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What to Expect from the 2008-09 Thrashers

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With signing of the Jason Williams this weekend it seems that the Thrashers roster appears to be coming into form. There is still a good chance the team will add another player by making a trade with a team in cap trouble. For example, Mike Knuble is one player who might be available due to his contract.

Today I did some rough estimates of what to expect out of the current roster. First I've been working with Alan Ryder's Player Contribution scores as a way of predicting the up coming season. I have been back testing this approach to see how well it would have predicted the 2007-08 and it did fairly well for 11 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams, but missed badly in the case of Washington. I'll do some more posts in the future on forecasting the upcoming NHL season.

For now let's cut to the chase, first you have to figure out the value of the players subtracted (Hossa, Holik, Dupuis, Recchi, Zhitnik, McCarthy) and then the value of the players added (Armstrong, Christensen, Williams, C. Stuart, Hainsey, Bogosian). Well at the moment using Player Contribution scores adjusted for games played (with injury risks evenly spread across all team members) I have arrived at a prediction of 83 points for the Thrashers.

Last season Toronto finished with 83 points which ranked them 12th in the Eastern Conference or 11 points out of the playoffs. With respect to the entire NHL two clubs finished with 83 points (Phoenix and Toronto) which tied them for 23rd/24th place overall.

In some ways I think that Phoenix could end up be a pretty decent comparable for the 08-09 Thrashers. The Coyotes played hard for Coach Gretzky and were decent defensively but the young squad simply couldn't score enough to stay in the playoff hunt. I see a very similar fate for this upcoming Thrasher squad.

I can see the Thrashers taking a major step forward on defense if Nikulin finally signs and Bogosian makes the team. Those two additions plus Hainsey would push the Klee/Exelby/Valabik group down the depth chart. Suddenly the Thrashers defense starts to look pretty interesting although Bogosian, Valabik and technically Nikulin would all be considered rookies.

Last year the Thrashers finished tied for dead last with Tampa in Goals Allowed at 266. If the Thrashers could reduce that number by 30 down to 236 that would be a huge improvement and would leave keep them in a lot more games (with a chance to win more extra points in OT and the shootout). Last year St. Louis allowed just 232 goals while giving rookie defenseman Erik Johnson a lot of ice time. If the season goes well for the Thrashers they might be able to hit that mark.

The offensive side of things is where I see this club taking a step back. As much as people grumble about Hossa dogging during his final season in Atlanta his point production will be difficult to replace. I spent some time estimating the Thrashers offense. Young forwards like Erik Christensen, Jason Williams, Colbey Armstrong, Bryan Little and Colin Stuart will all benefit from increased ice time with the departure of Hossa, Holik, Recchi and Dupuis. Also Ron Hainsey projects to produce more than Zhitnik--however if Hainsey is a regular on the PP unit either Enstrom or Kovalchuk will probably see fewer minutes (If Kovy slides down to LW on the PP unit he can't play the full 2 minutes like he did at the point--I cut Kovy's minutes some and kept Hainsey at the same level he played in Columbus). Even after I handed out those increased minutes I still the Thrashers offense declining from 207 Goals in 07-08 to 201 in 08-09.

Now the hardest part about young forwards is estimating how much they will improve. One of things that the Thrashers have finally gotten right is that they have loaded up on young guys who are likely to improve instead of old guys who are likely to decline. Coach Anderson and Don Waddell both mentioned expecting a step up by Little and Christensen and that might happen.

Let's say that that improving youth somehow manages to replace the other missing Hossa goals and the Thrashers manage to hold steady at 207 Goals Scored. Where would a team that scores 207 Goals and allows 236 finish in the standings? Well that's roughly what St. Louis Blues did last year and they ended up at 21st overall in a 30 team league with 79 points in the standings.

So right now I'd put the Thrashers current roster in the 79-84 point range. There are lots of variables that could change that. If the team is unusually healthy or unusually banged up that could be swing things a few points in either direction (A healthy Kovalchuk for 82 games would add 8-9 points right alone). If the Thrashers keep games close and get on a roll in the shootout like Edmonton did last year or Dallas did back in 2005-06 they could maybe steal another 4-6 points. But you can't count on being usually healthy or lucky in the shootout. It is just isn't realistic. So all things being equal, the Thrasher project as a 83 point team.

Will they be a young scrappy team like Phoenix and St. Louis were last year or like the disappointing and disinterested Toronto Maple Leafs? If they are the former the games could still be exciting to watch even if they don't make the playoffs. It is up to the players, coach and GM to put an interesting hockey product out there for us to watch.

PS: How much of a difference would it make if they Thrashers added Mike Knuble? Using the Ryder PC model he's worth about 4-5 standing points and if his addition knocks Brad Larsen out of the lineup (worth essentially zero standing points) that pushes the Thrashers closer to the 89-90 point territory where a string of good fortune (health and shootouts) could have them fighting for the playoffs.