Wednesday, August 16, 2006


An offseason look at the Atlanta Thrashers

One of the reasons Jes called my name for this gig was the "insight" I could allegedly provide into the Thrashers. Since the extent of my insight has generally been "Atlanta shouldn't have dropped Frantisek Kaberle," that might be a tall order.

Making it more of a tall order, I'm on vacation right now, back in Colorado. The clear skies and perfect weather, the cold beer, and the twelve-foot-tall granite statues of Alexei Gusarov scattered about the state all make it a bit tough to think about the Thrashers with any coherence. But I'll press on.

As last year wound up playoff-less, pundits far and wide treated it as a momentary aberration, a bump in the road on the route to some future Thrashers dynasty. The Thrashers responded by getting, largely, worse this off-season. They still have quite a solid shot at the playoffs, but it's all dependent on a few big ifs.

GM Don Waddell has taken a rather laissez-faire attitude to getting goalie Kari Lehtonen under contract this summer. His lack of concern is impressive, since the lack of the Round Mound of Rebound for most of last season doomed the Thrashers. Lehtonen's wonky groin (and at this point, we should point out that he's run into severe groin problems much earlier in his career than Dominik Hasek -- logic suggests that therefore, he will end up being even better than Hasek in the long run!) really wouldn't be well-served by any sort of holdout, and good lord, the Thrashers certainly wouldn't be well-served by starting the season with the goalie tandem of Johan Hedberg and Fred Brathwaite. Both fine fellows, certainly, but confidence-inspiring? No.

I bitched far-and-wide about the Thrashers' defense being the team's Achilles' heel last season, and, well, it's about the same (minus Jaroslav Modry and his unerring ability to cough up the puck at the blue line on a power play). Niclas Havelid and Greg deVries are both solid. Steve McCarthy looked like he'd finally developed into a real NHLer; if that holds true into the new season, it'll be rainbows and ice cream in Atlanta. But beyond that? Garnet Exelby is a "physical presence," as they say, but not much else. Andy Sutton and Shane Hnidy are there, presumably, to keep the Thrashers from only fielding four defensemen on a given night. The wild card is Braydon Coburn -- he's been touted as a combination of Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Chris Pronger, Winston Churchill and Superman since he was drafted, but had a rather undistinguished season with Chicago last year. The plan seems to be that he'll be ready, come hell or high water, but if not? I'll spend a season complaining about the Thrashers' mistreatment of Kaberle.

(One reason to dream: Spector's has reported that Atlanta may be looking to get Vitaly Vishnevski from the Ducks. Aside from the fact that I'll have to look up the spelling of his name every time I type it, I heartily approve. I wouldn't even mind seeing Sutton go the other way! Everyone would win there, except for the Ducks.)

Finally, up front, where the Thrashers have Ilya Kovalchuk! And Marian Hossa! And ... not really very much else. Oh, boy, is the lack of secondary scoring scary. Marc Savard and Petr Bondra are gone, replaced by Steve Rucchin and ... Jon Sim, I guess? Beyond Kovalchuk, Hossa, Rucchin, and Crazy-Eye Kozlov, there isn't much proven scoring to be found. Niko Kapanen is an upgrade on Patrik Stefan, but no one's going to confuse him with Peter Forsberg. There's a lot of speculation that Alex Bourret is ready to go, but he's yet to play beyond the QMJHL. Beyond the aforementioned guys and Bobby Holik -- who will do what he's always done, and eat up a lot of salary cap space doing it -- the forwards are all players who have yet to really hit their stride at the highest level (Jim Slater, Karl Stewart) or AHL-level talent (Eric Boulton, J.P. Vigier, Glen Metropolit, Jason Krog, Brad Larsen).

Having sounded the alarm bells across the board, I'll go out on a limb and predict the Thrashers will finish second in the Southeast -- that's right, ahead of the Lightning -- and make their first playoff appearance this year. But ultimately, their lack of anything resembling depth will doom them quickly. They're solid on top but light and fluffy underneath. That's great in a Creme Brulee, not so good in a hockey team.

So long as Vishnevski gets time in your top four, you will love the guy. Team him with Exelby and nobody will carry the puck into your zone.

Rucchin, Krog, Havelid, Vishnevski, this is starting to sound a little familiar...

Anyone got Adam Oates' number?
TBAy and Atlanta are eerily similar...great offenses and sucky-ass defenses and goaltending.

Kari's groin problems are very likely never going to go away, unfortunately. His muscles are just shredded and it's not something that can fully heal when he's playing goaltender.

The Thrashees really need to get a Plan B in place since the Kari Era is not likely to bring them much fortune.

As for Modry, that's what happens when you leave your comfort zone for big bucks.
Plan B? Michael Garnett and Johan Hedberg. :\

Actually, you probably know this better than I do, Jes... what about Pavelec? Few years off, obviously, but any indications that he's the real deal?
Pavelec has really risen his stock in the past two years and had a great rookie season with Cape Breton. I'd say he's a good prospect, but goalies take time and are awfully hard to project. He has good height...
Don't forget about Turple. He's going pro this year and had a great junior career with the Rangers.

Brathwaite will probably see time before Garnett will. Regardless, Kari, Hedberg and Brathwaite is a whole lot stronger than Kari, Dunham and Shields.
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