BT's 2008/'09 NHL Season Preview: The Atlanta Thrashers

xx yySenior Writer ISeptember 6, 2008

Preview: So after finishing the Northwest division, I'm ecstatic with how the division previews are going.

There's been some great conversation and discussion over where teams will end up and how individual players will do, and there's been some positive response to the integration of teams' Community Leaders.

Unfortunately, we're shot on a couple of CL's in the Southeast division—in fact, I'm pretty sure every team needs one.

So I guess we're stuck with just one point of view. Hopefully that suffices...

For a long time, the Atlanta Thrashers weren't really good for anything. I mean, there's being an expansion team, and then there's being flat-out terrible for your entire existence. (Ironic note during the writing: I'm listening to Eternity by Big and Rich. So are the Atlanta Thrashers going to be eternally dreadful? I'm scared to find out.)

Sometimes they'd have a couple of bench-clearing brawls, but aside from that, the Thrash were usually good for a laugh...unless, of course, they were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which case the Buds were good laugh for a Thrasher fan.

Following another sub-.500 season (their sixth in eight years), the Thrashers should have sought out some heavy changes, and some dramatic improvements. least they got rid of Bobby Holik.

Roster Additions: Ron Hainsey-D (Free Agent), Eric Boulton-F (Free Agent), Jason Williams-F (F.A.), Marty Reasoner-F (F.A.).

Roster Subtractions:
Bobby Holik-F (F.A.), Karel Pilar-D (F.A.), Mark Recchi-F (F.A.), Steve Rucchin-F (Retirement), Jason Krog-F (F.A.), Joel Kwiatkowski-D (F.A.), Steve McCarthy-D (Europe.)

How did 2007/'08 go? 34-40-8, 76 points, 14th in conference, fourth in Southeast division

2008/'09 Goal:
Top 12 in conference, third in division

Let's break'er down...

As I said before, the Atlanta Thrashers have been bogged down by mediocrity for their entire franchise history. They’ve only finished above third in their division twice, and the lone time that the Thrashers finished first in their division, ensuring them of their first playoff spot in history, they were swept by the New York Rangers.

Because of that, one has to start to wonder how much longer young superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk are going to stick it out before the lure of greener pastures starts to drag them away from the troublesome Thrashers.

Either that or they might throw themselves off of a bridge.

To be honest, I wouldn't really blame Ilya Kovalchuk for charging a ridiculous price for his services during free agency—so long as Atlanta can't afford to keep him, he'll still be respected a bit in my eyes.

Keep on Lehtonen….

The Atlanta Thrashers waited patiently for Kari Lehtonen to finish out his career in Finland, and then waited for him to adjust to the NHL game in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves.

Following his most successful season in 2006/'07, the Thrashers thought the last thing they’d have to do would be wait for Lehtonen once again.

But following a troublesome groin injury, the Thrashers had to start the season without their No. 1 goalie, and they had to rely on the play of Johan Hedberg for 16 games.

Even when Lehtonen came back though, he wasn’t enough to salvage the Thrashers’ already miserable season. Despite a .916 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average on a fairly loose defensive squad (loose is putting that...well...loosely), Lehtonen has started to resemble Roberto Luongo during his Panthers years—a great young goalie, mired with a franchise that annually struggles to stay out of the basement.

Roberto Luongo was better at staying healthy than Lehtonen has proven to be, but it's not like a team like the Los Angeles Kings would turn down a guy like Lehtonen. In fact...

The Los Angeles Kings trade an old Wayne Gretzky jersey, the Govenator Arnold, and Marc Crawford's toupee (he forgot it on his way out) for Kari Lehtonen. What? It's not like Atlanta would do anything with any real players they receive in the deal, so why not pump them up on nostalgia?

Lehtonen could easily return to form this season, stealing upwards of 35 games for the Thrashers, while Hedberg can be a serviceable backup for a few games, but without help from around the roster, the Thrashers are going to be in trouble this season.

Exelby your breath…

I’ll challenge you right now to name three of the defensemen that the Thrashers are expected to play this season.

I’m waiting…..

Stumped? Alright. The three most recognizable names on the defensive depth chart, or at least the ones you’ll want to know, would be Ron Hainsey, Garnet Exelby, and Tobias Enstrom.

Atlanta’s big free-agent acquisition this season was the former Blue Jacket, Hainsey. Following four years of bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL with Montreal (and Columbus for a bit), Hainsey fell into the right situation in Columbus.

The Jackets needed bodies, Hainsey was healthy, and from there on, he posted back-to-back 30-point seasons. The big thing Hainsey can do for the Thrashers, aside from his offensive “potential”, is eat minutes—something the Thrashers will need with a low-budget, unimpressive defensive unit.

Exelby and Enstrom, however, are both homegrown talents and didn't cost a ridiculous amount of money...yet. Exelby is the Atlanta equivalent to the late-'90s, early 2000s Adam Foote (Although Foote put up more points—note the phrase ATLANTA EQUIVALENT...that's important), in the fact that he can play the body, and he’ll take charge of clearing out Atlanta’s end of the ice.

