Analyzing the Battles for Roster Spots

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.

The Twist: Evander Kane cannot be sent to the Chicago Wolves, he would have to return to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. After scoring 48 goals and 96 points with the Giants last year, there is little left for Kane to prove in junior hockey. Maxim Afinogenov, on the other hand, doesn't have a contract with the Thrashers. It would have to be negotiated before Wednesday. His last contract was upward of $3,000,000 a season, and while we could likely sign him for less, signing Max would further stress our budget.

Predictions:

  • 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.
The Battle: Boulton vs Thorburn vs Gratton

The Position: 4th-line Wing

The Basics: Tough guys Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn have some competition this year in the form of pro-tryout Josh Gratton. As a "checking-line" winger, the Thrashers need a skater who can hit, fore- and back-check against the opposition's top lines, and drop the gloves on occasion.

The Twist: Energy-line guys don't normally score two goals in a game, pre-season or not. With a couple solid performances, Josh Gratton is going to make this decision much harder for the Thrashers' coaches.

Predictions:
  • 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.
The Battle: Valabik vs Oystrick vs Salmela vs Popovic

The Positions: Two Bottom-Pairing Defensemen, Reserve Defenseman

The Basics: The Top-4 spots on D are locked up, but the next three are up for grabs. One of Boris Valabik, Nathan Oystrick, Anssi Salmela, and Mark Popovic will be cut before Opening Night. The first three have contracts and Popovic is with the team on a pro-tryout basis.

The Dark Horse: Just like Gratton with the forwards, tryout Popovic is trying to earn a contract by bumping someone from the roster. He's looked good so far, earning 1st Star honors at the first home pre-season game. Also, while not currently in the Thrashers system, Mark was previously a Thrashers prospect, so he's a familiar face within the organization.

Predictions:
  • 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.
The Battle: Pavelec vs Hedberg vs Legace vs Lehtonen

The Positions: Starting and Backup Goaltender

The Basics: The Thrashers have lacked stability in goal for much of their history. Superstitious fans might say the team has something of a "goalie curse," and if you were around for the 2005 - 2006 season, you got to see an almost shocking number of goalies. (Adam Berkhoel and Steve Shields, anyone?) 2nd-overall pick Kari Lehtonen was supposed to be the future between the pipes, but repeated injuries have caused concern. Backup goaltender Johan Hedberg fills in admirably, but he isn't going to be a solution for the top job. Stanley Cup winner and former All-Star Manny Legace was invited to camp as a pro tryout, and the Thrashers are also auditioning top prospect Ondrej Pavelec for the starting job.

The Dark Horse: Three of these goalies have contracts. One of these goalies does not. Still, Manny Legace has had an impressive career thus far: 177-92-18-23 with a 0.912 save percentage and 2.38 GAA in the NHL. His last losing season in the NHL? 1998 - 1999 with the Los Angeles Kings. If not for an unfortunate tumble on a carpet placed for Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, so the story goes, Manny would still be a part of the rotation with the St. Louis Blues. In his short playing time with the Thrashers, he's looked solid. Don't overlook the importance of his character: Manny's a fun guy, and the Thrashers are a team that is striving to maintain a unified locker room.

The Twist: Kari Lehtonen is injured. Thrashers fans probably won't be surprised by that statement. It's looking like Kari will spend the first 3 or 4 weeks of the season on the injured reserve, meaning he won't count against the player limit of 23. Once he goes onto IR (on Wednesday at 3pm), he must remain there for at least two weeks. When he's back and ready to play, he could see time in Chicago on a conditioning stint. Assuming the team carries 13 forwards and 7 defensemen, they can carry 3 goalies. Does that mean two for the start of the season and three once Kari returns? Or does it mean three for the start of the season and some player movement in the future?

Predictions:
  • 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.
Feel free to comment below and let us know who you think will earn a spot to start the season.
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