BT's 2009/10 NHL Season Preview: Atlanta Thrashers

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BT's 2009/10 NHL Season Preview: Atlanta Thrashers
(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

After knocking off the top two teams in the Southeast—the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes—we continue to move down in the division to a team that not many look to for a surprise.

Perhaps in Ilya Kovalchuk's swan-song in Atlanta, a surprise may be what the Atlanta Thrashers need to keep their franchise winger around.

 

Atlanta Thrashers

2008/09 Record: 35-41-6, 76 points, 13th in East

 

Additions

Nik Antropov—C (four years/$16mil), Evander Kane—C (Draft), Tim Stapleton—C (Trade w/Toronto), Pavel Kubina—D (Trade w/Toronto), Anthony Stewart—F (FA), Noah Welch—D (FA)

 

Subtractions

Garnett Exelby—D (Trade w/Toronto), Colin Stuart—C (Trade w/Toronto), Clay Wilson—D (FA)

The unfortunate thing for the Thrashers, is that they have a very passionate fan base, but the draft picks and promises never seem to materialize for them on the ice.

Last year, Kari Lehtonen just couldn’t find a way to stay healthy until the second half of the season. When he was healthy, it was a matter of Thrashers fans wishing he could’ve stayed that way for the entire season.

While Kovalchuk and Bryan Little (and now possibly Evander Kane) are still around, goal scoring won’t be a problem. Look no further than Atlanta’s 257 goals (fifth in the East) for proof of that.

It’s getting the young defensemen on the same page and the goaltending that seems to be the problem.

 

A Few New Knees and We’re Like Two Peas in a 'Pov

The biggest free agent acquisition for the Atlanta Thrashers was Nik Antropov.

On the bright side, Antropov has been relatively healthy over the past few seasons. On the other hand, it’s still Nik Antropov.

Don’t get me wrong, throughout his time in Toronto I was one of Antropov’s biggest supporters. I wanted him to keep getting his chances so that he could start to turn it around. The thing is, he’s not the kind of player that will alter a franchise's fortunes.

That could be Evander Kane, but the big-time scorer from the Vancouver Giants has to make the team first before he can have an impact. If he does make the team, he could be one surprising rookie, as he's gritty and can score, but that's more for another day (read more on Kane here).

If Antropov is put on the right wing of a line featuring Kovalchuk, then we may see his goal totals start to go up a bit if he can get to the front of the net and capitalize on some of the rebound opportunities. Antropov also has the ability to shift to the middle of the ice and centre that line if Todd White’s career year of 74 points can’t be replicated.

If the problems still persist, the Thrashers always have Bryan Little as an option, but the 21-year-old had a career year with 31 goals in 2009 spent mostly on the right side, so if paired with Kovalchuk  expect him to go back to his playmaking ways, but his vision and skill definitely improve the production of anyone he's paired with.

Despite getting older, Slava Kozlov continues to put up the points, however, he has been prone to up-and-down years. Depending on whether his ice time is divided up amongst the younger players on the roster, Slava could go either way.

You also have to consider that Kozlov is entering the final year of his contract and could be more of a bargaining chip to try and lure more young talent to Atlanta via trade, but the big hurdle there is his No-Trade Clause.

From there, the offensive depth in Atlanta is limited.

Colby Armstrong will gut it out in the corners, but he may have reached his plateau point-wise in the 40-45 range. Marty Reasoner’s hockey smarts are a great asset to the lower lines, especially when younger players are due for their call-ups, but again he won’t break the bank point-wise.

The most interesting returning name for the Thrashers this year could be that of Rich Peverley. Peverly was a virtual unknown for many hockey fans coming into last season. The then-Predator had just 11 points in 46 career NHL games, and following a start of nine points in 27 games, the Predators let Peverley walk onto waivers and into the waiting arms of the Thrashers.

From there, Peverley was outstanding potting 35 points in 39 games including three three-point games early on in his Atlanta career. Learning if that was just the benefits of a new environment or if Peverley is truly a late-bloomer, will be big for the Thrashers this season.

 

There Ain't No Bog'in Down Tobias

Although the Thrashers surrendered the second-most goals in the league (280) last season, there is a bright spot.

The newly acquired Pavel Kubina is the only defender over 30 on the Thrashers' roster.

Kubina (who won’t be nearly as physical as Garnett Exelby) is going to offer the Thrashers a settled and experienced puck-moving defenseman, and a big shot from the point that will help even more on the power play, which converted at a 19 percent clip last year.

Throw into that the fact that he can tutor Zach Bogosian on the offensive nuances of the game—even though the rookie had a successful 19 points in 47 games last year—and the fact that Ron Hainsey had 39 points in his first Atlanta season (18 on the powerplay), the defense is already starting to look better and more offense-oriented (which bodes well when you can get the puck to your high-scoring forwards).

After that, there are two other big, attention grabbing names on the Thrashers' blueline: Tobias Enstrom and Boris Valabik.

Enstrom struggled for the first half of the season, only putting up 11 points for the Thrashers. However, after a two-point game against Colorado in late February, Enstrom went on to post 20 points in 22 games. If Enstrom can rediscover that touch early in the season and keep it going for the length of the year, both Thrasher power play units will be unstoppable on the back end.

Valabik, meanwhile, is that big presence that every blue-line needs, as he could prove to be a valuable big body for the Thrashers if he can stay away from dumb penalties and sharpen up his skating.

If anyone gets in to trouble or doesn’t pan out this year on the back end, Anssi Salmela is still waiting in the wings after three points in nine games following the trade deadline last year, while Noah Welch is also there to offer the Thrash some depth.

 

I’ll Leht-You-En on a Secret

Guess what, it was because of Kari Lehtonen that the Thrashers were so dangerous late last season.

Although his start to the year (2-5-2, 3.44 goals-against) was disappointing before succumbing to injury, once the calendar flipped to 2009, there was no stopping Lehtonen.

From January onward, the Finn posted a 16-14-3 record after the first day of the New Year, which included three and five-game winning streaks. Lehtonen was also able to drop his goals-against from 3.39 to 3.06 in that time frame, and raise his save percentage from .902 to .911.

If Lehtonen can play like that and get fluid scoring and sound defensive play ahead of him, there’s no telling how well the Thrashers could do (if they can hold that over the course of a season).

The big issue would be how the backups play behind Lehtonen. Johan Hedberg is heading into his fourth season with the Thrashers, but has had trouble capitalizing on his opportunities.

Given the chance to start after Lehtonen’s injury early last year, Hedberg was able to win three-straight to begin his hold on the reigns, but following that, he floundered for a while until winning five-straight towards the end of the year.

For Hedberg, it'll be finding that consistency behind Lehtonen that will be oh-so-important to the Thrashers this year.

Ondrej Pavelec (who many think will one day unseat Lehtonen) didn’t fare well either, going 3-7-0 in just 12 games, at one point losing five-straight after winning two of his first three starts, but hopefully the seasoning will help, and if Pavelec is called on once again this season, in the event of injury, he'll be all the more ready.

 

So What Does It All Mean?

It’s a cliché to say it comes down to goaltending, but unless the Thrashers get consistent, healthy efforts out of Lehtonen this season, they might be in trouble once again.

A team that features Ilya Kovalchuk is always going to have the scoring, but it’s up to the man between the pipes to harness some of that 34-win 2006-07 magic and the defense to mesh quickly and play well at both ends of the ice.

Third in Southeast

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