NHL Season Preview: Atlanta Thrashers

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Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the extra time off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.

Who's In

Who's Out: Darren Haydar, F (FA-DET); Bobby Holik, C (FA-NJ); Jason Krog, C/W (FA-


VAN); Joel Kwiatkowski, D (FA-Europe); Steve McCarthy, D (FA-Europe); Mark Popovic, D (FA-Europe); Mark Recchi, RW (FA-TB); Alexei Zhitnik, D (FA-Europe)

What's Changed: Not enough.

Atlanta is a team that finished the 2007-08 season 22nd in the League in goals scored (and that was with sixty games of Marian Hossa)... and added Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner up front. The Thrashers gave up the most goals in the League... and added Ron Hainsey (he of the eighth-worst plus-minus among all NHL defensemen over the past two seasons) to the blueline.

But hey, it's not all bad -- the Thrash can feel pretty confident that they're near the front of the line when it comes to picking up other teams' trash. Time to plan the parade, eh?

The Thrashers offense begins and nearly ends with Ilya Kovalchuk, who somehow potted 52 goals last season despite having Mark Recchi and Todd White as his most frequent even strength linemates. Kovalchuk also led the Thrashers in assists and just about every other category that didn't require him to visit the defensive zone (Kovy has the fifth-worst plus-minus rating in the NHL since he came into the League in 2001-02, and was minus-12 in 2007-08). It's also worth noting that the superstar sniper had "just" 18 points in 19 games after Hossa was traded, perhaps an ominous sign of things to come.

Just how weak is Kovalchuk's supporting cast? Last season, Slava Kozlov, White, Jason Williams, Eric Perrin, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Bryan Little and Brett Sterling -- who will presumably join Ilya to form Atlanta's top three lines this coming season -- combined for just 87 goals. There's hope for bounce-back seasons from Kozlov and White and the emergence of Christensen, Little and Sterling (who put up, um, sterling numbers in the minors), but even if it all comes together, the ceiling on Atlanta's offense isn't all that high for the near future.

And as bad as the Thrashers offense is likely to be, the collection of blueliners could be worse (General Sherman faced tougher Atlanta defenses), though with a better long-range forecast. Hainsey and sophomore Tobias Enstrom are both good puck movers (though the former has had consistency problems throughout his career and the latter ran out of gas after around 60 games in his first NHL season); Niclas Havelid and Ken Klee can eat some minutes, but each is on the wrong side of 35-years-old; and Garnet Exelby is a rugged rearguard who will at some point be replaced by Boris Valabik. But the gem of the group is Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in this past summer's draft, a Rob Blake type who will be given every chance to make the team and play as many minutes as he can handle. The bottom line, however, is that the defensemen named in this paragraph combined to have a minus-38 rating in the NHL last season (though minus-21 of it was Exelby's), and may get a little worse before they get better, which doesn't bode terribly well for Atlanta's goaltenders.

Speaking of Atlanta's goaltenders, Kari Lehtonen, is coming off yet another injury-plagued season, albeit one in which he posted a very solid .916 save percentage. He'll be backed up once again by Johan Hedberg, who somehow at 35-years-old turned the League's worst GAA into a 2-year/$2.15 million contract. Looming over the whole goaltending situation, however, will be the presence (literally or figuratively) of top prospect Ondrej Pavalec, who led the John Anderson-coached Chicago Wolves of the AHL to last year's Calder Cup title.

And speaking of John Anderson, he's now the head coach in Atlanta, where they hope to catch a little of that Bruce Boudreau magic, however unlikely that may be. But Anderson has won at lower levels (four times, in fact), and is the kind of hire that sends the right message about the state of the franchise and its rebuild. And heck, before coaching a single NHL game, he's got a better career winning percentage than one coach in the division.

Who's On The Hook: Don Waddell must be on the fifteenth or sixteenth of his nine lives as Thrashers General Manager, and Bill Tiller recently lamented some of Wads' greatest misses and the fact that he's still employed:

[L]ogic would dictate that someone who has been the sole general manager of a franchise that over 8 seasons has made the playoffs but one time...has yet to win a playoff game...has had to fire two coaches that he has hired...who just last season watched five years of measurable progress wipe away...who watched prolific scorer Marian Hossa refuse to re-sign because he was convinced the team was not heading in the right direction...who was unable to lure in the talent of Brian Campbell even though he offered more money than the team which did sign him...who's franchise that was built primarily on his decisions was pretty much b-slapped by Dan Boyle when he capitulated and waived the No Trade Clause of his contract for fear he could be waived and picked up by that team...yes, logic would dictate that such a GM would indeed be on a short leash.

However, logic and Thrashers' ownership, at least in regards to hockey, do not always dance cheek to cheek.

Such, perhaps, is life in George W. Bush's America -- Don Waddell is doing a heck of a job and is apparently GM for Life in Atlanta.

Which leaves us with the man who is truly on the hook, Kari Lehtonen. The former number two overall pick in 2002 has only played more than 48 games in a season once and is coming off the first losing campaign of his career. He'll make $3 million this coming season before possibly heading to Restricted Free Agency. With Pavelec waiting in the wings, will Atlanta pony up the big bucks to keep Kari or move him for more help in their rebuild and double down on Ondrej? We should know by New Year's Day.

Where They'll Finish: Since "the AHL" isn't really an option here, fifth in the Southeast Division and easily in the John Tavares Draft Lottery is the answer.

Blogs To Watch: Blueland Blog, Thrashers Blog (AJC), The Ice Man Bloggeth (AJC), Do The Thrashers Have Long Blog Names Large Talons, Fire Wagon Hockey, The Blueland Chronicle, The Thrashers 411.

Gratuitous YouTube Embed: Whether or not the Thrashers are competetive, they're worth watching on any given night. Here are ten reasons (which is really just one reason) why:

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