NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Thirteenth in the Eastern Conference (35-41-6, 76 points) and fourth in the Southeast Division under first-year Coach John Anderson; proving that not every coach who makes the AHL/NHL leap is immediately Boudreauvian. (See also Gordon, Scott.)
The Thrash did find their wings as the season wore on, going 12-7 down the stretch thanks in part to a healthy Kari Lehtonen(notes) (3.06 GAA, .911 save percentage), who was limited to 44 starts due to injury after starting only 45 games in his previous injury-shortened season.
Also experiencing a turnaround: Winger Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), who quieted a flurry of stories about his early-season slump en route to a 43-goal, 91-point campaign. With the offensive hiccup out of the way, things returned to normal for Kovalchuk ... normal in this case being a steady diet of trade rumors, tenuous links to KHL interest and doomsday prophecies for the franchise should he reach unrestricted free agency next summer.
Oh, and the Thrashers also unleashed the single worst third jersey in recent NHL history on an unsuspecting public, looking like an arena football team caught in a tragic accident at the Crayola factory.
Nik Antropov(notes), who at 6-foot-6 is taller than five of the Atlanta Hawks' players, inked a four-year, $16-million deal (he'll be 32 at the end of it) after spending last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers. If he can stay healthy, you know what you're going to get: Between 45-55 points, just under 30 goals and the versatility to play all three forward spots, which gives Anderson plenty of line options during one of Nik's inevitable disappearing acts.
The other significant addition was another ex-Leaf: Defenseman Pavel Kubina(notes), who was traded by Toronto with forward Tim Stapleton(notes) for D-man Garnet Exelby(notes) and forward Colin Stuart(notes). Kubina has 746 NHL games to his credit, and one year left on his contract. Considering the Thrashers were 29th in goals allowed and 29th on the penalty kill, Kubina should help; then again, the only reason Atlanta avoided the basement in both of those categories was the futility of Kubina's former defense corps.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Exelby was the most significant loss; not only because he was a physical defenseman who led the team with 151 hits in 59 games played, but because Thrashers superfan "Gretchelby" will sadly have to refocus her efforts on arena signage.
It wasn't the easiest ride for Kovalchuk, but he ended up averaging 2.61 points for every 60 minutes played and his tear through February and March (37 points) was extraordinary.
He continues to put up all-star numbers without the benefit of all-star talent around him; Kovalchuk's primary linemates last year were guys like Bryan Little(notes) (31-20-51), Todd White(notes) (22-51-73, Marty Reasoner(notes) (14-16-30, and a nice resigning this summer) and Jason Williams(notes) (7-11-18 before being traded to Columbus, now with Detroit). Like any great player, Kovalchuk elevates his linemates: Little averaged 1.43 goals-every-20-minutes with Kovalchuck and 0.91 without him.
Turning young Bryan Little into a 30-goal scorer ... brokering the Malkin/Ovechkin peace accord ... is there anything this guy can't do?
Introducing .... (Potential Breakout Player): While fellow rookie defenseman Drew Doughty(notes) was eating up ice time with the Los Angeles Kings, Zach Bogosian(notes) was suffering growing pains when he wasn't suffering through a broken leg eight games into the season. But by the end of 2008-09, Bogosian was playing over 20 minutes a game consistently and showing some of the offensive flourish (19 points) that had him taken No. 3 overall in 2008. Rory Boylen of The Hockey News pegs Bogosian for a breakout year, and it's hard to disagree. Just try to steer clear of Donald Brashear, kid.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Bogosian spent a good portion of his rookie season paired with Tobias Enstrom(notes) (5-27-32), who led the Thrash in average ice time (23:31) while playing to a plus-14 -- a revelation on the blue line.
Kubina could see time with Ron Hainsey(notes), who turned catcalls of "who the hell is Ron Hainsey and why did he get that rich?" into a career year of 39 points, including 18 on the power play. Even though his name is, in fact, nickname proof.
