Thrashers just trying to persevere

Ross McKeon

It hasn't commanded national attention like the drama in Phoenix, but the Atlanta Thrashers have their own ownership problems, and it's as much the reason why the team has struggled to find success as any other.

Photo

General manager Don Waddell has managed to assemble only one playoff team in Atlanta.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Readers' Digest version goes something like this: A group of investors going by the name of Atlanta Spirit LLC, which owns and operates the NBA's Atlanta Hawks in addition to the Thrashers and Philips Arena – the building in which both pro teams play – has been feuding since 2005, and there doesn't appear to be any end in sight.

Ongoing court proceedings have suggested finding a way to buy out a disgruntled owner, and apparently there is an ongoing search for new investors. There are also reports the unhappy investor – Steve Belkin – will rejoin the group if everyone finds a way to get along.

So it's possible that new investors would enable the group to restructure ownership and streamline each property, and it's possible the Thrashers could eventually be put up for sale (rumors say they are now, but they've been refuted). It’s also possible, if not probable, that the status quo will go on for an indefinite amount of time.

The Thrashers, and especially their dwindling fan base, have seen that act long enough.

Atlanta has been in the league for nine seasons and qualified for the playoffs just once, in 2006-07, when the Thrashers came out of nowhere to win the Southeast Division. Their initial playoff venture was short, however, as the Rangers swept them. It’s been a pair of fourth-place division, non-playoff finishes ever since.

Normally someone at the top would have to pay the price for this kind of failure, but Don Waddell still occupies the same seat as the team's general manager, a position he’s held since the franchise was born.

Waddell is no Donny-come-lately to the roster-building process. He was an assistant GM when the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997-98, and he enjoyed success as a GM on the minor-league level in San Diego and Orlando. But he made his biggest mark with USA Hockey, first as an assistant GM for the 2004 World Championship and World Cup teams, then as GM of the '05 World Championship and '06 Olympic teams.

Atlanta's payroll is currently the fourth smallest in the league, more than only Nashville, Phoenix and the New York Islanders. Clearly Waddell is working under a tight budget, which goes back to the infighting among the owners. Then again, it's not easy to recruit free agents to the deep south when the prospective help sees the Thrashers so deep in the standings.

Is there a reason to believe it's all going to magically change this season? Well, no, quite frankly, but the Thrashers really don't have any choice but to forge on, hope the number of recent high draft picks develop and impress as quickly as 18-year-old Zack Bogosian did last season and maybe, just maybe, the ownership quarrel will work itself out.

Last season: 35-41-6 (76 points), fourth place in the Southeast, 13th in the Eastern Conference and 27th overall. The Thrashers missed out on the postseason for the second straight year and the eighth time in nine seasons as a franchise. The 76 points is the same number earned in 2007-08, when the Thrashers also finished fourth in the division.

Imports: RW Nik Antropov(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), D Pavel Kubina(notes) (Toronto), D Noah Welch(notes) (Tampa Bay), C Tim Stapleton(notes) (Toronto), C Jason Krog(notes) (Vancouver), C Anthony Stewart(notes) (Florida), LW Josh Gratton(notes) (Philadelphia), D Mike Vernace (Colorado), G Drew MacIntyre(notes) (Vancouver).

Exports: D Garnet Exelby(notes) (Toronto), F Colin Stuart(notes) (Toronto), D Clay Wilson(notes) (Florida), D Brett Skinner(notes) (Colorado).

Re-signings: C Marty Reasoner(notes), D Anssi Salmela(notes), RW Chris Thorburn(notes), D Jim Slater(notes), G Kari Lehtonen(notes), RW Colby Armstrong(notes), D Boris Valabik(notes).

Salary cap: With approximately $44.3 million committed, the Thrashers have plenty of cap space (approx. $14.3M), but what's not known is if Atlanta has a tight budget in place – we're guessing Waddell has been told to be frugal. If the team decides it wants to keep Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), assuming Kovalchuk wants to stay, the franchise better realize it'll need to loosen the purse strings.

Photo

John Anderson hopes to have more to work with during his second year as coach.

(Getty Images)

Three keys: With all eyes on Kari Lehtonen, the annual question, at least lately, is this: Will this be the year? The franchise has been waiting for the 25-year-old to fulfill the expectations heaped upon the promising Finn since he was drafted second overall in 2002. It's been a tough go for Lehtonen, however, as he's been plagued by the injury bug since winning the starting job.

Well, it appears patience is running thin. Lehtonen, signed to a one-year, $3 million deal instead of anything long term, is battling his health again. He needed surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and he may or may not be 100 percent at the outset of camp.

Waddell has already announced it's going to be a four-man competition, with veteran Johan Hedberg(notes) joined by the untested Drew MacIntyre and Ondrej Pavelec(notes) battling Lehtonen. The bottom line: Someone is going to have to emerge to not only play well, but have the right mindset to hang with all the mistakes and shortcomings that come with playing behind a porous defense.

We're not entirely sure it's the right move in terms of building a winner, but getting Kovalchuk signed to a long-term deal – and getting a banner year out of the 26-year-old left wing – is imperative for the fan base. Waddell says he's had constructive talks with Kovalchuk and has high hopes of getting a deal done before the start of training camp.

Kovalchuk, Atlanta's leader in all-time goals and points, is the face of the franchise. He is the team's only legitimate star and gives the Thrashers something to build around.

Third, John Anderson finally got a crack at being a head coach in the NHL last season for the first time after toiling for years in the minors. He was complimented for much of the season for his hard work with the team and his aggressive, offensive approach.

Problem is, the system didn't always fit the roster, or the roster didn't always fit the system. Anderson needs to recognize what will work with what he has, and maybe get a little more help from Waddell to give him what he needs. In any event, Anderson may have to make more out of less.

On the hot seat: Having surrendered 280 goals last season – second most in the league – after allowing a league-worst 272 the year before, the entire Atlanta blue line falls under this category. Waddell looked to bulk up on size on his defense with several of his offseason moves, but the responsibility for improvement falls mainly on the shoulders of Ron Hainsey(notes), Pavel Kubina, Tobias Enstrom(notes) and Bogosian.

Poised to blossom: Zach Bogosian(notes) was among a handful of impressive 18-year-old rookies who successfully made the jump from junior hockey to the NHL last season, but the third overall pick in 2008 was limited to 47 games due to an early season broken leg. He played well in spurts, and he'll certainly get every opportunity to mount up big minutes.

Time has passed: Todd White(notes) had a pretty amazing time last season when you look at just numbers. At the age of 33 and with only one season of more than 50 points scored in the league, White produced 22 goals and a whopping 51 assists for 73 points, or 13 more than his previous career best set in 2002-03 with Ottawa. The journeyman center appeared in all 82 games, too. The Thrashers can thank him for the fine season, but they shouldn't set the bar as high and expect the same kind of numbers again.

Prediction: You'd really like to see reasons for optimism, such as another young crop to help support some of Atlanta's recent success stories (Bogosian, Enstrom), but it's just not obvious. It all goes back to the support, or lack thereof, from the very top of the organization. This might be the one city to watch for a real backlash in terms of a rocky economy. It's a third straight non-playoff season for Atlanta, and there's a very real chance of falling into the basement of the division, conference and possibly the entire league.