For a team that is continually dominated, Exelby’s grit and steady, determined presence will be very valuable to any success the Thrashers’ expect to have.

Tobias Enstrom is probably the most talked about defenseman the Thrashers have that isn’t named Zach Bogosian.

The 23-year-old Swede took the Thrashers, and the league, by storm last year. He was able to post a solid 38 points while appearing in the NHL YoungStars game, offering Thrashers fans some relief that they weren’t going to have to rely on Alexei Zhitnik (don’t expect more than 10-15 points from him this season) for their offense from the back end last season.

Aside from those four (and possibly Bogosian), the other defenseman you may hear a little more about is the towering Boris Valabik, who is tall enough (6’7") to dominate most forwards in this league, if he can harness his physical gifts.

Oh, and here’s the rest of the Thrashers D:

Ken Klee: The guy couldn’t get publicity in Toronto, and then we got mad at him for being traded for the definition of bust: Aleksander Suglobov. On the bright side, he's pretty willing to sign least for me he was.

Niclas Havelid: You could say he’s starting to come into his own, but he’s 35, the age at which some people come into their own in normal careers. At least he won a gold medal with Sweden in 2006.

Marc Popovic: Could be good, but he needs to start producing at the NHL level. Three points and a -8 in 44 career games? Methinks someone needs to "pop" the cherry. Gross.

Steve McCarthy/Joel Kwiatkowski: Both had offensive potential. One’s too old to use it, and one may not be good enough to reach it, and might be getting too old.

Um….Well at least they’ve got Ilya?

Alright, I have to get something off of my chest: The "subtitles" for these sections suck, and I blame the Thrashers. I mean, "Exelby your breath?" What's that? And the attempted play on "Keep on keepin' on" with "Keep on Lehtonen" is terrible. I've disappointed even me.

Atlanta, if I fail, this is on your head: sign players with better names.

But aside from this decidedly-biased Thrashers preview, you may be surprised to know there's something good about being a Thrashers fan.

That good thing? Well, you’ve always got Ilya Kovalchuk. Or at least until he becomes a free agent in 2011.

So what do you need to know about him?

He’s the franchise leader in goals, assists, and points, he’s won a Rocket Richard trophy, and just like Mats Sundin, you can pair him up with anyone on the team and he’ll still produce. Unfortunately, the Thrashers didn’t go out and sign Harold Druken though.

Actually, that probably would have helped the Thrashers out this offseason.

Colby Armstrong (you know, one of the guys they got for Marian Hossa?), despite his 11 points in 18 games for the Thrashers last season, is a third-liner at best at this point in his career.

If he can keep that pace up this season, then he could see some time on the top two lines, but if not, he’s just going to get labeled as “That guy that Sidney Crosby made look alright once.”

Erik Christensen is another one of those players who has the potential to produce but just isn’t showing it. In the AHL: 97 points in 141 games. Not overly impressive, but it is something. In 153 NHL Games: 70 points.

In his young career, Christensen may be running out of time before he’s labeled as a third liner.

Bryan Little is the forward to watch right behind Kovalchuk on this roster, though. If the Thrash can entice Ilya to stick around, the chemistry that these two could develop is crazy, as Little’s deft passing ability and playmaking vision, and Kovalchuk’s shot could combine to be a dangerous combination.

Hell, because Little is so small, he could even help out Colby Armstrong—not only with his passing abilities, but Little’s ironic lack of size could give Colby someone to stand up for. That's something, isn't it?

Jason Williams will offer some scoring ability, but he’ll also be expected to help develop a guy like Jim Slater, who just has never put the tools he’s got together. If Williams can return to his 20-goal potential, then "Slates" has an effective weapon to whom he can pass the puck off, but also a player who can draw the opposition’s defenders and get Slater some room.

The other two players to watch out for on the Thrashers this season would be Brett Sterling and Angelo Esposito—two young players who could flourish if they see some quality playing time, especially if Todd White repeats his Todd White-esque 2007/'08.

Aside from that, the Thrashers are bogged down with energy line and reserve forwards. Both are nice in moderation, but  the abundance of them on the roster makes it hard to take this team seriously.

So what does it all mean?

Remember that Roberto Luongo/Florida Panthers comparison I used a little earlier to describe Kari Lehtonen? Well, it goes a little deeper.

The Thrashers are going to be looking like the Luongo-era Florida Panthers for a little while longer—they’ll draft some excellent players (I mean, even Atlanta can't mess up a top-three pick right? Oops...sorry Patrick Stefan) and will always have the possibility of being a young exciting team, but the players may end up taking longer than expected to develop, leading the Thrashers to become impatient and sign stopgap solutions.

On the bright side, it only took six or seven years for things to finally start looking up in Florida.

Maybe the addition of Atlanta to their division had something to do with it.

Fifth in Southeast

Alright, I promise that the next of these previews won't be as bitter or as biased as this one—and don't get me wrong, Atlanta has some ok players—but it was really too easy, I mean, they're the Steve Urkel of the NHL.

Anyhow, we'll continue with the Southeast tomorrow. Until then...

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you'd like to contact Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or you can read all of his previous work in his archives.


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