Now or Never For Atlanta

If there was yet another team who’s future is in doubt, its the Atlanta Thrashers. It seems there are several teams who’s financial dependence and stability is tied to on ice success and if not met, there may be serious repercussions.

The Thrashers are indeed one of those teams. They have never won a playoff game in their history, have unstable ownership and their franchise player may leave the team following the season as a UFA.

The team has taken steps to try and improve their roster and get some credible talent to surround Ilya Kovalchuk in an effort to bring some more success to the team and convince him to stay.

But there remains serious questions about team defence and goaltending that if not solved will mean yet another early offseason.

Coaching:

John Anderson didnt have a great first season in the NHL after a successful career as an AHL coach. He has implemented an attacking style of play, trying to bring an entertaining brand of hockey to Atlanta. It appears to have worked as the team finished in the top 10 in offence.

They are poised to be even better with the additions of Antropov and Kubina that surely will help with depth and their PP. The team was 11th in the league with the man advantage.

But this will all be for naught if Anderson cannot get his team to play some kind of defence. They were 2nd worst defensively and 2nd worst on the PK. That needs to change. It has not helped that their number 1 goalie has constantly been hurt. But the team lacks the kind of personnel to lead them defensively. Therefore it will be up to Anderson to put in a system that tightens the play in their own end.

Lineup:
C: White, Peverley, Reasoner, Slater
RW: Antropov, Little, Stewart, Thorburn
LW: Kovalchuk, Kozlov, Armstrong, Boulton
D: Hainsey, Bogosian, Enstrom, Kubina, Salmela, Valabik, Welch
G: Lehtonen, Hedberg

Forwards

Scoring will not be much of an issue. The team will be able to put out 2 good offensive lines led by Kovalchuk. The team captain had another fine offensive campaign and likely will have another big season in a contract year. He has some good help with talented players like White, Kozlov, Little and now Antropov to provide support.

Kozlov and White are savvy veteran players who have benefitted from rule changes and decreased obstruction. Antropov will provide them with a big body presence that the team has lacked. He should help an already good PP. Little has continued to impress and seems to be set to score 30 plus goals every year.

The Thrashers have some aggression up front as well with players like Armstrong, Stewart, Slater willing to take the body. Armstrong is also a decent scorer but will be counted on to help improve the defensive play.

Players like Reasoner and Peverley really surprised and will have a role on this team. Double digit scorers, plus players, good on faceoffs, an interest in defensive play, they will be useful as the team attempts to improve from the blueline in.

The team may be lacking some size up the middle and with their horrible PK, there seems to be a lacking in chemistry with the units.

Defence

This is a very mobile, offensive minded group. Led by Enstrom, the team has a very solid contributor at both ends of the rink. Enstrom is a quality PP QB who is capable of 30-40 points. But he is perhaps their strongest player on the defensive end.

The team is hoping that Kubina can provide some help and he gives the team a big shot from the point. He isnt the strongest defensively as he doesnt use his size well. Hainsey, a similar player to Kubina is also big but weak on D. Throw in a learning on the job teenager in Bogosian and you have lots of skill, little in terms of jam and defensive a*****en.

The loss of Exelby may be big as he brought a physical element to the team. They are hopeful big 6’7 Valabik can fill that role and be a presence. They are going to need someone to clear the crease and right now their top 4 guys are not that type of player.

Goal

Much of the success of the Thrashers will depend on Lehtonen who needs to stay healthy. He has struggled with injuries and that has impacted his play. He is their most talented netminder and he may want to have a big year to earn a long term contract, plus a berth with Team Finland at the Olympics.

There has been some talk of trading Lehtonen and turning things over to top prospect Ondrej Pavelec. But considering the position the Thrashers are in, needing to win now, they are going to need their best, most proven talents to lead them and thats Lehtonen.

Hedberg is an excellent veteran backup who fits well into the character of this European heavy lineup.

Special Teams

The PP will be even more dangerous with RH shooting Pavel Kubina at the point. The team can put together several different looks that may confuse their opponents. Obviously Kovalchuk is still their most dangerous weapon, but with sound playmakers like White and Kozlov and some weapons on the blueline, the Thrashers may emerge as one of the league’s best with the man advantage.

