The Thrashers have excelled at Even Strength so far this season. After the goaltenders, the biggest reason for improvement in ES situations are the two players acquired mid-summer. Nik Antropov has been the Thrashers best forward at ES and Pavel Kubina has been the best defenseman at ES. I've been critical of Don Waddell's free agent acquisitions in past summers but he hit a home run with these two guys. They were precisely what the team needed and as a consequence the Thrashers are much improved.
The coaching staff might not like to use terms like "first line" or "third line" but the ES Time On Ice (TOI) paint a rather clear picture. The Russian speaking line of Kovalchuk-Antropov-Afinogenov is clearly #1 in ice time. The next two lines are pretty even Kozlov-White-Little and Kane-Peverley-Armstrong. The 4th line (Boulton-Slater-Thorburn) with Marty Reasoner going back and forth between the 3rd and 4th lines.
Who is facing the toughest opposition? According the Gabe Desjardin's Quality of Competition measure (opponent's Relative Goal Differential at Even Strength) Todd White, Bryan Little Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk face the best players, while Boulton, Slater and Thorburn are sheltered.
Who is most effective? At even strength the name of the game is winning on the scoreboard. I have ranked all the players below according to their Goal Differential (GFA-GAA) per 60 minutes of ES TOI. Antropov is your clear leader. Why have the Thrashers gotten so much better this season? Well look at that list of players and you can see that 4 of the 5 most effective ES players were not on this roster one year ago today. Peverley was added in last January an Antropov via Free Agency, Kane at the NHL Draft and Afinogenov was a late NHL Camp tryout. Every single one of those moves has worked out very well!
Another measure to compare players is Desjardins' "Rating" column which compares each players net Goal Differential when that player is on the ice to when that player is off the ice. For example, Ilya Kovalchuk averages a +.59 Goal Differential when he is on the ice, but his Rating is just .01 which means that the Atlanta Thrashers post a+.58 when Kovalchuk is off the ice at ES. On the other hand, the Thrashers do much better when Nik Antropov is on the ice than when he is off it. In fact, when Antropov is off the ice the Thrashers have been out-scored at ES this season--he is only forward for whom that is true.
On defense Pavel Kubina has played like an All-Star minus big gaudy point totals.The Toronto Maple Leafs dumped Kubina's salary so they could sign Mike Komisarek, but I suspect that Kubina is having a better season than Komisarek is. When Kubina is on the ice in Even Skater situations the Thrashers have outscored the opposition by an astonishing 29-11 margin. Wow! When Pavel Kubina is off the ice at Even Strength the Thrashers have been outscored this season--Kubina is the only defenseman for which that statement is true. According to Desjardins Quality of Competition rating, Kubina is also facing the toughest opponents every night (with Ron Hainsey right behind him). Kubina makes some big coin ($5 million) and if he departs as a UFA this summer he will leave a giant hole.
Despite putting up some big goal totals this season Zach Bogosian has been exploited at times during even strength play. His 3.25 GAA is not very good. All three of the 3rd pairing defensemen appear to drag down the team's offense when they are on the ice (compare at their GFA to the top four guys).
The Thrashers are playing better because they are better. The new players that were added this summer (Kubina, Antropov, Afinogenov, Kane) all rank near the top at their respective positions.