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Post-Kovalchuk Thrashers Deep on ‘D’, Look to New Faces and Young Guns for Offense

For the Atlanta Thrashers, a team with just one playoff appearance in ten National Hockey League seasons (and not a single post-season victory to their credit), the time for a fresh start was clearly at hand.

By first turning a negative into a positive in moving on from superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk late last season and then raiding the cabinet of the cap-crunched Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta begins their new era, under both a new general manager and head coach in Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsay, with a wealth of promising youth and several veterans with recent championship experience.

They may no longer boast an individual showstopper but that formula wasn’t producing a consistent winner in Blueland anyway (and that alone rarely does as much anywhere). The post-Kovalchuk Thrashers appear to be headed for greener pastures, though there will be that little issue of replacing his 45+ goals, of course.

2009-10

Despite a consistent distraction from the uncertainty of Kovalchuk’s future, Atlanta managed to remain competitive and even to stay in the playoff conversation far longer than most expected. In fact, at the time their captain was dealt, the Thrashers were just three points out of the eighth spot in the East and even after Kovalchuk was dealt to New Jersey, his former club continued to impress, only fading out of the playoff race in the final few weeks of the season.

WELCOME TO ATLANTA

Atlanta’s biggest splash this off-season came via a pair of deals with Chicago, landing forwards Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd, defenseman Brent Sopel and the versatile Dustin Byfuglien, who will begin the season on the Thrashers blueline, it seems, despite his playoff heroics for Chicago coming at the forward position. Prospect forward Akim Aliu, a big body with a natural skill set but also a checkered past, was also acquired by Atlanta, who used the first round draft choice acquired from New Jersey in the Kovalchuk deal as part of the package for the first quartet of Blackhawk imports.

Other portions of Atlanta’s haul for Kovalchuk, forward Niclas Bergfors and defenseman Johnny Oduya, made their presence felt for the Thrashers down the stretch last season and don’t technically count as new additions, though they will each be relied upon heavily in 2010-11. The final piece of that deal, center Patrice Cormier, will get a long look in training camp and has an outside shot to crack the opening day roster.

Goaltender Chris Mason, with 57 wins in St. Louis to his credit the last two seasons, was inked as a free agent to team with upstart Ondrej Pavelec, who was brilliant at times last year but struggled with consistency.

Defenseman Freddy Meyer, late of the New York Islanders, was an unheralded August signing who could make an impact for Atlanta. Last season, Meyer was solid on Long Island, managing 15 points and a respectable -2 in 64 games, manning an Isles blueline that was both battered and largely inexperienced.

In the waning days of summer, Dudley added a pair of low-risk, potentially high-reward veteran forwards in Nigel Dawes and Fredrik Modin. Dawes, on a two-way contract, is looking to find a more permanent home in Atlanta, having bounced to Phoenix and on to Calgary, where he put up 14 goals and 32 points in 66 games last year, after parts of three seasons in the New York Rangers organization. Modin, who will turn 36 early in the upcoming season, isn’t likely to top the 20-goal mark, as he has five times in his NHL career, and has to be considered an injury risk, having missed 129 games the last three seasons. But he has a history with Coach Ramsay, bringing championship experience in the form of a Stanley Cup from their time together in Tampa Bay and what should be a positive influence on the Atlanta locker room.

Also, keep an eye on winger Fredrik Pettersson, signed as a free agent fresh off a 20-goal campaign for Vastra Frolunda of Sweden’s Elitserien, who could very well make this club with a strong training camp.

BYE-BYE

In the first full year of the post-Ilya era, the Thrashers will also have to make up for the loss of forwards Maxim Afinogenov, Colby Armstrong, Slava Kozlov, Clarke MacArthur, Marty Reasoner and Todd White. All six played significant roles for Atlanta last season but none more so than Afinogenov, their second leading scorer in 2009-10, who bolted to the KHL on a five-year deal.

On the blueline, the departure of Pavel Kubina, who signed as a free agent with his original NHL club, division rival Tampa Bay, will hurt the most. Christoph Schubert, who dressed in 47 games for Atlanta last season, is headed overseas and Mark Popovic was not re-signed.

In goal, Mason takes the roster spot of the departed Johan Hedberg, who left to become Martin Brodeur’s often-invisible backup in New Jersey.

YOUNG GUNS

Along with Cormier and Pettersson, several other rookies will get long looks in the preseason for Atlanta. An almost forgotten former blue-chipper in Angelo Esposito looks to rebound from injury woes and 2010 first rounder Alex Burmistrov will get his first glimpse of NHL action. Spencer Machacek has been an impact player for AHL Chicago in two straight seasons and may be ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL. Another Swedish import in Carl Klingberg also joins the competition at forward. (CORRECTION: Klingberg will not be in camp, as The Blueland Blog noted on Sunday.)