However, their PK is anything but. They were among the worst in the NHL last season, finishing only ahead of 1 team for PK success rate. There lacks physicality and defensive smarts on defence and they’ve done nothing to address those concerns. The front of the net may be fair game for opponents and it will be up to Lehtonen to make some big saves for a change. His injuries and inconsistent play, if they happen again, could mean several games lost due to their inability to kill penalties.

Depth:
F: Pospisil, Machacek, Lavalee, Kozik, Forney, Kalp, O’Dell, Stapleton, Krog, Crabb, Gratton
D: Denny, Kulda, Lehman, Oystrick, Kwiatkowski, Vernace
G: McIntyre, Mannino

What’s Left
Payroll: 44.3 mil
UFA: Perrin, Hoffman, Turple
RFA: LaVallee

The Thrashers do have cap space, but GM Don Waddell is under a budget. Despite the bickering ownership, they did open the chequebook this summer so adding another piece would not be a surprise. They desperately need a defensive presence on their blueline to accept the big shutdown assignments.

In the new year, you can bet Waddell will spend most of his time trying to iron out a long term deal with Kovalchuk. This situation bears watching because if the Thrashers struggle, the chances of Kovalchuk staying become more a longshot. And like Hossa before him, he could be moved at the deadline.

Draft Picks
R1/4 E. Kane (C)
R2/34 C. Klingberg (LW)
R2/45 J. Morin (LW)
R4/117 E. Pasquale (G)
R4/120 B. Chiarot (D)
R5/125 C. Sol (D)
R6/155 J. Bubnick (C)
R7/185 L. Koper (LW)
R7/203 J. Samuels-Thomas (LW)

The Thrashers did a fine job replenishing their forward depth picking up 3 good prospects in the first two rounds. Their top prize, Evander Kane, may very well make the team. His solid two way play at the WJC showed he can fill any role, but his main talent is scoring. He is a power player who’s willingness to get into traffic should spike his production.

Klingberg is not your atypical player from Sweden. He is physical and willing to mix it up. He is a small reminder of Holmstrom with perhaps not having the front of the net skills. He will add a nice balance of sandpaper to go with their high end skill. Morin may be a good 2nd round find. He is a solid sniper with a nose for the net.

Top Prospects:
F: Riley Holzapfel, Daultan Leveille, Angelo Esposito, Brett Sterling, Danick Paquette
D: Andrei Zubarev, Paul Potsma, Grant Lewis
G: Ondrej Pavelec, Alex Kangas

Besides Kane, prospects like Holzapfel and Esposito will certainly put up a challenge for a roster spot with the big club. Espo may need to bulk up a bit to handle the rigors of the pro game. H
e is certainly pegged for a lot of seasoning down with the Chicago Wolves if he doesnt make it. Holzapfel has already played a year of pro and is too in need of some more bulk. But the team is high on him being a useful two way player.

Pavelec is a good goalie prospect but with Lehtonen, he seems stuck as the 3rd man.

The team could use another solid defence prospect as there’s very little coming through the pipeline.

Outlook: The Thrashers need to make the playoffs. But the East is jammed up in the middle with about 8 teams legitimately vying for 4 playoff spots and the Thrashers are not even among that group. If they can somehow improve their defensive play there may just be a chance to surprise. However, there would be little surprise to see the team begin shopping its franchise player to avoid losing him for nothing. If that happens, an already fading franchise may end up another casualty of the league and it’s poor expansion/relocation choices.

Prediction: 4th in the Southeast, 12th in the East.


12 Responses to Now or Never For Atlanta

  1. the_word says:

    They'll likely move Antropov to the middle for some size.

    I can't see this team making the playoffs. They remind me of last year's Leafs (aside from Kovelchuck), a lot of pieces with upside and baggage. Kubina will log a lot of minutes and that'll hurt them, nothing kills a rush like Kubes slothing the puck up the ice.

    Look for them to rush Kane in a desperate attempt to appease Kolevchuk.
     
    Bogosian and Enstrom are two great pieces but not ready to be impact players yet.

