Tue Sep 02 11:56am EDT
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: The Atlanta Thrashers were 14th in the Eastern Conference (34-40-8, 76 points), but really had two different seasons: The first six losses, during which the Thrashers were outscored 27-9, that earned Bob Hartley a pink slip; and then an inconsistent tease of a season that kept Atlanta with a faint heartbeat before a disastrous March (4-8-3). Coach Don Waddell handed the bench over to promising newcomer John Anderson from the AHL, so he could better concentrate on mismanaging the franchise into the ground.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Ilya Kovalchuk, winger. Wrap your brain around the fact that he scored 52 goals and 87 points in a lost season with this collection of teammates. He's a beast and an underappreciated one at that, because his team is such a mess. It should be written into the CBA that the Thrashers must have a bonafide No. 1 center playing with him at all times, considering he's already gotten to 52 goals with a player like Marc Savard and last year's pivots like Todd White.
Alas, no veteran No. 1 center this season for Kovalchuk, and Anderson might be stuck experimenting until the offensive chemistry's right. Which means Ilya's going to have more random guys sending passes at him than he would during Happy Hour at the Blue Oyster Bar.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Bryan Little or Erik Christensen, centers. There's a decent chance one of these kids (Little was the Thrashers' first rounder in 2006, Christensen will be 25 this season) could center Kovalchuk this season. Little played for Anderson during the Chicago Wolves' Calder Cup run in the AHL, and Atlanta did a smart job not rushing him in a lost season last spring. Christensen has always had some offensive upside, even if he hasn't shown it in the NHL. He's also headed for RFA status next summer; funny how that can sometimes bring out the best in players, at least statistically.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Holik scored 96 points ... over the course of three seasons with Atlanta. His three-year, $12.75 million contract is over and he's back with the New Jersey Devils after he was stunned to discover the Thrashers no longer needed a 37-year-old fourth-line center getting first-line money. Go figure.
The last "addition by subtraction" is Marian Hossa, whom the Thrashers dealt in what is forever known as "The Angelo Esposito Trade." According to Atlanta forward Eric Perrin, losing a player that scored 248 points over three seasons for the franchise is just what the Thrashers needed:
Everyone has to raise their game when you lose a guy like him and when you lose that many goals, but sometimes it can be a good thing for some guys. There are guys who have an opportunity to elevate their game and they'll get a chance to get in those situations.
Read about that and much more in Eric Perrin's English term paper, "No, I Don't Have Any #%$# Clue How To Replace 248 Points Over Three Seasons."
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): With the additions of players like Brian Campbell, Brian Rolston, Dan Boyle, Pavol Demitra and Antoine Vermette, the Thrashers are certainly poised to challenge for the Stanley .. wait, NONE of them signed?
And in Boyle's case, he actually dropped his no-trade clause when Tampa Bay management threatened to put him on waivers and -- dum, dum, dum! -- with the possibility of being claimed by the Thrashers.
So who did take the money and run to the ATL? Jason Williams did. Marty Reasoner did, giving Atlanta a boost on its kill (27th in the League last season) and on its checking line. And then there was Columbus defenseman Ron Hainsey, whose staggering five-year, $22.5 million UFA contract came with this ringing endorsement from the AJC: "He wasn't the highest-rated defenseman available in free agency, but he might have been the best who would agree to sign with the Thrashers."
Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated has infamously toted Hainsey as one of the year's biggest free-agent busts, sight unseen. (Then again, Muir was for Hainsey before he was against him.) Here's what Hainsey is: A serviceable defenseman that'll be good for 32-38 points. Judge him by his paycheck, and he's a flop. Judge him by his contributions, and he'll be OK.
Of course, the best exchange student might just be a freshman. More on him later.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn led the team in fights last season, with Boulton putting up some impressive wins. He's also a big-time poop disturber, as Nolan Pratt and Jason Pominville can attest:
Teacher of the Year: John Anderson could coach this team to the worst record in NHL history, and he'd still be aces for that interview where he chastised us for never having tasted ice-cold Sleeman's and for threatened to stage a fight with Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau on opening night. That he'll bring an exciting style of play to a franchise that needs some excitement is just a bonus. We also love the addition of Randy Cunneyworth to the bench. There's some real coaching talent behind the scenes in Atlanta.
The Custodians (Goalies): Kari Lehtonen is in the final year of his contract before RFA status; to say it's a critical season for both the goalie and his team is an understatement. The fact is that he's played one season of more than 50 games; he appears to have the skills set of a No. 1 goalie, but hasn't proven during the last three seasons that he is one. Confounding the issue is the presence of blue-chip goaltending prospect Ondrej Pavelec in the system, who is determined to steal Lehtonen's job. Johan Hedberg held the fort during Lehtonen's injuries last season, and will be expected to do the same should the starter miss significant time again. As long as no one tells Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that his nickname is "Moose," causing an unfortunate hunting incident during a GOP campaign stop in Atlanta.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): In another season, Tobias Enstrom would have been a Calder finalist; instead, he'll have to settle for having more points (38) in his rookie season than Jay Bouwmeester or Andrej Meszaros had last year. Regression is not an option for Enstrom. He hit the wall last season in a major way, and can't repeat that in his sophomore campaign.
Niclas Havelid can be a work horse if needed. Garnet Exelby can be a physical presence when he isn't losing his damn mind trying to spear Blake Comeau in the how-do-you-do. Ken Klee is a great guy to have in case anyone needs a traffic cone to learn how to parallel park. We covered Hainsey earlier; the rest of the defense has question marks, including one named Zach Bogosian. Simply put, this kid could be the most talented player drafted in the Top 5 this season. He has that kind of upside. Waddell said the team will carry seven defenseman, and specifically mentioned Bogosian as a possibility. He would give fans a reason to watch, for certain.
Captain of the Cheerleading Squad: Cristina of the Blue Crew has her own "daily blog." Which of course means most NHL teams would not give her a press credential. Hopefully she keeps it up during the season. Looking at the Blue Crew, we know we will.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Todd White wasn't exactly the best signing to begin with, but increasingly it appears that he may not have a primary role in this lineup any longer, assuming the Thrashers want to give the kids up the middle a look and with the addition of Reasoner. Trade bait? Consider White's cap hit ($2.375 million), and it might be tough.
AV Club (Media): JP Dellacamera is a soccer announcer calling hockey, and but we've rather enjoyed Darren Eliot during his occasional stints on Versus. Ben Wright's Blueland Blog is a gold-standard official site blog. Also check out The Falconer, Blueland Chronicle and Fire Wagon Hockey for bloggity goodness.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Kovalchuk is the offense. Looking at the current collection of forwards on the roster, Anderson's going to have more options than Tkachuk at a Chinese buffet. Vyacheslav Kozlov is 36 and his numbers dipped sharply last season; what can you count on from him? Where does Little fit? Or Colby Armstrong? Or Jim Slater, Joe Motzko and Brett Sterling? There are a lot of pieces here. Many of them are underwhelming. Anderson's job is to cobble together somthin' out of seemingly nuthin'.
2007-08 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B-
Prom Theme: "You Don't Own Me" by Leslie Gore. See, there's this dispute between alleged owners of the Thrashers that, when settled, could suddenly and uncomfortably put this team squarely in the relocation conservation. Let's hope not.
Expected Graduation: Anderson had had success leading other minor league teams to championships. But the Thrashers are going to miss the postseason. Pretty badly, we think. The excitement will come in the development of the kids, and whenever Kovalchuk steps on the ice. We can't take our eyes off the guy. Especially when he's dressed like Sonny Crocket in a Russian wedding.