On defense, Arturs Kulda and Paul Postma will be looked to push several veterans for a roster spot, though sudden depth at the position may hurt their cases.

Evander Kane and Bryan Little join Bergfors as young players with NHL experience who will be relied upon for big years if Atlanta is to contend for a playoff spot.

STRENGTHS

With recent word of Byfuglien’s assignment (at least for now) on defense and despite the loss of Kubina, the Thrashers suddenly go eight-deep with NHL defensemen. Byfuglien joins Meyer, Oduya, Sopel, Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Boris Valabik on a crowded Atlanta back end. If Kulda and/or Postma make any kind of push, as expected, someone will be the odd man out, even if Byfuglien is eventually returned to forward, perhaps. (It’s “go time”, then, for Valabik, a former first-rounder who has been underwhelming all too often at the NHL level.)

Mason and Pavelec should give the Thrashers a solid one-two punch in goal, where the tutelage of a veteran might be exactly what the inconsistent youngster needs to reach the next level.

WEAKNESSES

Up front, Atlanta appears thin. Aside from leading scorer Nikolai Antropov, no one on the Thrashers roster topped 60 points in 2009-10 and it is reasonable to surmise that none will this year either. Rich Peverley remains a nice find down the middle but, while the defense and goaltending may shut down opposing offenses at times, Atlanta will need offensive contributions from several young forwards as well, perhaps a bit too soon in their careers, career best production from some of their imports and/or major reclamation project success in a couple of cases to have a chance to compete.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Evander Kane: With 14 goals under his belt as an 18-year-old, 20+ seems a reasonable target this year for Kane, who might be best-known, for now, for his knockout of Pittsburgh pest Matt Cooke late last season. Somebody will have to step up and provide some added offense for Atlanta and Kane seems as good a bet as any. Look for he and Little to push each other as they attempt to make up for some of the missing offense without, you know, that Kovalchuk guy.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION OUTLOOK

I love what Atlanta has done on defense, with top-notch competition set for training camp that will only yield positive results. Elsewhere, questions remain.

Clearly, an all-hand-on-deck approach is needed on offense and the Thrashers seem to be hoping for, not one or two, but several wild card factors to fall their way in that category. Bergfors needs to be just as good, if not better, as he was in year one – something that doesn’t always happen for players in their second full season. Little’s 13 goals in 2009-10 were quite the dropoff from 31 the year before and Atlanta is hoping for his former self. Kane has all the promise in the world but depending on a player his age is never any guarantee. Will one of Dawes or Modin prove to be one of the summer’s greatest bargains? And will one of these promising rookies emerge as a force in their NHL debut season?

Elsewhere, will Mason boost Pavelec’s development in goal? Or will Atlanta suffer the woes of a young goaltender’s inconsistency.

All (or at least much) of this could fall into place for the Thrashers and, if so, they could challenge for a playoff spot. Alas, I think they’re hoping that too much conveniently goes their way at the same time and the odds are against that happening.

Overall, Atlanta appears to be on the rise. But this season’s baby steps won’t take them higher than third in the Southeast Division and I see them missing the playoffs by a narrow margin.

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
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Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: akim+aliu, alex+burmistrov, andrew+ladd, arters+kulda, ben+eager, boris+valabik, brent+sopel, bryan+little, carl+klingberg, chris+mason, christoph+schubert, clarke+macarthur, colby+armstrong, craig+ramsay, dustin+byfuglien, evander+kane, freddy+meyer, fredrik+modin, fredrik+pettersson, ilya+kovalchuk, johan+hedberg, johnny+oduya, mark+popovic, martin+brodeur, marty+reasoner, matt+cooke, maxim+afinogenov, nhl+previews, niclas+bergfors, nigel+dawes, nikolai+antropov, ondrej+pavelec, patrice+cormier, paul+postma, pavel+kubina, rich+peverley, rick+dudley, ron+hainsey, southeast+division, spencer+machacek, tobias+enstrom, todd+white, zach+bogosian

Comments

SYF's avatar

Will be watching Evander Kane a lot more this year.

Posted by SYF from Alana Blanchard's Bikinis and Surfboards on 09/16/10 at 01:27 PM ET

Alan's avatar

</i>That’s a good write-up. I’m optimistic and excited about this season, as an Atlanta fan. Whether all the changes from this past summer pans out remains to be seen, however.

I see the team in either second or third in the division. Regarding playoffs, they’ll either barely make it (7th-8th), or barely miss it (9th-11th).  I’m leaning towards the latter.

Posted by Alan from Atlanta on 09/16/10 at 02:21 PM ET

Alan's avatar

Whoops, I failed to close the italics. Forgot I can’t use HTML codes. Hope this works instead.

Posted by Alan from Atlanta on 09/16/10 at 02:23 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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