THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
Since the Thrashers ended the 2003-04 season by missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year, GM Don Waddell has turned this franchise inside out systematically. The stars seem perfectly aligned for the Thrashers to not only make the playoffs but perhaps make some noise as they try to resurrect the game in a town where many people seemed oblivious to the lockout. The team will have to overcome a few hurdles first.
Offense: Erstwhile superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who tied for the league lead in goals in 2003-04 with 41, is twiddling his thumbs in Russia, waiting for a new contract. Most observers believe Kovalchuk, a restricted free agent, will come to terms, although his representatives have indicated he's perfectly content to play out the season in the Russian elite league.
Even without Kovalchuk, the Thrashers will be loaded for bear. Waddell signed veteran forward Scott Mellanby for character and brought in two-time Cup-winning center Bobby Holik from New York. When troubled team star Dany Heatley asked for a trade, Waddell deftly swapped Heatley and his baggage for established scorer Marian Hossa, who has averaged 38 goals the last four seasons. Veteran defenseman Greg de Vries, who won a Cup with coach Bob Hartley in Colorado in 2001, was also part of the deal. Waddell also inked veteran goal-scorer Peter Bondra, an addition that will give the team two potent scoring lines.
Defense: Although it remains to be seen how much better the revamped defense is, it has to be significantly better than the last crew, which gave up 243 goals in 2003-04, 25th in the NHL. The Thrashers have been at or near the bottom in goals allowed since their arrival in the league. Waddell added some depth on defense by signing Jaroslav Modry away from Los Angeles and acquiring Niclas Havelid from Anaheim.
Goaltending: Top prospect Kari Lehtonen, a young man expected to lead this team to its first playoff berth in his first season as an NHL starter, has been nursing a groin injury through most of training camp. The injury prompted demanding coach Hartley to question Lehtonen's dedication to training. If Lehtonen can't carry the workload Hartley would like, Mike Dunham is more than adequate as a backup and certainly has much to prove after a disastrous turn with the Rangers (which player traded to the Rangers doesn't end up having a disastrous turn there?).
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES Waddell has brought in players who know how to win, a quality missing on this franchise. Lehtonen, assuming he gets over his groin problem, is the real deal. Scouts insist he will be an elite NHL goalie quickly, fixing another glaring team weakness.
BUT If Lehtonen bombs or can't answer the bell physically, the team's chances for success diminish dramatically. If Kovalchuk misses significant time, the team's chemistry will take a hit.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Six-foot-5 Braydon Coburn, picked 8th overall in the 2003 draft, is expected to be among the Thrashers' top six defensemen as a rookie. Expectations are high.
Hartley enters his third season as coach and will demand only the best from his team, with or without Kovalchuk. Hartley will have to keep the team's chemistry positive despite some possible distractions.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> SEPARATE WAYS
Trading Heatley for Hossa (left). Not only do the Thrashers get the best player (as of right now) out of the deal but they avoid a potentially messy problem with Heatley if he can't get his career back on track. Hossa is a top-five league scorer who should love Hartley's attack-oriented game plan.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> GREAT WEIGHT
Allowing Kovalchuk to go unsigned into the last part of training camp makes no sense. At best, he misses most of camp and takes two or three weeks to get into the NHL flow. At worst, he misses part or all of the season, undoing much of the good done in other areas.
Kovalchuk did it all in 2003-04, leading the team with 41 goals (tied for league lead) and 46 assists.
Pasi Nurminen, G
Nurminen struggled, but it wasn't all his fault. He posted a 25-30-7 record in 2003-04.
“You have to think out
there because as soon as you get your stick up or get your arm out, you're going to be sitting in the [penalty] box.”
— Bob Hartley on the NHL's new rules