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New talent has Thrashers focused on playoff return

Monday, 09.20.2010 / 3:00 AM / 2010-2011 Season Preview

By Brian Hunter - NHL.com Staff Writer

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New talent has Thrashers focused on playoff return
With plenty of new pieces in place throughout the organization, hopes are high for the Atlanta Thrashers to make their first playoff appearance since 2007.
It's easy to forget, but the Atlanta Thrashers are the most recent team to win the Southeast Division before the Washington Capitals started their current run of three straight division titles.

The Thrashers haven't done much since clinching the franchise's only playoff berth in 2007 to keep that memory of success fresh in fans' minds, but they enter the 2010-11 season with fresh blood on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office. With a new regime comes the hope there will be a new beginning for hockey in Atlanta.

When the Thrashers parted ways with Ilya Kovalchuk in January, they were bidding farewell to a superstar who is one of the NHL's top goal scorers and had been the face of the franchise, but also a player who had amassed just four postseason games in his Atlanta career without a victory.

Now, the Thrashers may not possess a 50-goal threat on this season's roster, but new General Manager Rick Dudley has stocked it with players who know how to win come springtime. Forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager and defenseman Brent Sopel all lifted the Stanley Cup in June while playing for the Chicago Blackhawks; Ladd also has a ring from his days with Atlanta's division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes.

Also coming from the Chicago organization is associate coach John Torchetti, who joins the staff of new head coach Craig Ramsay. After leading the Philadelphia Flyers to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final in 2000, Ramsay spent time as an assistant in Tampa Bay and Boston. Ramsay was part of John Tortorella's coaching staff when the Lightning won the Cup in 2004.

Thrashers President Don Waddell, who also served as GM until Dudley was appointed April 14, told NHL.com in June that the time was right to make the trades with the Blackhawks that landed Byfuglien and company.

"We wanted to make our hockey club better and the one nice thing is, over the last few years we've assembled numerous assets. So when you go to try and improve your team, you need assets, and we felt like we had enough assets to move them and not leave the cupboards empty, so the timing was right for that," Waddell said.

"Here's the thing, we've got some really skilled players -- (Niclas) Bergfors, (Bryan) Little, (Rich) Peverley -- but we're still a little small so we wanted to get bigger," Waddell said. "You can do that either through trades, free agency or the draft. The draft takes time and free agency was probably not something for us, so this was an opportunity and we knew that Chicago was in a cap situation, so we wanted to take advantage of that."


 
Atlanta scored 230 goals last season, more than seven teams that did make it to the playoffs. Their attack wasn't compromised badly in the immediate aftermath of the Kovalchuk trade, although it did falter late, as the Thrashers scored just 7 goals during a 1-3-1 finish that left them five points behind the eighth-place Canadiens.

The Thrashers ended the season with four 20-goal scorers on their roster, and hope to have three of them back in the fold. Nik Antropov (24-43-67) led the team in scoring and set a career high in points. As training camp started, he was rounding into form after offseason hip surgery. Rich Peverley (22-33-55), a revelation after being acquired midseason from Nashville in 2008-09, put up his best numbers in all offensive categories. And Bergfors, a key component in the Kovalchuk deal, combined for 21 goals and 44 points between New Jersey and Atlanta.

Byfuglien has yet to score 20 goals in an NHL season, but there are few who would doubt his ability to reach such heights after he put on a show during Chicago's run to the Cup. Byfuglien scored 11 goals in 22 playoff games while displaying the ability to frustrate goalies by setting screens in front and tipping pucks as well as a lethal wrist shot he would let rip from the circles or in the slot.

The only thing that might keep Byfuglien from further developing his offensive potential this season is his versatility -- he's also proven valuable on the blue line, and during an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dudley said it's possible the Thrashers might use him to strengthen their defense.

"It's a position that he likes to play," Dudley said. "It's a position that I thought he was well on his way to being a top, top defenseman in Chicago. We (Chicago) moved him to forward because we had no size up front. Obviously, he proved to be a very effective forward, but that doesn't mean he's not an effective defenseman."

Regardless of whether Byfuglien is part of the group, the Thrashers have an impressive unit of young forwards. Evander Kane (14-12-26) stepped right into the lineup as an 18-year-old after being taken with the fourth pick in the 2009 Entry Draft and more than held his own. Ladd (17-21-38) is still just 24. Bergfors is 23 and Little, who slipped from 31 goals to 13 last season, is 22. Plus, Evander Kane showed well in his rookie season with 14 goals and 12 assists in 66 games.

Prospects who could find themselves in the mix up front include Akim Aliu, a 21-year-old who also comes over from the Blackhawks organization; Patrice Cormier, 20, another component of the Kovalchuk trade; and Alexander Burmistrov, the team's 2010 first-round pick.

Eager, Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn and Eric Boulton provided added depth as role players.



Sopel, a veteran of 588 NHL games, becomes the old man of this unit at age 33. The only other defensemen on the roster who will see age 30 during the upcoming season are free-agent signee Freddy Meyer and stalwart Ron Hainsey.

The ever-steady Tobias Enstrom (6-44-50) led Atlanta defensemen in points last season and headlines a group of 25-and-under talent along the blue line that also includes Zach Bogosian (20), Arturs Kulda (22) and Boris Valabik (24).

Bogosian turned 20 over the summer and the third selection in the 2008 Entry Draft already has compiled 128 games of NHL experience, posting 19 goals and 42 points. Kulda put up a pair of assists and a plus-2 rating in a four-game stint at the end of last season after coming up from the AHL, and Valabik added an element of grit and toughness before a knee injury sidelined him.

Johnny Oduya, the third piece of the haul Atlanta received for Kovalchuk, had a plus-6 rating in 27 games after coming over, a significant statistic for a team that had very few players on the positive side of the plus/minus ledger. Also keep an eye on Andrey Zubarev, a sixth-round pick in 2005 who had been playing in Russia and recently signed his first NHL contract, a multi-year deal.
 

 
Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg made up the goaltending tandem when the Thrashers went to the playoffs, but Lehtonen missed most of last season due to injury and upon being cleared to play was traded to Dallas, while Hedberg left for New Jersey over the summer via free agency.

The new duo in net consists of veteran Chris Mason and youngster Ondrej Pavelec, the latter of whom is a known commodity in Atlanta, having gone 20-28-7 in 61 games over parts of three seasons. Pavelec's unimpressive 3.29 goals-against average and .906 save percentage last season led to Hedberg playing more in the second half of the season, but at 23 he still is developing his game, as are many of the defensemen playing in front of him.

Pavelec may yet be the long-term answer, but if the Thrashers have playoff designs this season, it could be the 34-year-old Mason who helps realize them. He led the Blues there in 2009 and posted a career-best 30 wins last season. Mason became expendable after St. Louis acquired Jaroslav Halak from Montreal, and he will look to prove in Atlanta that he's still a No. 1 goalie who can get the job done.


Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres