With the last pre-season game (thankfully) over, we can now turn our attention to the final cuts that will be made between now and opening day. The Thrashers need to cut their team down to 23 players by Wednesday at 3pm. Let's take a look at where the team stands.
Up front, we've got 8 skaters who are virtually guaranteed to be with the team on Opening Night: Kovalchuk, Antropov, Little, Kozlov, White, Peverley, Reasoner, and Armstrong. Just four spots on the blueline are decided: Enstrom, Bogosian, Hainsey, and Kubina. There are serious questions in goal. Let's evaluate the 4 battles for those final positions.
The Battle: Kane vs Afinogenov
The Position: 3rd-line Left Wing
The Basics: With 8 of the Top-9 forward spots filled, the last spot will likely be taken by either 2009 1st-round draft pick Evander Kane or pro-tryout Maxim Afinogenov. Neither of these players will remain with the team to play 4th line minutes (or sit in the press box as a 13th forward).
The Dark Horse: Dan Fritsche. He could earn a spot as the penalty-kill specialist badly needed by the anemic Thrashers penalty kill unit. That was only reinforced on Sunday night; the Thrashers gave up 3 powerplay goals to the Lightning. His chances could be hurt by Coach Anderson's willingness to play Kane on the penalty kill; Kane had 2:51 of short-handed time in the final pre-season game.
- Tim: This is a tough one. Don Waddell has said repeatedly that they want Evander to make the Thrashers this season. The coaching staff is giving him every opportunity to stick with the big club. At the Thrashers Fan Club meeting before Sunday's game, however, he also made a revealing comment. [Side note: if you haven't yet joined the Fan Club, you can do so here.] When a question about Max came up, the audience cheered and Don commented, 'Oh, you're making it harder for me now, his agent is probably here. He'll use that against me.' [That's roughly paraphrased from memory, not a direct quote.] I think it comes down to contract: if we can get Max for the right term (short) and money (in the low 2 millions), I think we sign him. If not, Kane sticks with the Thrash.
- EvilMilkshake: If you had the chance to see Evander in the preseason, or even listened on the radio, you could see (or hear) he's not ready. He gets tossed around too easily. It's good to see him on the PK, getting some experience, but he probably wouldn't help in that department this season. He may get the 9-day tryout, but I don't see him sticking with the club all season. My guess is they'll sign Maxim. He's got experience and speed and although he himself may not finish, he creates scoring chances or makes plays on many of his shifts. Pair him with the right players, and his line could rack up some points.
- Aaron: My head says "Evander", but my heart whispers "Maxim!" in an overly tender and loving way. I don't see any downside at all to signing Afinogenov to said short term/low money deal and sending Kane back to Vancouver. I can't imagine Kane's development as a player would be that stunted, and (I could be wrong about this) he's available for recall if needed. Will giving Evander 3rd line minutes give us that little push over the cliff we need to make the playoffs? Doubtful. We've got more depth at the wing than at any time in recent memory - let's not risk anything. Having said that, here's my offical prediction: I'm fairly certain Kane sticks with the big club, and Max walks.
- Tim: I think the Thrashers tipped their hand with the lineup for the final game: Boulton - Slater - Thorburn. Gratton could stay with the Thrashers as a 13th forward and get some time in, but I don't see it happening.
- EvilMilkshake: As much as I've liked Gratton's game, I don't see him staying with the big club either unless it's as the 13th man. He'll most likely be the first call up in the event of a 4th line injury.
- Aaron: The performance of "the best 4th line in the league" last night told us we need a change. Ergo, Boulton - Slater - Thorburn it is and shall stay.
- Tim: You know who hasn't looked great so far this year? Boris Valabik. For guys as big as Boris, it takes some time before they find their feet and learn how to play physical without taking penalties. Personally, I just don't think Valabik is there yet. That said, sending him to Chicago would only stunt his development further. It's a balancing act between over-learning the lesson of Braydon Coburn (big defensemen take time to develop) and having too much faith in a player who isn't performing as well as we'd like. For my money, I think Boris spends some time in Chicago this year with a skating coach while Popovic and Salmela start with the Thrashers. Nathan Oystrick sits in the press box but will occasionally spell the other guys to stay fresh.
- EvilMilkshake: I agree with Tim about Valabik in that he hasn't looked very good at all. He seems to be trying too hard. Valabik has performed well in the past, and it would be a mistake to send him down. So far in the pre-season he's gotten a lot of ice time, so his faults are showing up more. If he stays, expect 3rd pairing minutes only (he hasn't been on the 3rd pairing in most pre-season games) and even press box nights if he has a few bad games. I think Oystrick gets sent down. He hasn't impressed and the Thrashers have more options at defense this season.
- Aaron: John Anderson said in his post-game presser last night that Boris needs to keep moving to improve. I expect Valabik to stick with the club for at least 10-15 games, but after that, look for Oystrick to come up after knocking the cobwebs out in Chicago, if necessary. Salmela & Popovic comprise the bottom D pairing.
- Tim: Don Waddell commented that he was speaking with Legace's agent in an attempt to keep him "within the organization." I won't attempt to read into that comment here, but I'll simply say that Manny's shots at a contract are looking a little better than a few weeks ago. I haven't been overly impressed with Pavelec this pre-season and having some stability in goal would be huge for the Thrashers. I think we'll start the season with Pavelec, Hedberg, and Legace, but I expect some player movement in the near future.
- EvilMilkshake: Having the fortunate opportunity to see Manny's one pre-season game and in behind an Atlanta defense, I'd like to see him here this season. Now granted, the lineup during that game was not all the players on our roster, but he proved he's still got it in my eyes. With the Thrashers current rotation of Hedberg & Pavelec, I believe it would be a mistake to not sign Legace as some added insurance.
- Aaron: I'll go one step further: sign Manny, trade Kari for a solid PKer and tell Pavelec to find some way to not look so scared when he's in an NHL net. The kid can tear it up in the AHL, but has a hard time adjusting with the big club. He'll make a spectacular save, and then look a little weak on the very next shot.