STATE OF THE UNION
This has already been labeled the single most important offseason in the history of Don Waddell's reign as general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Not only hasn't the organization won a playoff game in its nine-season history -- they've qualified just once -- but Waddell and his front-office staff realize if it can't produce a legitimate contender in the final year of star forward Ilya Kovalchuk's contract, the team will likely lose the superstar forward to free agency.
Kovalchuk, who becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, has quietly amassed 557 points in 545 NHL games spanning seven seasons -- all with the Thrashers.
Perhaps that explains why Atlanta was one of the more industrious clubs this summer when it came to wheeling, dealing and inking free agents. It's also a reason Waddell made it a priority to target a multi-faceted forward to pair with Kovalchuk and he believes he did that with the acquisition of 6-foot-6 Nik Antropov.
One of Antropov's assets, in fact, is his ability to play any of the three forward positions, which will certainly provide coach John Anderson plenty of options on the top line.
"With Kubina here, we now feel we have a legitimate top four on defense with (Ron) Hainsey, Kubina, (Zach) Bogosian and (Tobias) Enstrom. We really felt defense was an area we wanted to upgrade and we believe we did that."
-- Atlanta GM Don Waddell
In two seasons in the Russian SuperLeague (1998-99 and 2004-05) with Dynamo, Ak-Bars Kazan and Yaroslavl, Antropov tallied 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) in 66 games. He played with Kovalchuk with Ak-Bars Kazan in 2004-05.
In all, the Thrashers have eight new faces on the roster.
In addition to Antropov, there's forward Anthony Stewart and defensemen Pavel Kubina and Noah Welch. Waddell also re-signed three unrestricted free agents and seven RFAs, including 25-year-old goalie Kari Lehtonen, the team's career leader in games played, wins and shutouts among goalies.
The Thrashers have a core of youngsters ready to produce on a consistent basis, including 21-year-old Bryan Little, Rich Peverley, 27, and the gritty Colby Armstrong, 26. Peverley amassed 35 points in 39 games upon his arrival from Nashville last January.
In addition to adding a top-six forward in Antropov, Waddell set out to add a defenseman with similar multi-faceted traits this offseason. He feels the trade with Toronto that reeled in Kubina filled that void.
"With Kubina here, we now feel we have a legitimate top four on defense with (Ron) Hainsey, Kubina, (Zach) Bogosian and (Tobias) Enstrom," Waddell said. "We really felt defense was an area we wanted to upgrade and we believe we did that."
The Thrashers drafted Bogosian No. 3 in 2008 and, when healthy, the 19-year-old proved his worth as a high selection. Bogosian, who missed 28 games with a broken leg, finished with 9 goals, 19 points, 47 penalty minutes and a plus-11 rating in 47 contests.
"Zach was injured last year and had a bit of a setback but I feel he would have been mentioned a lot more as the League's top rookie if he did play in more games," Dan Marr, Atlanta's director of amateur scouting and player development, told NHL.com. "He was in a zone the last month and a half of the season. He doesn't have an off switch and if he can pick up where he left off, we'll be in real good shape."
Bogosian had 6 goals and 11 points over his final 16 games of the season.
At the Entry Draft in June, Waddell and his staff targeted power forward Evander Kane with the No. 4 pick. Kane, who turned 18 on Aug. 2, is perfectly capable of playing either wing, although he spent most of his time on the left side last season with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League.
Not only did Waddell strike it rich on the ice with the players he acquired this offseason, but he also added Rick Dudley as the team's associate general manager. Dudley will assist in all facets of hockey operations.
The rapid development of a few of the young players -- most notably Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian -- has given the Thrashers high hopes for the future.
"The usual game plan is to have our prospects graduate from the Wolves (American Hockey League) and while we might not have many guys turning pro this season, we're certainly setting ourselves up for that to happen," Dan Marr, Atlanta's director of amateur scouting and player development, told NHL.com. "Our depth has improved within the organization and we've solidified that with this year's draft. We've restocked the shelves well."
Here's a look at the five biggest prospects in Atlanta's pipeline capable of making an NHL impact in the near future:
Evander Kane -- There's no question Kane, signed to a multi-year contract July 20, is out to prove he belongs in the NHL. The Vancouver native has an incredible work ethic and certainly made an impression on the coaches during prospect developmental camp in July. In addition to joining the Thrashers, Kane is also excited about the possibility of playing with former Vancouver Giants teammate and fellow prospect Spencer Machacek.
