2008-09 Season Recap Recap
It was a tale of two halves for the Thrashers. In the first half they went 13-23-5 and were on pace for 62 points and perhaps the #1 overall draft pick. In the second half, they went 21-18-1 and were on pace of 86 points which would have left them short of the playoffs, but in the hunt. It was a season of getting younger as veterans were traded away and young players stepped up their game. Perhaps, most impressive was how the Thrashers crushed the hopes of many teams hungry for playoff points in March. Down the stretch the Thrashers went 6-2 against playoff bubble teams. Were the Thrashers just "hot" or did they turn a corner last spring? The 2009-10 season will help answer that question.
The Thrashers added NHL regulars Nik Antropov (via free agency) and Pavel Kubina (via a trade with Toronto). Two other players (Anssi Salmela and Rich Peverley) were acquired in the 2nd half and will have their first full season in Atlanta. Evander Kane was drafted 4th overall this summer and appears poised to make the roster. NHL veterans Jason Krog, Anthony Stewart, Joey Crabb and Dan Fritsche are in the mix for the final forward spots along with prospects Spencer Machacek, Angelo Esposito, and Jordan LaVallee. Noah Welch and Mark Popovic are battling Nathan Oystrick and Anssi Salmela for the final defense spots.
Eric Perrin was unhappy with his role last season, and after no team claimed him from waivers, he departed for Europe this summer. Rugged Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart were sent to Toronto in the Kubina trade. Niclas Havelid and Mathieu Schneider were both traded at the deadline. Forward Jason Williams was dealt mid-season and Erik Christensen left at the trade deadline.
(more after the jump)
This team can score in bunches. Last year the Thrashers finished 9th in Goal Scored--ahead of 8 other playoff teams. The Thrashers power play finished 11th in PP%--which was better than 9 other playoff teams. They scored 257 goals despite the fact that the 1st line severely under performed during the first half. Kovalchuk was passing too much, Jason Williams didn't play Coach Anderson's system and Eric Christensen left his confidence in Pittsburgh. Kovalchuk caught on fire after being named Captain and ripped off a furious 2nd half. Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom thrived while playing with each other after their veteran partners departed. With the swap of Exelby for Kubina and the Nik Antropov replacing the Jason Williams/Rich Peverly combo, I would not be stunned if this team finished in the top 5 in team offense.
The Thrashers defense has more skill than at any point in team history. Each member of the top four can make a good outlet pass. The addition of Kubina greatly upgrades the passing of the 2nd D pairing. Last season, smart teams pressured Hainsey and made him dish over to his partner Exelby who frequently just dumped the puck to center ice. The Thrashers are very likely to establish a new record for points from their defensemen in the coming season.
The Thrasher skaters have been unusually healthy. Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk has proven remarkably durable throughout his NHL career. Even small Thrashers players like Todd White, Rich Peverley and Bryan Little have missed very few games. Zach Bogosian was the only impact skater to miss a signficant amout of time. Are the Thrashers tough or just lucky? Injuries are not completely random events, some players simply have stonger bones and connective tissues which allow them to handle repeated stresses. If the Thrashers continue their healthy ways that will significantly aid their pursuit of the playoffs.
How much better is the defense? Two summers ago the team added Ron Hainsey and cut Alexei Zhitnik and the Thrashers improved from 30th to 29th in the standings. If the addition of Pavel Kubina doesn't have a larger effect than that, the Thrashers season will end bitterly once again. Even if the offense ranks as high as 5th in the NHL, the defense must make major improvements. The biggest defensive problem is the Penalty Kill. Last year the Thrashers allowed 280 goals, nearly 1/3 of those came while short a man. Atlanta's PK was dead last for most of the year, and yet none of the roster additions were top tier PK players on their previous teams--a big source for concern.
What will they get out of Kari Lehtonen? When healthy Lehtonen is above average with moments of brilliance. He receives less help from his defense than many other NHL goaltenders. Backup Johan Hedberg is a great person according to all, but by any statistical measure (even shot quality adjusted SV%) he is far below average in net. The Thrashers really can't afford Lehtonen to miss a full month's worth of games yet again and they can't afford to have Hedberg start 20+ games. You have to wonder when the organization's patience with Lehtonen will be exhausted, the invitation of 6 goalies to NHL Training Camp may suggest that he is running out of time in Atlanta.
Can they play in the other team's end? Last season the Thrashers were one of the smallest teams in the NHL and they really struggled in terms of keeping continuous pressure in the offensive zone. When you look at measures of puck position such as team Corsi numbers and End-of-Shift Faceoffs, it is amazing to think this club finished 9th in goals scored. The Thrashers scored despite their lack of offensive zone puck possession at even strength. In particular, the Thrashers desperately need Kovalchuk's line to spend more time in the offensive zone. Will the addition of huge forward Nik Antropov lead to more sustained shifts in the good end of the ice?
2009 Atlanta Thrashers Organization Depth Chart
Falconer: Jumping from 13th in the East to 8th (last playoff spot) is an enormous task. Can the addition of Antropov, Kubina and Evander Kane make up that gap? Can Zach Bogosian sustain the high level he showed in February and March? Can Coach Anderson motivate his troops to run through walls? The margin for error is small, but the answer is yes. Leave your mid-April calendar open Thrasher fans, golf season will just have to wait this year.
EvilMilkshake: Towards the end of the season, the Thrashers were on a surge that was sure fun to watch. Thing is, I think part of that had to do with the earlier season games and the overall standings in which the opposition approached the latter games like a cakewalk. Too bad for them. This season, the team will need to show consistency not just for a quarter of the season, but all 82 games. Playoffs? Yep, but it'll take health, defense, consistency, and will. In the order of 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D.
Aaron: To my eyes, this Thrashers season begins and ends with October. One home game, a five game road trip, and the back at home to face the Washington Capitals (twice!!) and the San Jose Sharks. Oh yea, let's not even think about the Ilya Kovalchuk Three Ring Circus & Big Top. The dancing elephants of the press will do their best to remind our boys it's Kovy's contract year. As long as the D can keep the opposing teams' shot count down, our forwards have proven they can find the back of the net. If these guys can prove to themselves they can win, your 2009-2010 Atlanta Thrashers are playoff-bound.
Tim: Our odds of re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk seem pretty good right now. Kovalchuk, Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman, and Don Waddell have all gone on the record to say that a deal should get done. This is not Marion Hossa pt. 2. Therefore, I think the biggest question for the Thrashers this year is whether the guys who had breakout years last year (Bryan Little, Rich Peverley, Zach Bogosian, perhaps even Todd White) can continue to play near or above where they were last year. For his part, Little has come to camp faster and stronger than last year with the goal of scoring *more* than 31 goals. I'm going to put our points for the season somewhere between 84 and 95, probably in the 91 or 92 range.
Sure, that may be optimistic, but do you remember how many games we lost in the 2008 - 2009 season during the last 5 minutes of the game? If we had just gone into overtime, we would have come out with ~1.5 points/game rather than 0. There were *many* of those games. If you assume there were 10 games like that (and I think there were more), the extra 15 points would have put the Thrashers at 91 for the season... a playoff bubble team.
So, Thrashers fans, that's where I think we'll be this season. Not a wholly different team, but much less apt to fall apart in the last 5-8 minutes of the game. We're going to be a much more confident team this year.
Another thing to watch: if we do indeed look bound for the playoffs, expect ownership to be willing to spend cash to acquire players at the deadline.