Despite Criticism, The Atlanta Thrashers Are Still In The Playoff Hunt

Warren ShawCorrespondent IIMarch 3, 2010

CHICAGO - FEBRUARY 13: Members of the Atlanta Thrashers including (L-R) Tobias Enstrom #39, Bryan Little #10 and Pavel Kubina #77 celebrate a goal against Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on February 13, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Almost every article about the Atlanta Thrashers (post-Kovalchuk) has recently been critical of Don Waddell, the GM and coach John Anderson.  One blogger even suggested the team should pack it in and vacate Atlanta.

Although interesting, this is a bit premature.  Emotions and disappointment have run high since the trade took place. Kovalchuk, after all, had been with the team since he was an 18-year-old number one draft selection.

Attendance at the Thrasher games was nothing to write home about when Kovalchuk was on the team, so you can imagine what it has been like since he departed.

Don Waddell has been first criticized for not being able to strike a deal to keep Kovalchuk and later for not getting good enough value for him. The Thrashers received solid players but none the caliber of Ilya Kovalchuk.

It is fairly well known that the Thrashers tried everything they could to keep Kovalchuk, but ultimately the numbers just did not work out.  Could it be that Kovalchuk’s agent was aware that the Kontinental League is poised to make a huge offer to Kovalchuk when he becomes a unrestricted free agent this summer?

KHL president Alexander Medvedev said in an interview with THN.com and ESPN.com that SKA of St. Petersburg, Russia will make an offer better than any NHL team can under the current NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) when Kovalchuk’s contract expires.

The truth is, Kovalchuk did not want to stay in Atlanta since he never moved off of his contract demand of $110 million for 10 years. He had to know that such a contract was prohibitive given the fact that Phillips Arena has averaged about 13,000 fans during Thrasher home games.  

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It will take more than selling a lot of peanuts and popcorn in Phillips Arena to make up the difference.

Kovalchuk was unwilling to take the Thrashers offer of a seven-year, $70 million and other derivatives and decided to test the free agent market by essentially becoming a “rental player" for the New Jersey Devils.

After the 2010 season and the playoffs are over, Kovalchuk will get a chance to hear all offers.

As for the Thrashers management, they did what they had to do to stay viable. They made the best business decision they could given the fact every team vying for the Russian born superstar knew he was only a rental player for the reminder of the season and the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Thrashers still needed to reassemble a team that can make the playoffs.

The Thrashers may not have received back a scoring star like Kovalchuk, but they did not do badly if the goal is to build a team with a solid foundation. The operative word here is team.

The Thrashers now have Nicklas Bergfors, a talented young winger who should be counted on for 25 goals and a consistent effort each game. He has the ability to become a contributor immediately with more ice time.

Defenseman Johnny Oduya provides the Thrashers with another solid defenseman and also creates an opportunity to trade to strengthen another position.

Patrice Cormier is a former top draft pick and strong prospect with excellent leadership potential.  He was the captain of team Canada in this year's World Junior Championships and displays the kind of passion needed by any team wanting to produce a winning product.

His suspension from the QMJHL is regrettable, but could affect Cormier in a positive way forcing him to work hard and be on his best behavior as he makes his NHL rookie debut next season.

Waddell also obtained New Jersey's first-round draft pick for 2010. Now the Thrashers will have two first-round picks in the upcoming draft with which they can select two quality prospects or improve their opportunities to trade for a proven scorer using the draft choice as bait.

The Thrashers have some fine role players such as Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ondrej Pavelec, Rich Peverley, Bryan Little, and Nik Antropov so they are not in a position to have to rebuild the entire team.

Consistent with a strategy to upgrade, other players who may be on the move include Slava Kozlov, Colby Armstrong, and Maxim Afinogenov.

In addition, defenseman Pavel Kubina’s name has recently come up in trade talks. Most of the players named are eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.  

No matter what, we have not seen the last of player movement by the Thrashers, but we could see a positive movement in the standings.  

Stay tuned.