Free-agent defenseman Noah Welch(notes) arrived after stops in Tampa and Florida, and before he'll donate his brain to science. Nathan Oystrick(notes) (15:44 TOI last season) will be in the mix. Boris Valabik(notes) played primarily with Hainsey last season; he's a scrappy player, especially when things get testy with opponents.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): GM Don Waddell says that Lehtonen is progressing after off-season back surgery, which would be great news if not for the chronic groin issues that have dogged him over the last few seasons. Atlanta has Johan Hedberg(notes), Ondrej Pavelec(notes) and offseason addition Drew MacIntyre(notes) under contract, too. Which is to say that Lehtonen better stay healthy if this team wants to make a playoff push -- no disrespect to still-could-be-something Pavelec intended.
The Inventor (The Coach): We interviewed John Anderson when he landed the gig and were immediately impressed with his demeanor, philosophy and love of beer. He started getting the players to really buy in at the end of his rookie campaign, and the results were impressive. It's a critical year for this franchise, for a lot of reasons; having gone through a year of adversity and ended it strongly puts Anderson on the right path here. If nothing else, the Thrash should have a much better start than last season (2-6-2 ... yuck).
And Now, a Short Message From Eric Boulton:
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: C+ (On paper; they play better than that grade.)
Special Teams: C (Kubina should help both the kill and the power play)
Management: D+ (Until proven otherwise.)
"I look for the Thrashers to avoid the type of slow start that plagued them the past two seasons. With so many returning cast members from the team that played so well last spring, I think they'll avoid the 'getting to know you' phase this fall."
"If certain variables turn out in our favor -- if Kovalchuk signs, if the likes of Rich Peverley(notes) and Slava Kozlov(notes) continue to play well, if Kari Lehtonen avoids violent harm--the Thrashers could have an interesting, respectable season. If they don't, at least there will be a break-out year for Zach Bogosian, a heap of goals from Bryan Little, and Nik Antropov bobble-heads for all."
"It's all about chemistry, baby. Going into the 08-09 season the Thrashers had what looked to be a pretty impressive D-corps, but Atlanta still managed an average shot differential of -4.6 shots/game. Will the additions of Kubina and Antropov be this year's Rich Peverley or Jason Williams? Even for an unabashed homer, it's tough to say. If they gel, these Thrashers are playoff-bound. If not, another sad good-bye as Kovalchuk flies the coop."
"Few significant moves have been made thusfar, and the team is still well below the salary cap. It's up to the players to stop depending on management to provide them with the support and starpower they need, and to find their heart, their drive, and renew their love of the game. There are too many ‘If' factors to truly determine how the team will do this season, but expect them to hit the ice with something to prove -- to the league, to management, to the fans, and to themselves."
Don Draper Says ...
"Atlanta isn't just a hockey team; it's the smell of sweet tea on ice permeating the humid air on a summer afternoon in Savannah, or a child laughing as she chases after a thrasher in front of the family plantation. Gentlemen: You're not selling one goal-scoring Red and 19 other people no one's ever heard of ... you're selling what it means to be alive."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Can Lehtonen stay healthy? Can Kovalchuk just sign his long-term extension already ... or is he going to be the biggest trade deadline derby in recent memory? Can this team find the secondary scoring it needs from players like Rich Peverley (13-22-35), Slava Kozlov (26-50-76), Colby Armstrong(notes) (22-18-40) and Todd White, who had a quietly outstanding season (22-51-73)? Can first-rounder Evander Kane(notes) and/or Angelo Esposito(notes) make an impact this season?
Oh, and while we're at it: Who the hell is going to own this team?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): Sadly, out of the money again. There's a hint of promise here that the Thrashers could be that Southeast team that makes the No. 8 seed a nail-biter (like Florida last season), but ultimately there isn't enough here to expect they'll make the cut. Kovalchuk will be outstanding again, the young players will get better and the hockey will be exciting. Enjoy it, Thrashers fans, and wait it out one more season.