The Big Four
Atlanta lost defensemen Andy Sutton, Shane Hnidy and Greg de Vries to free agency this summer and signed free agents Karel Pilar, Ken Klee and Joel Kwiatkowski, perhaps signaling that the remaining "Big Four" -- Alexei Zhitnik, Niclas Havelid, Steve McCarthy and Garnet Exelby -- may not be the blueliners who see the most ice time. Zhitnik came late in the season via a trade with Philadelphia. He played earlier in the season with the New York Islanders. Zhitnik, 34, may have lost a step, but his 38 points were the highest for him since he had 45 points with the Buffalo Sabres in 1997-98.
Havelid led the Thrashers with an average of 25:16 minutes on ice per game, 15th-best in the NHL. His 225 blocked shots topped the Thrashers and ranked third in the NHL. If anyone has a safe position on Atlanta's blue line, it's probably Havelid. McCarthy struggled with shoulder problems in his first full season with Atlanta after being acquired at the trading deadline the previous season. He was projected as an offensive defenseman with the ability to quarterback a power play when he came out of the WHL in 2000, but that hasn't happened yet in his NHL career. He has 16 goals and 48 points and is minus-11 in 247 NHL games. It's fair to say Atlanta wants to see McCarthy fulfill his potential this season. Exelby played only 58 games last season due to a midseason bout with mononucleosis. The Thrashers won at a 60 percent rate with Exelby in the lineup and were 7-1-1 when he added a point. Exelby is a hard checker who defends well. The Thrashers need him to take another step forward this season and there's reason to believe he can.
Get the point
Alexei Zhitnik has the job of directing the first power-play unit and the second unit responsibilities may fall to McCarthy. If he can't generate offense, the Thrashers may turn to Pilar, who played only 10 games for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies last season after missing the previous season with a heart ailment. If Tobias Enstrom makes the Thrashers, he'll probably be eased into this role because that's what he does best.
In the Wings
Tobias Enstrom -- He turned down an offer to try out for the Thrashers last season, choosing to return for another year with MoDo. That worked as they won the Swedish Elite League title. Enstrom is a former SEL rookie of the year. He's an undersized Swedish defenseman who moves the puck well and has a good shot and other offensive skills.
Boris Valabik --The former draftee is coming off three seasons with the Chicago Wolves. Valabik is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound and growing stay-at-home defenseman with a mean streak. He can intimidate opposing forwards and that's an element the Thrashers need.
Grant Lewis -- He played four seasons for Dartmouth where he had good offensive numbers and built a reputation as a responsible defender in his own end.
Nathan Oystrik -- Went from Northern Michigan, where the was CCHA defenseman of the year in 2005-06, to the AHL All-Rookie Team and AHL Second All-Star Team last year with the Chicago Wolves. Oystrick is definitely on track for an NHL career. The question is whether he needs another year of seasoning.
Chad Denny -- Was in Atlanta's training camp last year and then returned for a fourth season with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, where he had 17 goals and 65 points and was plus-33. Denny (500K ) is another prospect expected to become a mainstay on Atlanta's blue line
Boris Valabik --He adds a dimension that the Thrashers don't have and definitely need. The Thrashers were a division winner whose goalie saw the fourth-highest number of shots in the NHL last season while posting an excellent save percentage, but so-so goals-against average. Translated, that means the goalie needs more support. Valabik will make forwards a little less confident in Atlanta's zone, hopefully a whole lot less confident.