Angelo Esposito -- Esposito was one of the feel-good stories last season when he earned a roster spot for Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa -- after being cut from the team in three previous tries. He scored 4 points in 6 games, including the game-winning goal in the title game against Sweden. It's still uncertain if Esposito will be ready for the start of training camp in September following reconstructive knee surgery last February, but the former first-round draft pick is a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation.
Daultan Leveille -- The first player ever drafted out of the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League, Leveille was thought to be good enough to play in one of the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League when he was drafted No. 29 by the Thrashers in 2008 as he was a tremendous skater with good offensive instincts. He put on 12 pounds and is in prime condition entering his sophomore year at Michigan State this fall. He could be ready for the big leagues within three seasons.
Paul Postma -- According to Marr, the 2007 seventh-round pick (No. 205) is knocking on the NHL door. The defenseman registered career highs with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League last season with 23 goals and 84 points in 70 games. Postma, who sported a plus-67 rating and won the WHL Plus-Minus Award, was signed to a three-year entry-level contract by the Thrashers last April and will likely begin the season with the AHL's Chicago Wolves.
Riley Holzapfel -- After missing much of 2007-08 with a concussion, the 5-foot-11 center rebounded well last season with 13 goals and 32 points in 73 games with Atlanta's minor-league affiliate in Chicago -- his first full season with the team. Holzapfel is a tremendously skilled two-way forward capable of playing a physical style. He'll likely spend the 2009-10 campaign with Chicago but could be an emergency call-up.
The philosophy in Atlanta during the tenure of General Manager Don Waddell has always been to take the best available player and that mindset didn't change this season.
The Thrashers selected six forwards, two defensemen and one goalie. Their prized selection was No. 4 choice Evander Kane. It wasn't too much of a surprise the Thrashers nabbed a forward with their first-round pick, particularly since the top defensive prospect in the draft, Sweden's Victor Hedman, had been selected two picks earlier by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Here's a breakdown of the nine selections the Thrashers made at Bell Centre in Montreal in June:
Evander Kane -- Kane, who has posted 138 career points and a plus-73 rating in 134 games with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League, will be given every opportunity to make the team in training camp.
"I would have cried if he wasn't there for us to take at No. 4 overall," said Dan Marr, Atlanta's Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development. "He's going to be great player for us. At camp, he led every drill and was the guy who never wanted to finish second in the skates and competed when the pressure was on. He doesn't have a big head and just wants to play and win."
Carl Klingberg -- The 6-foot-3, 205-pound left wing appeared in 35 games for Frolunda Jr. in Sweden last season, recording 13 goals and 26 points. He's regarded as a power-forward who, despite his European upbringing, plays a solid North American game. Klingberg will likely return to Europe next season to improve his conditioning and puck skills.
Jeremy Morin -- Marr admitted Morin, a product of the United States Development Program, possesses "a natural ability that can't be taught." It's the same ability that Marr witnessed in Anaheim's Bobby Ryan at Owen Sound just prior to his being drafted No.2 in 2005 by the Ducks. Morin led the gold-medal winning United States team with 6 goals and tied for first with 10 points in seven games at the 2009 U-18 World Championships.
Edward Pasquale -- The only goalie selected by Atlanta in the draft appeared in 61 games with Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League last season and posted a 32-21-6 record with a 3.02 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He represented Saginaw at the 2009 Top Prospects event and the 2009 Ontario Hockey League All-Star Classic.
Ben Chiarot -- Chiarot is a good skater with great size (6-2, 215 pounds). He played in 67 games with the OHL's Guelph Storm last season, posting 2 goals, 12 points and 111 penalty minutes.
Cody Sol -- The Ontario native spent last season with the Saginaw Spirit. The 6-4, 215-pound defenseman compiled a team-leading 128 penalty minutes and added 2 assists in 8 OHL playoff games.
Jimmy Bubnick -- Selected in the sixth-round pick, Bubnick impressed coaches at the team's prospect camp in July with his goal-scoring ability. The 6-2, 195-pound right wing recorded 25 goals and 57 points in 72 games with Spokane of the WHL last season.
Levko Koper -- The Edmonton native had 59 points in 71 games as a left wing with Spokane of the WHL in 2008-09. He also ranked fourth on the team with 10 points in 12 postseason games, tying for the team lead in power-play goals (2) and finishing second on the team in goals (3).
Jordan Samuels-Thomas -- Known for his great hands and ability to work the puck down low, Samuels-Thomas collected 32 goals and 54 points in 59 games with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League last season. He'll attend Bowling Green University in the fall.