In a lot of ways, the Atlanta Thrashers are starting all over again. The nine-year-old franchise has missed out on the playoffs during seven of its first eight seasons.
Last year the Thrashers held false expectations, born from finally reaching the postseason for the first time the previous spring, only to get summarily shuttled out in the first round by the New York Rangers. The dark cloud carried into the outset of last season, and after Atlanta lost the first six games coach Bob Hartley was fired.
And it never got any better.
General manager Don Waddell went behind the bench and didn't hire a full-time replacement until promoting top minor-affiliate coach John Anderson from the Chicago Wolves in the offseason. That was a lot of time spent trying to do two jobs with a franchise that needed change.
The team surrendered the most goals in the league last year, was atrocious on special teams and slipped to 28th in the overall standings. It has abandoned the mix of young and old and pretty much is starting with a new youth movement. One might suggest the five-year plan has begun, but it's hard to fathom Waddell has that much more time to wade in mediocrity, or less.
So it is with the 51-year-old Anderson, who waited 13 years in the minors to get a crack at an NHL head coaching job, that Atlanta starts anew. Anderson spent the last 11 years with the Chicago Wolves, who made the playoffs during all but one of those seasons and won the league title four times, including last year.
Anderson impressed Waddell with his ability to adapt during games if things were not working. The other big plus in Anderson is that he's well-liked by his players, something that sorely was missing during the Hartley regime.
Atlanta will be a young team, and Anderson will want some of his Chicago players to earn a promotion. Still, the future of the franchise appears to rest in the hands of the top three players at forward, defense and in goal – Ilya Kovalchuk, Tobias Enstrom and Kari Lehtonen, respectively.
Kovalchuk, the dynamic scorer with 52 goals last season and 38 more points than the next closest Thrasher, is 25 years old with 466 career games already under his belt. Enstrom, a 23-year-old Swedish gem, emerged as an eighth-round selection last season to log 24 minutes, 28 seconds per game and caught the eye of many around the league. Lehtonen has been designated as the team's goalie for years to come since he was selected No. 2 overall in 2002, but injury and inconsistent play have created questions as to exactly which way he'll go.
Last season: 34-40-8, 76 points, fourth place Southeast Division. Finished 28th overall, ahead of only Los Angeles and Tampa Bay in the overall standings. Missed the playoffs for seventh time in eight seasons of franchise history.
Imports: D Ron Hainsey (2007-08 team: Columbus Blue Jackets), C Jason Williams (Chicago Blackhawks), C Marty Reasoner (Edmonton Oilers), RW Junior Lessard (Tampa Bay Lightning), C Grant Stevenson (Calgary Flames), RW Mike Hoffman (Anaheim Ducks).
Three keys to the season: First off, Kovalchuk has to be the man on and off the ice for the Thrashers. And Atlanta is going to have to give its best player support and award him with the captaincy. No one questions Kovalchuk's importance to the team. Unless beset by injury, he will lead the team in scoring by a mile again. But just as important, he must continue to mature and be the face of the franchise. He doesn't embarrass himself celebrating goals like he did early in his career any more. He looks like he now could be the leader of this team, and that's one of the first steps the Thrashers need to take to earn respect.
Second, Lehtonen needs to have a big season. Now there's a Catch-22 here. Some might be disappointed in the time it's taking the 24-year-old, selected behind Columbus' Rick Nash in 2002, to establish himself as a bona fide star goaltender, let along reach the potential that such a high pick demands. The question is whether the Thrashers have set him up to fail as opposed to succeed thus far. Lehtonen has missed time due to injury, which has been disappointing, but he has backstopped very poor defensive teams, so how can you really judge his development?
Third, goals-against and special teams must improve. Atlanta's 272 goals allowed were most in the league. The special teams weren't special – the power play ranked 23rd in the league and penalty kill was only 27th. Really, there's nowhere to go but up. Some of the offseason moves were aimed to improve special teams, as players with specific roles were brought on board. But it won't work unless the team commits itself to playing defense, a seemingly foreign concept in the Southeast Division.
On the hot seat: Waddell is the only GM the franchise has employed. He's a smart, personable, respected and a well-connected figure in the league and with USA Hockey. The question is whether the Thrashers are heading in the right direction.
Waddell got off easy when he made a number of deadline deals that handicapped the long-term success of the franchise for a short-term gain – a first-ever playoff appearance. But considering Atlanta didn't win a playoff game it's hard to rationalize that two home dates and the extra revenue earned was worth losing draft picks for the future.
Anderson is the fourth head coach he has hired, so he has been allowed three strikes in that department already. Kovalchuk has this and next season left on his contract, and Lehtonen was signed to only a one-year deal in the offseason, a rather interesting decision as well. It would appear Waddell is on a short leash.
Poised to blossom: C Erik Christensen came over from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline and figures to see first-line duty. At 6 feet, 1 inch and 208 pounds, the 24-year-old is poised to take advantage of having Kovalchuk on a wing and get more than the 12:36 of average ice time he received in Pittsburgh playing behind all the Penguins' young stud centers, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Analysis and prediction: Normally with a coaching change and the hint of a team going young it would be easy to suggest the Thrashers will take a step backward before moving forward. But there isn't much room to step back, and this is exactly what the franchise needed – change. Couple that with the fact that fellow Southeast Division rivals Tampa Bay and Florida have undergone major change, and it's probably more accurate to suggest Atlanta could be in the thick of a race with Carolina for second place behind Washington, and with second place could go the eighth and final playoff spot. Look for the Thrashers to be better than last year but probably still a step or two behind to reach the playoffs.