After two pre-season games the Thrashers have cut down their camp roster to 37 players who are still in the mix for NHL roster spots. I'm going to assume that these 9 forwards have NHL jobs: Kovalchuk, Kozlov, White, Antropov, Peverley, Little, Armstrong and Reasoner. So what does that leave?
Forwards: 4 starting spots and 1 or 2 bench slots.
- Maxim Afinogenov
- Evander Kane
- Joey Crabb
- Dan Fritsche
- Josh Gratton
- Jason Krog
- Spencer Machacek
- Tim Stapleton
Thoughts: All of the incumbents have at least a one year NHL contracts and I would surprised if they failed to make the final roster. This last summer I wrote about the "myth of the best 4th line" and suggested that the Thrashers could find better players to flesh out the bottom of their forward ranks. But the Thrashers choose to re-sign Slater and Thorburn which indicates they think more favorably about that line than I do. If the incumbent 4th liners are all safe, that really leaves just one active roster spot and one or two bench slots available.
How might this race shake out? Personally, I've seen very little out of Dan Fritsche in practice or exhibition play, the guy looks like he's lost his mojo. Gratton is probably the only person really challenging Boulton for the tough guy slot, but I think the organization values Boulton's locker room presence enough that he keeps his spot. Machacek looks pretty good but he might still benefit from receiving bigger minutes in the AHL. Evander Kane has looked OK in pre-season but hasn't really amazed. I've already laid out the case for returning him to the WHL--the fact that he's not scoring in pre-season could make this decision easier.
That narrows it down to some veterans: Afinogenov, Crabb, Stapleton, Krog. Personally, I find Maxim Afinogenov incredibly frustrating to watch play. He has amazing stick handling skills and good speed but it seems like he rarely turns those attributes into goals. Still if he's willing to sign for a low price, it would be a low risk gamble with some upside potential. My guess is that if Evander Kane goes back to the WHL, Afinogenov might make the NHL roster if the price is right.
The other three guys--Stapleton, Krog and Crabb--are all AHL veterans who are no longer developing as prospects. They are all a bit undersized by NHL standards but have solid puck skills (Krog, Stapleton) or speed (Crabb, Stapleton). If the Thrashers were to keep Afinogenov and bump Peverley to the 3rd line, any one of these AHL veterans could step into 13th forward spot and it would not harm their development as it would a younger kid.
Prediction: My gut instinct is that Coach Anderson will give Jason Krog that 13th forward spot and one more crack at playing in the NHL. Krog and Anderson had some great seasons together in Chicago and if anyone knows what Jason brings to the table--it is Anderson.
The top four defensemen (Bogosian, Enstrom, Hainsey and Kubina) appear set and that leaves two starting positions and a bench slot up for grabs.
I would cross Vernance off the list first. He looked totally out of his league in Nashville and I'm surprised that he survived the most recent round of cuts. I haven't seen Welch in game action, but like Dan Fritsche you have to really look hard to notice him in training camp. I'm a big Grant Lewis supporter, but he's clearly still recovering from his significant knee injury. Postma probably needs a full season in the AHL playing against bigger men.
That leaves 3 incumbents and 2 challengers battling it out for 3 slots. So far Kulda and Popovic both have played well and gotten the attention of Coach Anderson. I would not be surprised if either were on the team opening day. The biggest problem for Kulda is that he can be sent down that gives the Thrashers a quality first call up should injuries strike. With Popovic they have to fish or cut bait soon--which gives him more leverage in some respects.
The real question is who would they knock off? I can't see Valabik going anywhere. His size and physicality are badly needed on this roster. I do think that both Salmela and Oystrick could be vulnerable to losing their spot. Oystrick in particular looked very nervous and rough at times in the Nashville pre-season game. Perhaps, it was just initial nerves but if he continues to struggle in pre-season he could end up on the outside looking in. Salmela was ridiculously non-physical in Nashville allowing opposing forwards to do pretty much whatever they wanted. He can't continue to play like that and hold a NHL D spot.
Summary: If Oystrick and Salmela can play like they did at the end of last season, they should hold off Popovic. The next few games will be crucial.
The incumbent Lehtonen is hurt yet again and his lack of professionalism is irritating a team that needs someone reliable in the nets. The Opening Night starting job is a free for all. Ondrej Pavelec played a very strong game in Tampa on Friday. MacIntyre played a strong period in Nashville. Manny Legace is a NHL pro with a long track record. Johan Hedberg is the sentimental favorite of many, but is under heavy pressure this camp. The Thrashers have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs assuming they get solid goaltending most nights. If Legace looks better than Hedberg, the team would be wise to put keep him, skill not likability must determine this contest.
Expectation: Lehtonen starts the season on IR, with Pavelec and Legace on the opening night roster.