So far in the pre-season the Atlanta Thrashers are prefect at home (2-0) and imperfect on the road (0-3); however, the pre-season isn't really about team wins and losses so much as about individuals competing for NHL jobs. The Thrashers have more depth than at any other pont in their 10 year history. Head Coach John Anderson appeared pleased by the quality of the job competition this fall.
"When you have competition for spots that is a good thing. It makes my job a lot more difficult, but it makes your team better. Last year I don't think we had as many competitive players, perhaps some guys got positions because we didn't have anything else [better]. Certainly, we're much deeper [this year]."
When asked to assess who stood out in this game, Coach Anderson praised two try out players."I thought Popovic had a good game--a great game--and I thought Afinogenov played really well too." He also had some postive comments about Dan Fritsche and his skill set. "He's gotten better as the camp went along. He's kind of an awkward skater--but he gets there, strong along the wall and he's not afraid to block shots and good on the penalty kill--something we needed last year."
The Thrashers will have to make their final cuts very soon as there is only one pre-season game remaining before the home opener. I asked John Anderson what sort of skills he was looking for in that 13th forward role as he weighs his options. Would he prefer a scorer or a checker? Anderson replied, "50 goal scorer" with a grin on his face. He went on stress the importance of talent. "Certainly we want the best high-skill player that we can get because he has to fit into multiple roles, not just one position."
Defense is certainly one red hot job battle as Mark Popovic is competing with returning NHL players: Valabik, Oystrick and Salmela. I talked to Nathan Oystrick after the game about how he approached his summer prepartion after a full year in the NHL:
"Obviously I learned a lot of things last year about what I needed to do in order to stay here. Definately one thing was getting stronger and getting ready to play with some ice time. I thought I had a great summer working out in Atlanta with our strength coach Ray Bear. I thought it paid off."
Because of his age and number of years as a pro player, Oystrick was eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. During the off sesaon, he could potentially sign with any organization or go overseas and play in Europe, but he returned to the Thrashers.
"I had a couple of calls early on in Free Agency but nothing really enticing and I've been a part of Atlanta's organization since they drafted me in 2002. So I felt a bit of an obligation to come back. We have a great group of guys in this organization--players, coaches and GMs--everyone I'm familiar with. It is a comfortable place to be, and I hope everything works out well."
Oystrick was very realistic about the intense jockeying that is taking place for the final NHL defenseman jobs in the Thrashers Camp. I asked him to assess his performance thus far in the pre-season:
"I don't think I'm ever satisfied with the way I play. There are always things you can work on. I'm still relatively young compared to many guys here. People are battling for spots and there are some great players [here]--after the top 4 guys, I don't think anyone's job is safe on the blueline. So I have to come and work as hard or harder than them. I have to play my game and hopefully impress someone and beat someone out."
Another intense Thrashers Training Camp battle is at the goal position. Manny Legace played the first two periods and Drew MacIntyre played the 3rd. This was Legace's first look at live game action in the pre-season. I asked Legace how he prepared for his first game.
"I like to challenge guys in practice. There are some very talented guys on this club and they can keep you sharp pretty quick. If keep razzing on them and they want to score on you."
Legace played a very stong 2 periods facing several point blank shots in the 1st when the Thrashers were badly out shot. Legace was really a victim of a two bad bounces. The second goal was an especially tough break as it hit the defenseman's stick blade and radically changed direction. Legace could easily have had a shutout going into the 3rd. As a longtime NHL veteran Legace was philosophic about those plays.
"That first goal I came out and made a save and it went to the guy's stick and it was a bang-bang play and I couldn't get back to the post that quick. The second goal was an unfortunate bounce, [Postma] was trying to make a good play and pick off a pass--that just happens."
Legace has an extensive NHL resume with stops in Los Angeles, Detroit and St. Louis. He was an unrestricted free agent this summer and is attending the Thrashers camp on a try out contract. I asked him how he came to be in the Thrashers Camp.
"They were the ones that called me first. I talked to a few different teams. Obviously at this point in my career, it wasn't the right situation contract-wise. They opened their hands and invited me to camp and I couldn't tell my agent fast enough. I wasn't going to wait around for a see if anyone else made an offer."
Because of his extensive NHL experience with multiple franchises, I asked him to assess the Thrashers locker room and the team's potential:
"I love the talent and the drive. We could do some damage, if we can put it together defensively and be on the same page from the start--there's a lot of talent in this dressing room--who knows what could happen."
As the clock ticks down on the pre-season the Thrashers face many tough roster decisions. Additional cuts are expected Saturday and the team will only be allowed to carry 23 healthy players when the regular season kicks off on Oct. 3rd.