Rush
Last season the Atlanta Thrashers showed a decrease in their offense as they dropped from 6th to 16th in the NHL. From 276 goals scored in the 2006 season to just 239 goals scored in 2007. This issue has to be resolved. Both Hossa and Kovalchuk did well last season scoring 43 and 42 goals respectively, but the rest of the gang has to show more balance, especially with Scott Mellanby retiring. It was a good move to keep Slava Kozlov in the line-up, and Todd White should be able to add more offense, especially if he finds himself playing with either Hossa or Kovalchuk. The problem with the Thrashers is that the depth looks questionable. Aside from Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Kozlov, the Thrashers really lack a strong 2nd line of offense. As mentioned, White can help, but the team needs better 2nd line talent instead of relying on Jon Sim, Eric Belanger, and Pascal Dupuis, who are best seen as third liners. Offense may not be an issue the Euro Trio can really explode, but supplemental scoring will be needed on that second line..
Covering the D-Zone
This is Atlanta’s biggest concern, the blueline. They have a lot of bodies, but these guys are aging and they are not the kind you want to depend on. Well known defensemen are Niklas Havelid, Ken Klee, and Alkexei Zhitnik. All three of them are older than 34, and all three of them are not exactly the kind to rely upon. The problem with this defense is that it’s just not that good overall, it ranked 15th in the NHL last season, but none of them are bonafide two-way defensemen. They are better fit defensively, except for Zhitnik who works well on the power play. Garnet Exelby is a steady defensive defenseman. Steve McCarthy is skilled, but has never excelled in his career thus far. Who else is on this team? No one else. They lost their top defensive prospect in Braydon Coburn when they acquired Alex Zhitnik from the Philadelphia Flyers. Waddell, what were you thinking? So, if the defense is not skilled enough offensively, especially with skating abilities, then the forwards will have a tougher time scoring. Losing Andy Sutton via free agency was costly, but Sutton does not score goals. The Thrashers are hoping that prospect Boris Valabik will fill Sutton’s role well. Expect Waddell to seek offensive help from the blueline and it does not need to be a defenseman that scores a bunch of points, but the Thrashers need at least a defenseman that has good two-way hockey sense, and skates the puck up well enough.
Guarding the Net
He is still just 23-years-old, and he was a huge disappointment in the playoffs. But hey, give the young guy a break, right? He is a very talented goalie and the Thrashers hope he can have a breakout season where he becomes the star goaltender to push the Thrashers in the playoffs. Thing is, he also needs to stay healthy. I still see this goalie as a future franchise net guardian. His numbers were solid in the 2006-2007 season with .912 SV%. Can he carry that this season and improve on it? Yes. Will he? Give the poor guy a better defense. Lehtonen may find himself struggling if Atlanta’s defense has poor showings on a consistent basis. Possibly his save percentage will be good, but goals against average may suffer and especially the numbers in the Wins column of his profile sheet. Backing the young star, though, is NHL vet Johan Hedberg. Hedberg did very well in the playoffs against the Rangers, despite losing the games. This guy was one of the best additions that Waddell ever made. Expect him to get many starts this season as Hartley will need to shake things up. The Thrashers will struggle with their defense, and if the defense struggles, so does the goaltending.
Expected and Projected
Expected: The Thrashers made the playoffs last season, and I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they can make consecutive playoff appearances. They have a great goalie, three excellent forwards, and a top NHL head coach. The Eastern Conference may look very tough, but the Southeast Division is a real crap shoot and the Thrashers can win their division. Atlanta is expected to finish in 7th or 8th. Projected: This team is quite a mess. The scoring is good, but Hossa and Kovalchuk really need to ignite it. The defense is the weakest part of the team. The goaltending is in check, though, and character is also strong with Bobby Holik, Steve Rucchin, and Todd White. I project this team not making the playoffs. The defense looks too weak and it will prove to be the reason why the team won’t make the playoffs unless management makes changes, which are very expected.