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Thrashers unable to build on first playoff berth

by Robert Picarello

Rookie defensemanTobias Enstrom was a bright spot, scoring 38 points and becoming a stabilizing factor on the blueline for a Thrashers team that missed the playoffs by 18 points.
CHECK out Tobias Enstrom highlights
The Atlanta Thrashers ended the 2007-08 season the same way they ended the 2006-07 campaign — still in search of the team's first playoff victory. But at least the '06-07 squad qualified for the postseason. This year's club didn't even come close.

After finishing first in the Southeast last season, the Thrashers wound up fourth in their division in 2007-08 with a 34-40-8 record, the second-worst in the Eastern Conference and the third-worst in the NHL. The club started out by losing its first six games, which wound up costing coach Bob Hartley his job. GM Don Waddell took over behind the bench, but the team never really recovered from the poor start. Waddell will stay in the front office in 2008-09 and has hired John Anderson, the longtime coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, as their new coach.

At season's end, Atlanta's leading goal-scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, who was chosen first overall by the Thrashers at the 2001 Draft, voiced his displeasure to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, hoping there would be changes made in the offseason that would put the club back in the playoff picture next season.

"It's six years here now and nothing really changed," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully we can do some moves this summer."

Kovalchuk's moves enabled him to score 52 goals this season, tying his own franchise record set in 2005-06. The 25-year has scored at least 40 goals in each of the last four seasons, making him the only current NHL player to accomplish that feat. Kovalchuk ended the season with 87 points in 79 games, picking up a team-leading 21 goals and 43 points against the Southeast Division.

Ageless wonder Mark Recchi and first-year defenseman Tobias Enstrom also were bright spots for Atlanta. Recchi, who was claimed on waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins in December, had 12 goals and 40 points in 53 games for the Thrashers, with 19 of those points coming on the power play.

Enstrom not only appeared in all 82 games for the Thrashers as a rookie, he also finished as the club's top scoring defenseman. The 23-year old registered 38 points on five goals and 33 assists. The Calder Trophy candidate's points total led all rookie defensemen and ranked second among all first-year Eastern Conference players, while his average ice time of 24:28 per game led all rookies. Enstrom's 33 assists set a franchise single-season record for defensemen, breaking Jaroslav Modry's mark of 31 set in 2005-06.

Even though Marian Hossa finished the season trying to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Cup, the 29-year old picked up 56 points for Atlanta before being traded, enough to finish second on the team in scoring. While on the Thrashers, Hossa netted 26 goals and 30 assists in 60 games, with 26 points coming on the power play and two coming shorthanded. He also had four game-winners. The Thrashers hope the players they received for Hossa, Eric Christensen and Colby Armstrong, as well as former first-round pick Angelo Esposito, will become contributors, even if none of them appears to have Hossa's skill level.

First-year Thrasher Eric Perrin finished third on the team in scoring, recording career highs in assists (33) and points (45). Perrin finished one goal shy of his career best of 13, set with the Tampa Bay Lightning during 2006-07. In his first season with the Thrashers, Perrin set the franchise record for the most shorthand points in one season, netting 10 points off two goals and eight assists. His eight shorthanded assists were a franchise mark.

Two players who didn't set any marks last season in Atlanta were Slava Kozlov and Todd White. Even though the talented forwards finished fourth and sixth, respectively, on the team in scoring, neither produced to his potential. After compiling 50 or more points in his previous four seasons — with 70 or more points in three of the four — Kozlov finished '07-08 campaign with a mere 41 points. The 36-year old ended up with 39 fewer points and 11 fewer goals than the previous season.

White, a center, was a free-agent bust for the Thrashers. He managed only 14 goals and 37 points in 74 games last season — eight assists and seven points off his previous year's marks. Atlanta was hoping the 33-year old could turn back the clock to the 2002-03 campaign, when White posted 60 points off 25 goals and 35 assists for the Ottawa Senators. But White didn't meet the club's expectations.

Nor did Atlanta's defense, which surrendered a League-high 272 goals and allowed 33.9 shots per game, the worst showing in the NHL. Veteran Niclas Havelid was the only Atlanta blueliner to finish with a plus rating during the season, ending at plus-2. The rest of the Thrashers' defensemen finished a combined minus-73, with Steve McCarthy and Garnet Exelby bringing up the rear at minus-23 and minus-21 respectively.

More help from the blue line would be a big benefit to goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg, who struggled under the fusillade of shots they faced — going a combined 31-37-8 after leading the Thrashers to 43 wins and a playoff berth in 2006-07. The goaltenders appeared to wear down as the season went on, as the Thrashers posted a 5-9-3 record in their final 17 games. They can't be expected to face the same kind of barrage in 2008-09 if the Thrashers hope to get back to the Playoffs.


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