One of the reasons I love hockey is because of how much a team can improve in one year.
My favorite recent example is the Philadelphia Flyers. In 2006-2007, they finished with a record of 22-48-12 for 56 points, dead last in the NHL. The next season, they went 42-29-11 for 95 points, making the playoffs.
And they did this without their second-overall pick in the 2007 draft (James van Riemsdyk), who played NCAA hockey instead of going straight to the Flyers.
Coming into the season, every team’s fans have reasons to be hopeful that their team can have a jump in success.
Atlanta is a team ready to take the next step. While they were not close to last in the NHL last year, they failed to make the playoffs and have never won a playoff game in franchise history.
I strongly believe this is the year they change that. Here’s why.
Last Season: Atlanta (35-34-13) (83 points – 10th in Eastern Conference)
I want to highlight some key players that will help them take the next step. The casual fan may look at the Kovalchuk trade and think that Atlanta will suffer.
That is highly unlikely. They have a better team now then they did last summer; a lot better.
The Kovalchuk fallout
Niclas Bergfors came over from the Devils last year at the trade deadline.
Bergfors, the 23rd overall pick in the 2005 draft, is clearly ready for the NHL after taking several years to develop. He should improve on last year’s solid rookie output (21 G, 23 A).
He is a top-six forward for Atlanta going forward, with a lot more room to improve as he continues to adjust to the NHL.
Johnny Oduya was also involved in the trade that sent Kovalchuck out of Atlanta. He solidified himself as a strong defenseman in the NHL during his time with the New Jersey Devils.
He was selected to the 2010 Swedish Olympic hockey team for a reason. Oduya should help Atlanta’s defense improve on last year’s 3.01 GAA (25th in the NHL).
Another major contributor to this improvement will be Chris Mason.
Between the Pipes
One of the most underappreciated goalies in the league, “the other Mason”, Chris posted impressive numbers on a young Blues team last year (2.53 GAA .913 save percentage in 61 games).
Management and fans may view Pavelec (second-round pick in 2005) as their goalie of the future, but Mason could be the better option this year. Atlanta is desperate to make the playoffs and win their first playoff game (they were swept in their only postseason appearance), so you can count on them going with the hot hand, and there is a good chance Mason has the hot hand more often than people expect.
Teams usually get “gutted” of their key role players after a Stanley Cup run.
Chicago got torn apart worse than any team I can remember because of major salary cap issues. Their loss is Atlanta’s gain.
The Thrashers picked up Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced buff-lin, for those of you that might be struggling with it as I did in the beginning), Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel. All key components to Chicago's championship team, they should help a young, up-and-coming Thrashers team get to the playoffs and win.
Dustin Byfuglien is a big boy. At 6-foot-4, 257 pounds, he can be quite a force in front of the net, screening goalies, taking a beating, tipping pucks, and fighting for rebounds.
Think Thomas Holmstrom, except much bigger.
He was outstanding during Chicago’s playoff run, and there was even mention of him as a Conn Smythe candidate. While he is starting the season on defense for Atlanta, he is not nearly the difference maker on the blue line that he can be in front of the other team’s net.
Expect him to be in front of opposing goalies frequently on the power play, even if he is labeled as a “defenseman.”
Andrew Ladd has won two Stanley cups, one last year with Chicago and in 2006 with Carolina. He has played in 53 playoff games; that experience is incredibly valuable to a team like Atlanta.
Experience is often overlooked, but it shouldn't be. It usually determines which teams win and lose in April.
Draft Picks panning out
Zach Bogosian (third-overall pick 2008) and Evander Kane (fourth-overall pick 2009) both look like the real deal.
Bogosian should continue to develop into a very good NHL defenseman, and Kane is quickly becoming a top-six forward for Atlanta. While the Thrashers do not have a star player like Kovalchuk as a “face of the franchise,” they have a very deep team.
I don’t think they are quite ready to beat Washington for the division title, but I’d be surprised if they miss the playoffs. I think the Thrashers will win their first playoff game this spring.