    Should be a good team in two or three seasons.

  2. cam7777 says:

    Blair Betts, Manny Malhotra, and Rob Niedermayer are all still available guys who are more than capable of killing a penalty consistently.  They missed the boat on PJ Axelsson, but quality vets are still available at affordable prices to flesh this roster out. 

    Once Armstrong and Stewarts extensions are figured out (nhlnumbers says TBA still), The Thrashers should have about 10 million left to play with.  Now I realize Atlanta can't afford to spend to the limit, but none of these guys should cost all that much. 

    There's not much left out there in terms of defensemen who can play defense pretty strongly.  The strongest I would say is Francis Bouillion, and that's saying something (not that he's bad, it just indicates the market is dry).  If they desperately need someone like that, they will have to make a trade.  Colorado is probably willing to part with Scott Hannan for next to nothing, and the Leafs have Finger, Frogren and Oreskovic to choose from.  Jason Smith might even become available if Karlsson can make the Sens lineup out of camp.  Again, none of these guys are going to cost the organization an arm and a leg.  Kovalchuk is going to be looking to see Waddell being active in picking up guys like this.

    Regardless, the plan in Atlanta is clearly to outscore opponents and hope Lehtonen can outduel most goaltenders.  They could surpize this year, but I still don't see them making the playoffs.  I could see them in the hunt right till the end though.

    On another Thrashers note, some sources in Winnipeg believe the franchise is closer to financial destruction than Bettman and the NHL care to admit (speculating that acquiring this team for the city might be more realistic than Phoenix).  Another bad season fiscally, the loss of Kovalchuk, and more, moutning losses, could signal Phoenix-esque problems in Atlanta.

  3. mojo19 says:

    re-signing Kovalchuck pending

  4. mojo19 says:

    You're right. But I think Atlanta really has a hard time attracting free agents, they either have to overpay or take rejects. But maybe this is the time of year to sign a guy who has been waiting in the wings. Dominic Moore or Blair Betts and the other guys you mentioned could give Atlanta a look at this point.

    For defensman, maybe Christian Backman, is he not available? He's decent if I remember correctly.

    Overall I think as always the east is wide open, the last few spots are always up for grabs and I think Atlanta will be in the mix for a while. But I think they'll fall off to 10th or 11th. They'll be improved but not good enough.

  5. wayne2 says:

    Malholtra and Niedermayer are both great penalty killers and add size to any team.If I was a team with cap space I'd try to sign both.Columbus would be smart to sign them.Other options are Florida,Carolina,Minesota and maybe even LA.Great third line combo wherever they would be.

  6. cam7777 says:

    The question is, will that be good enough for Kovalchuk?

    I'm sure Waddell will exhaust every option in an attempt to keep him.  It was previously reported that Waddell had offered him the league maximum of 11.4 million a year, or some ridiculous figure.

    At some point in the new year, I wouldn't be surprized to see Waddell shop his first round pick for a quality roster player (not wanting to leave it to the deadline where he may have to field offers for Kovalchuk).  He could very easily end up shooting himself in the foot. 

    Really, it's unfortunate for that franchise, because the intelligent thing to do, in my mind, would be to just trade Kovalchuk.  Yea, that'll probably mean two more years without playoffs, but they've already got a great core outside of Ilya.  With Little, Kane, Antropov, and Armstrong up front, and Bogosian, Enstrom, Valabik, and Hainsey in the back, and three quality netminders (two of whom are highly touted), the return on Kovalchuk would easily propel them forward in the next couple years.

    My guess is that the franchise literally cannot afford such a setback.

  7. ChyldProdigy says:

    The real shame here is how totally kickass their arena is.  I remember at the allstar game two years ago they kept panning to the top floors and it went on forever.

