I hope you're all as excited about the upcoming Panthers' season as I am. My partner Denis Potvin will be writing a blog about all the off season moves made by the Panthers while I break down the moves made by the rest of the Southeast Division teams.
Before my first Southeast Division installment on the Atlanta Thrashers, let me just say that the 06-07 Panthers team that will hit the ice on October 6th vs. Boston has the most depth of talent at each position that we've seen in South Florida since those memorable playoff teams of the mid-nineties!
But, as excited as we might be about the prospects of this coming season, we have to realize that the Southeast Division (nicknamed the SouthLeast Division not long ago) has become extremely competitive. Success on the ice has led to stability as well: all five head coaches in the SE will be back (5 of the other 10 Eastern Conference teams will have new head coaches when the season opens in October!) The last two Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay & Carolina) are division rivals of the Panthers. Some of the best young talent in the game will face the Panthers in their 32 division games this season (Ovechkin, Staal, Kovalchuk just to name a few) as well as veteran superstars like Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, Brind'Amour, Hossa and Kolzig .
Here's a look at the Atlanta Thrashers
2005-06 Record: 41-33-8, 90 pts (T-9th in East) 2 points out of the final playoff spot
First 10 games: used 5 different goalies due to injuries that began with Kari Lehtonen's abdominal injury on opening night vs. the Panthers
Last 10 games: went 6-2-2, but fell just short of the first playoff berth in franchise history
Strength: In a word....scoring. Only Ottawa and Carolina scored more goals among Eastern Conference teams than the Thrashers. The offensive talent that the Thrashers can throw out on the ice for a power play (or anytime they need a goal) is scary.
Weakness: Overall defensive/positional play. Only Washington, Pittsburgh and the Islanders gave up more goals in the East. In fairness to the Thrashers, it's hard to completely judge their goals against when they had so many injuries in goal. But, they did have too many guys that were looking to go on the offense before business was taken care of in their own end.
Off season moves
The Thrashers lost the dangerous Marc Savard who signed as a FA with Boston. They replaced him with solid two-way center Steve Rucchin. He may be a perfect complement to play with wingers like Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa.
Veteran forward Peter Bondra was not re-signed and is yet to sign with another team (maybe back to the Caps?).
Center Patrik Stefan and defenseman Jaroslav Modry were dealt to Dallas for forward Nikko Kapanen. This was probably a salary move, but Stefan has never lived up to his "first overall pick" status due to injuries.
Like the Panthers, the Thrashers have tried to add depth to their roster, particularly in goal. Veteran goalies Fred Brathwaite and Johan Hedberg will battle for the backup spot to #1 goalie Kari Lehtonen. Former Panther Jon Sim was signed and he has a shot at a spot on one of the top two lines. Atlanta also added veterans Jason Krog and Glen Metopolit to compete for spots on the 3rd or 4th lines.
The Thrashers have many of the elements to be successful in the new NHL (can we still call it that after a full season?). Ilya Kovalchk, Slava Kozlov, Marian Hossa and Bobby Holik along with Rucchin, Kapanen and young Jim Slater up front give the Thrashers a potent attack. Atlanta's defensive corps is not overly impressive, but if Lehtonen stays healthy, Coach Bob Hartley will again have a squad that can light it up on any night against any opponent. Thrashers' TV analyst Darren Eliot points out that with Rucchin, Kapanen and Holik down the middle, Atlanta should be harder to play against on a nightly basis. Former Panther Scott Mellanby, who appeared headed to retirement, signed for one more year. Perhaps he feels the Thrashers can make their first playoff appearance and he wants to be the captain to lead them there.
NEXT WEEK: WASHINGTON