As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
Continuing in the East, we examine a team with a new identity, the Atlanta Thrashers.
Key Additions: W/D Dustin Byfuglien, LW Andrew Ladd, LW Ben Eager, D Brent Sopel, G Chris Mason, LW Fredrik Modin, LW Nigel Dawes.
Key Subtractions: RW Colby Armstrong, LW Clarke MacArthur, G Johan Hedberg, D Pavel Kubina, RW Maxim Afinogenov, C Todd White, C Marty Reasoner, D Ivan Vishnevskiy, D Chris Chelios.
Losing Ilya Kovalchuk may have been the best thing that ever happened to the Atlanta Thrashers. Less than a year after the perennial franchise player departed for better competition and a big paycheck, Atlanta has already restructured and rebuilt with a team that could actually win a few playoff games in the near future.
GM Rick Dudley was nothing if not patient with Kovalchuk, going as far as to offer him a huge deal that would have kept Ilya playing in Atlanta forever. So when Kovalchuk decided he’d rather be dead than a Thrasher, Dudley worked diligently to bring in the right players for the team with plenty of good returns.
In the end, Dudley took what he received for Kovalchuk in players and picks and turned it into even more players, a number of whom were fresh from winning the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. A few solid signings later, and the Thrashers may well be right back in the hunt if not better off without the star struck Russian.
Offensively, the Thrashers have completely stripped down and built back up over two seasons. Attempts to bring in talent that would keep Kovalchuk interested failed, and now Atlanta is looking to rebuild with big bodies and young playmakers.
Among them, Nik Antropov is one of the few returning stars on the team. After evading all the major markets, Antropov inked a four-year deal with the Thrashers last offseason and had a career year last term. In fact, his numbers have consistently increased each of the past three years and he’s likely to threaten the 80-90 point sum this season.
Behind him, however, there is some uncertainty at the center position. A swing player like Rich Peverley will likely be back full-time as a center thanks to the departures of both Marty Reasoner and Todd White. Several youngsters, including new draftee Alex Burmistrov, may have the opportunity to rise up the ranks as the center position fills out this year.
On the wing, the Thrashers are built with breakout candidates and adequate role players giving them some sustainable success. Acquiring playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien gives Atlanta another big body with a thunderous shot and the talent to deflect pucks in front of the net. The Thrashers also signed Fredrik Modin and acquired Andrew Ladd for more playmaking abilities on the sides.
One player to keep an eye on is Evander Kane, who will be entering his second year in Atlanta and could be a breakout star. The 19-year-old Kane played decently in his first stint (66 games) but hopes to become a prolific scorer by season’s end. He’ll be in good company with fellow second-year man Niclas Bergfors and the surprising young star Bryan Little joining him.
Little, who scored 31 goals two seasons ago, might have to fight that little bit harder to keep his spot on the team with the recent influx of stars that could usurp his role. Bergfors comes over from New Jersey, a welcome piece of the compensation for Ilya Kovalchuk.
Despite all the changes up front, Atlanta’s defense remains much as it was a year ago. Atlanta is expected to return the same top four as the previous year, with Zach Bogosian leading the way. All indications are that the 20-year old Bogosian, who was drafted one spot behind Kings defender Drew Doughty in 2008, is the real deal. Doughty’s explosive year puts more pressure on Bogosian to do the same, and he more than likely will.
Other Thrashers defensemen include Tobias Enstrom, who was remarkable at times last year and invisible at others, and Ron Hainsey, who has stepped into more of a leadership role with the team as of late. Hainsey still has a long way to go before his contract expires, and with the youth spur on the team, might be dodging bullets over the next few years.
New acquisitions like Johnny Oduya (see: Kovalchuk, Ilya) and Brent Sopel will round out a solid but not spectacular defensive front. Oduya was long considered very valuable to the New Jersey Devils organization, and with good reason since he was on the rise at the time of his departure. Sopel is in the final year of his deal and could become trade bait if the Thrashers aren’t thick in the playoff hunt.
When the time came for Atlanta to make a decision about their most maligned position, goalie, they waved goodbye to perennial backup and former starter Johan Hedberg in favor of the aging Chris Mason. Mason, who was more expensive than Hedberg, helped both the upstart Nashville Predators and the inexperienced St. Louis Blues get to the playoffs over the past five years.
To say, however, that Mason will be the starter for the entire year would be to discredit the emerging youngster Ondrej Pavelec. The 23-year old Pavelec has been nurtured quietly into the backup position over the past two seasons and is expected to split time with Mason as the season progresses. If he plays less than 30 games this year, he has to be considered a disappointment.
As mentioned before, the lack of depth at center will open up a lot of opportunity for rookie centers in the Atlanta organization. One such player, Patrice Cormier, is perhaps more NHL-ready than Russian rookie Alex Burmistrov. Cormier excelled in the Quebec Major Juniors and will have his name, like several others on this team, be synonymous with the Ilya Kovalchuk trade until he makes a splash.
Ilya Kovalchuk was the anchor of the Atlanta Thrashers, but if this season proves anything, it will be that he was the anchor holding them down. Since shedding the drama, the team hasn’t looked this promising since its one (and only) playoff appearance. Still, they have a long road ahead with many more twists and turns to come. Fourth in the Southeast, 12th in the Eastern Conference.