Gross Misconduct Hockey Thoughts from a drifter on the hockey landscape

09/25/2008

Thanks For Playing – Part 1: Atlanta

I’m convinced that there’s no better a way to bore you, the mostly anonymous Internet audience, than by doing the same old schtick this time of year: Season previews. Sure, it’s a nice, cheap way to get a few blurbs in either praising your favorite people on a team you think is going to rock everyone’s face off or pile on the cheap shots.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for cutting analysis and cheap shots just the same, but I’d rather do something that you’re probably not going to get too bored with reading here.
Everywhere you go you’re going to get praise about the Detroit Red Wings. Why not? They picked up one of the nastiest scorers in the league and added him to a team that already won the Stanley Cup last season with virtually the same roster. It just makes sense.
You’ll get a lot of fun talk about the Penguins and Capitals because of their array of talent as well as having their own versions of the new Hockey Jesus on their rosters. Big superstars mean lots of press.
It’s science.
What’s more fun here is to tell those of you out there that you can just give it up right now and not even bother to watch any games this year because it’s only going to go poorly.
Starting today, I’m ending five seasons before they’ve even started.
The next week will be littered with descriptions of these teams and today, where better to start than the city where they once had a team that did so poorly that they moved to Canada to be successful!
Imagine that sort of world where retreating to Canada is made acceptable! Things sure were different in the early ’80s! We go to Ted Turner Land – the city of Atlanta where professional sports go to die an unknown and unrecognizable death.
Atlanta Thrashers
Of all the teams here whose season ends with the start of training camp, the one I feel the worst for are the Thrashers. Bob Hartley did the best he could with this team last year before getting axed by GM Don Waddell in favor of… Don Waddell. The team traded away Marian Hossa for a pile of young guys and draft picks in Pittsburgh and the Thrashers quickly went from the playoffs in 2006-2007 to being one of the worst teams in the NHL in 2007-2008, even in the Southeast Division.
This year, the Thrashers are going the Major League 3 route to “success” – they’re going Back to the Minors. It seems fitting to compare this year’s Thrashers with a terrible, should-never-have-been-made sequel of a series that should’ve ended after the first success. If you will, indulge me while I compare the roster of the Thrashers with that of the Salt Lake City Buzz/Minnesota Twins. Yes, I’ve seen Major League: Back to the Minors and can, indeed, pull this off. Watch the horror unfold.
The most talented guy on Atlanta is, by far, Ilya Kovalchuk and he’s been named captain of the team, a dubious naming since Kovalchuk hasn’t always been known as a strong guy in the locker room nor on the ice. In fact, he’s probably a more cocky and selfish incarnation of Sergei Fedorov, except without the defensive skill set. That said, he’s easily the best player on the team and the only guy on the roster you have to worry about leaving alone on the ice. He’s got the track record of danger, has a punishing shot and even on this brutal team he can and will score 50 goals.
I give to you, the Ilya Kovalchuk of Major League: Back to the Minors:

Much like in the movie, the rest of Ilya’s teammates aren’t much to talk about. Most of them are incredibly young or they’ve got innocuous histories. On the youth side, you’ve got guys like defenseman Tobias Enstrom, recently signed to a four-year extension that packs on the dollars and expectations. Enstrom would’ve been a nice partner with Braydon Coburn if he hadn’t been foolishly traded to Philadelphia in February 2007 for Alexei Zhitnik. That’s the same Alexei Zhitnik the Thrashers bought out this off-season to clear him off their records.

Ouch.

Instead, the Thrashers were bad enough to earn a nice, high draft pick to take defenseman Zach Bogosian, a player who ought to make the opening night roster and unless the Thrashers are being run by morons, should stick there for some time to come. The downside with Bogosian is that he’s terribly young (he’s 18) and learning on the job in the NHL comes with plenty of mistakes in waiting and playing alongside Enstrom, who is 23, means that while the talent level is high…it’s very green. Patience will have to be a virtue for the handfuls of fans in Atlanta. Veteran players like Niclas Havelid and newly acquired Mathieu Schneider will have to be steady with the guiding defensive hands for these guys and big free agent pick up Ron Hainsey is going to have to be very good for the Thrashers to not look like a circus on the blueline.

The signing of Hainsey drew a lot of questions and I’m sure now that Hainsey sees what he’s gotten into in Atlanta he’s probably wondering if the five-year $22.5 million contract he signed in the off-season will be worth it. I can tell Ron this: It certainly won’t feel like it this year – but things will get better.