  8. reinjosh says:

    the best thing for them would be to trade him and trade him now
    even at the deadline they could get a 1st, blue chip prospect, and a young talented roster player
    it would be that much smarter for them to do it now

  9. cam7777 says:

    What do you guys think of this trade for Atlanta:

    to Washington

    -Todd White (22 goals, 51 assists, 73 points)
    -Vyacheslav Kozlov (26 goals, 50 assits, 76 points)
    -1st round pick 2010

    To Atlanta

    -Michael Nylander
    -Karl Alzner
    -2nd round pick

    Now, Nylander wants a new home, and people have noted, Atlanta is lacking some size down the middle.  Nylander can still be a force if he's given the oppurtunity – he just hates it in Washington and the feeling is mutual.  Kozlov will not be resigned next year, so worse comes to worst, Nylander is just a replacement for Kozlov. 

    White is a serviceable center who has the potential to rack up a lot of points in an offensive role.  He's also cheap.  The Thrashers need someone who can play defensive hockey on their back-end, and Alzner is the perfect young guy to grow into that role.  Unfortuneatly, that's also true of the Caps defense, but they have options, and time on their side.  For starters, Ovechkin, Green and co. can single-handedly propel the team to the playoffs – we know that.  Further, with Ovechkin and co. at the helm, free agents actually want to come to Washington.  Atlanta has neither of these advantages, and could really stand to acquire someone like Alzner via trade.

    For the Caps, the upside is that they take a risk on a 1st round pick.  That pick could easily end up being a top 10 (I think it would have to be top 5 protected).  If it looks like the Thrashers are going to finish in the middle of the pack, or, against all odds, make the playoffs, than perhaps they use that pick, and their own first, to acquire an established defensemen to pair in a top role with Mike Green.   If it looks like Atlanta is going to crap the bed yet again, then keep the pick, and draft a new Alzner — what's the hurry?

    Either way the Caps get two good players for one over-priced player they hate. 

    With that done, the Thrashers should go out and sign Malhotra, and Rob Niedermayer, and make a run for the playoffs.  Maybe even go after Zherdev, and see if he can't be pried away from the KHL for two years at slightly less than what he thought he was worse (maybe 3.65 million or so).

    The new Thrashers:

    Kovalchuk – Antropov – Zherdev
    Peverley – Nylander – Little
    Armstrong – Malhotra – Niedermayer
    Boulton – Thorburn – Stewart

    (Slater)

    Hainsey – Enstrom
    Kubina – Alzner
    Valabik – Bogosian

    (Welch)

    Lehtonen – Hedberg

    CAP HIT – 53 million.

    It's slightly more than the Thrashers are spending now (approx. 47 million), but this is a team that has a legitimate shot at the playoffs.  They are big down the center, they can kill penalties, they have quality goaltending, and they have a host of young D-men waiting to take it to the next level (Alzner, Bogosian, Valabik, even Enstrom).

    Such is the cost of doing business sometimes.  This team needs to spend money to make money right now…

  10. cam7777 says:

    Thrashers are in talks with Nikolai Zherdev as of yesterday.  Man, I would love to see the Thrashers giving the Caps, Canes and Bolts a hard time this year.

    Now to just make my trade happen…

  11. mojo19 says:

    I don't know, i'm not crazy about that trade for Atlanta.

    White I think brings more to the table than Nylander at this point and for less money. I would actually say Nylander and Kozlov are more of a toss up.

    Atlanta could definitely get a top 10 pick this year. Now I don't think they'll draft a player as good as Alzner so they easily walk away with a win in this part of the deal, which almost makes the whole thing worth while.

    White is worth much more than a 2nd round pick.

    Not bad but I don't think it really helps Atlanta too much and their 1st rounder should still be considered a potential lottery pick at this point making it almost untouchable. Even for the likes of Alzner

  12. cam7777 says:

    The idea would be that with these changes, their pick wouldn't be a lottery pick, and would end up being in the middle of the pack.  Even if it is a lottery pick, as you said, they would be hard pressed to draft another Alzner anyways.  Even if they did keep the pick, and draft a similar player, they would still be waiting two years for him to get to where Alzner is now.  Atlanta is essentially buying themselves time by letting White go for less than he is worth. 

    The upside on the rest of the trade is that Nylander is signed an extra year over Kozlov (and his salary dips to 3 million next season), and he could be a great pick-up if he can return to form.  Also, if that lineup makes strides towards the playoffs, then they will have a much better chance at resigning Kovalchuk – perhaps the most valuable part of the trade….

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