Thu Sep 02 12:51pm EDT
Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...
Last Season (35-34-13; 83 points. Second in the Southeast, 10th in the Conference)
Picture a car made of spare parts and a few quality sparkplugs, sputtering down a long empty highway towards an imposing fork in the road. You just pictured the 2009-10 Atlanta Thrashers.
Superstar Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) was either going to continue as the franchise's cornerstone or test unrestricted free agency, virtually guaranteeing the end of his tenure in Atlanta. He chose the latter, and GM Don Waddell cut the cord with a shoot interview that detailed the 12-year, $101 million contract Kovalchuk rejected from the team (in this economy!?).
Waddell traded Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for forward Niclas Bergfors(notes), defenseman Johnny Oduya(notes), head-case Patrice Cormier(notes) and a first-round pick. An era ended for the Thrashers on the ice; during the summer, another ended in the front office as Waddell finally ceded control of the team to another general manager: Rick Dudley. Coach John Anderson was canned in favor of Craig Ramsay, most recently an assistant coach for the Boston Bruins.
Meanwhile, the Thrashers were competing hard against more talented foes in the conference; watching young players find their stride and challenging for a playoff spot into April.
Finally, the Thrashers reached that fork in the road in the offseason, and turned right ... into Chicago Blackhawks South.
Dudley spent five years in Chicago's front office and knew the Blackhawks' roster well. So when the Stanley Cup champs had to start shedding salary, Atlanta was first in line at the yard sale: Acquiring F/D Dustin Byfuglien(notes), LW Ben Eager(notes), F Akim Aliu(notes) and defenseman Brent Sopel(notes) for two picks, forwards Marty Reasoner(notes) and Joey Crabb(notes), and prospect Jeremy Morin(notes). The Thrashers later completed another trade, snagging forward Andrew Ladd(notes) for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy(notes) and a pick.
Beyond the Blackhawks transfusion, the Thrashers made a significant addition in goal: Former St. Louis Blues keeper Chris Mason(notes), signing a two-year deal and giving Atlanta a solid veteran complement to (and competition for) Ondrej Pavelec(notes). They also inked New Hampshire's own Freddy Meyer(notes) for defensive depth, and acquired Glen Sather's
free-agent mistake Donald Brashear(notes) and Patrick Rissmiller(notes) for Todd White(notes).
Typically, the loss of a team's second-leading scorer would be devastating news. But Maxim Afinogenov's(notes) departure for the KHL was, as are most things with Maxim Afinogenov, a bit of a conundrum. Sure, 61 points are going to be difficult to replace, but what kind of assurance was there that this enigma on skates could hit that figure again?
There was plenty of other turnover, too. Atlanta walked away from forward Clarke MacArthur(notes) after he was given an absurd $2.4 million arbitration win. Colby Armstrong(notes) (Leafs), Johan Hedberg(notes) (Devils) and Pavel Kubina(notes) (Lighting) left as free agents, while dependable center White was traded to the Rangers.
But the biggest subtraction was via a promotion: Waddell to team president, leaving hockey ops to Dudley and giving this franchise a chance to compete.
Wrestler(s) That Best Personifies the Team
In honor of the new general manager, we'd have to go with The Dudley Family. Like the Thrashers, a multi-racial collection of gritty competitors who are treated like a punchline by detractors but can win ugly. Although, admittedly, we've not seen Ron Hainsey(notes) attempt to put someone through a table. Yet.
What's interesting about the Thrash is that their offense didn't exactly screech to a halt post-Kovalchuk. They averaged 2.7 goals per game in March, down only slightly from their season average of 2.77. There aren't many names that are striking fear in the hearts of goalies -- Byfuglien's backside excluded -- but they can hang offensively.
Nik Antropov(notes) led the team with 67 points, including 21 on the power play. After Kovalchuk's departure, he saw action with Bergfors, who had 17 points in 27 games. Fellow rookie Evander Kane(notes) finished with 14 goals, and an injury late in the season cost him more. Center Bryan Little(notes) saw his output drop by nearly 20 points year-to-year, but still contributed 34 points. Rich Peverley(notes), meanwhile, saw his point total jump to 55 in a breakout year.
The additions of Ladd, Eager and Byfuglien give this team savvy veterans with a winning pedigree. If, of course, Byfuglien is a forward.
Big Buff isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut in the regular season, having never broken 20 goals or 40 points. So there's been talk about using him on the blue line, where he saw time in Chicago. If he goes 'D', then he joins an impressive unit for the Thrashers: Tobias Enstrom(notes) (50 points), Ron Hainsey (26 points), Oduya (plus-6 in 27 games), the burgeoning star that's Zach Bogosian(notes) (23 points), Boris Valabik(notes) (6-7, 245) as well as Sopel and Meyer. Andrey Zubarev(notes), rescued from the KHL, plays with an edge.
It felt like the Kari Lehtonen(notes)/Johan Hedberg/Ondrej Pavelec hydra was going to become a permanent fixture in Atlanta, until Kari went to Dallas the Moose signed as Marty Brodeur's mid-game snack fetcher.
Mason and Pavelec could be a very effective tandem, given the latter's ability to take over games when he's on. Mason's reunited with former goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk, who's a cut above the rest in that capacity. Or so we're told.
Match We'd Pay To Watch
Alex Burmistrov is a wonderfully outspoken player taken eighth overall in the 2010 draft. He's also someone that could make this Thrashers team out of camp, bringing some strong skating and offense to the forwards. Also, quotes like this: "Oh, I know Atlanta is hot. I know nickname Hotlanta, yes? I know this."
Bogosian, because he didn't break out when we predicted it last season. He's got the potential to be a great NHL defenseman; better than his 23 points and minus-18 last season, and someone consistently over 20 minutes a night on the ice. But the Thrashers are easing him into the role and, again, this might just be a serviceable year for him. This isn't predicting Bogosian will flop in the NHL; that's inconceivable. But if you're expecting a Drew Doughty(notes)-like conversion, it's probably not this season.
Typically, you're going to find a nifty goal or shootout move here. But there's simply no way to ignore the Mortal Kombat-level finishing move of Evander "KO" Kane in this now-legendary fight against Matt Cooke(notes).
The Thrashers' power play was No. 25 in the NHL last season, with Kovalchuk ending up tied for second on the team in PP points despite playing just 49 games. The addition of Byfuglien, who could still camp in front on the man advantage while playing defense at even strength, could help. So will the continued maturation of players like Kane and Bergfors.
The kill was a different story, as Atlanta was 16th overall (82.2 percent) last season and received a boost with the addition of Oduya (3:58 TOI SH, tops on the team). Sopel was the No. 3 player in SH ice time for the Blackhawks last season on average. Atlanta lost Marty Reasoner, its top forward on the P; Chris Thorburn(notes) will, in theory, be a key killer.
Coach Craig Ramsay is preaching a tenacious style for the Thrash, while associate coach John Torchetti is yet another name from the Blackhawks to migrate south.
2010-11 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C-
Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)
On paper, the Thrashers are improved. On the ice, they'll compete every night. Are they a playoff team? We'd say they're on the same bubble the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes will find themselves on in the Southeast. Chemistry and the ability of some young players (Kane, Bergfors) to bring more offensively will determine whether the Thrash make it back to the postseason for the second time in team history.
Entrance Music: For the ThrashHawks, could it be anything but the tribal beats of Tatanka, the Native American warrior?