The strength of this team, oddly enough, is in goal. Problem is, who is going to get the most starts? You’ve got Kari Lehtonen as the default starter and Johan Hedberg as the much beloved crowd favorite backup. Lehtonen’s ability to get hurt and give up soft goals seems to irk Thrashers fans a bit. Thankfully for them there’s a player eagerly waiting for his turn to take over the job for good in Ondrej Pavelec.
In an ideal Thrashers world, they would deal Lehtonen to a goaltending-desperate team for a couple of instant impact players and then make a run at the Southeast Division title with Pavelec as the top guy and Hedberg as the ever-capable insurance policy. While Lehtonen is slowly entering albatross status (something another groin injury might cement) he’s still a very good goaltender and the best thing for him would be a coach that can get his head screwed on straight so that he doesn’t get too shaken by a bad goal. He’s going to feel the pressure this year and being on a team that is going to be very defensively poor he’s going to have his hands full.
Picture if you will Kari Lehtonen as Rube Baker, the lovable yet colossally dumb catcher of the Salt Lake City Buzz. Rube had a mental block that wouldn’t allow him to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Much like Rube, Kari Lehtonen has a mental block that won’t allow him to shake off giving up a bad goal and he gets all down on himself.

Poor Rube…er, Kari.

Up front, the Thrashers are a one-line squad. Slava Kozlov and Kovalchuk are the best scorers they have and from there, quality drops off hard and gets really young, really fast. Jason Williams was signed away from Chicago this summer to help bolster the team up the middle and he’ll have to be better than any of the stats he’s put up in his career to put Atlanta anywhere near a shot at a playoff spot. If Williams can put up numbers like he did in his final season in Detroit (21-37-58), that will go a long way.
From there, youth is king.
You have the pieces obtained in the Hossa deal with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Angelo Esposito, the Penguins 2007 First Round pick and blue-chip piece obtained from Pittsburgh. Expect to see Esposito playing at least the first nine games for the Thrashers this year. He’s fast, he’s innovative, he’s very talented – he’s also going to make mistakes as well but he is going to be good. Eventually. If the Thrashers allow him to stay and don’t send him back to juniors, it’ll make the immediate future of the team hurt a little bit, but the pain will be worth the pleasure in future seasons.

Brett Sterling and Bryan Little are the other guys that will get involved in the scoring mix, but this team is one Kovalchuk injury away from being the Chicago Wolves, which might not be so bad since they’ve been dominating in the AHL the last couple of seasons.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Who the hell are these guys?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Meanwhile, the role players here are numerous both up front and in back. Chris Thorburn, Marty Reasoner, Eric Perrin and there’s even an oft-injured enigma in Todd White. If you want to eyeball anyone that will punch someone’s lights out you’ve got a nice sampler platter with appetizers like Chris Thorburn and Garnet Exelby, a main dish of Eric Boulton and a potential breakout super-goon in defenseman Boris Valabik. Boulton is a loose cannon and doesn’t think twice about making a questionable hit nor of fighting anyone. He reminds me of a certain guy from a certain movie I’m obsessing on here…

Worse yet, after all of this, the guy I really feel for here is the new Thrashers head coach John Anderson. Much like Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Anderson has paid his dues in the AHL and is finally getting his crack at the NHL after being promoted from Chicago to coach the big team in Atlanta. Anderson has twice won the Calder Cup as coach of the Wolves in 2002 and 2008. Winning a title with the minor league team ought to get you strong consideration when the big league team needs a new guy, I just don’t know that this is the sort of situation Anderson was hoping for.

He is getting a team that is surely more talented than his Wolves teams (at least, I think they are) and he ought to be familiar with plenty of these guys already so there’s an advantage. Given the amount of success and experience many of these guys have with Anderson, perhaps that will carry them through some of the early struggles you’d expect for this team. I just don’t see it happening. I just hope that Anderson can be more charming than say… Gus Cantrell was!

Yeah, the bar is set pretty low here for Atlanta, even with the addition of Schneider to the team, this team is going to be hopeless on defense and they’re indescribably thin on offense. Goaltending will have to carry this team and unfortunately that position is occupied by a guy who’s on shaky ground in his head and at home since they love the backup and minor league guy more than the starter. I feel for John Anderson, I do – but I wouldn’t even wish this team on Marc Crawford.
OK, maybe I would, but that’s just me being spiteful.
This team will finish last in the Southeast and damn near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They’ll be front-runners in the John Tavares sweepstakes come next summer. They’ll be duking it out with a handful of other teams we’ll get to later on, but the only saving grace the Thrashers have and the only reason why they’ll put up some respectable numbers is because they’re in a putrid division and get most of their games against them. If this team were in just about any other division in the NHL, I’d have no doubts they would get crushed harder. That said, they’ll do better than what their talent would indicate but they’ll still be terrible.
Thanks for coming Atlanta, please proceed to the exit.

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