At the risk of sounding like I've been drinking Rick Dudley's Kool-Aid, I think the Atlanta Thrashers are on the verge of becoming a competitive hockey franchise that will make regular playoff appearances over a multi-year span. Long time readers know that I am not given over to wild bursts of optimism after a decade of watching bad hockey. So let me list the reasons for my belief that improvement is at hand.
The Thrashers have finally built a big collection of young talent. One of the big problems with the Thrashers organization in the past was that they only had two or three talented young players under 25. The NHL roster was mostly filled with guys already in the prime or exiting their prime. In 2007 the average age on the Thrashers was 29.5 (among the oldest in the NHL) in 2010 the projected lineup averages just 25.4 (among the youngest in the NHL). It has been very painful to see Heatley, Hossa, Lehtonen and Kovalchuk traded--but the net result of those moves has been to restock both the NHL roster and the Thrashers pool of prospects. Atlanta fans have suffered through many losing seasons, but the talent pipeline has never looked as good as it does now.
The Thrashers best players are also their most determined players. One thing GM Rick Dudley likes is "character" and the Thrashers young talent all have it. Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Alex Burmistrov are all noted for their high effort level and commitment to hockey. They don't always make the correct play, but their effort level is there and the desire to get better is there.
The Thrashers appear to be embracing the team concept. Coach Anderson rolled four lines and Coach Ramsay likes to roll four lines. The NHL is season is long and not every line is going to be hot every night. With the departure of Kovalchuk and Kozlov (who didn't like using four lines) every roster player is going to have to pull their weight. Many of the top teams and don't rely on just one line to carry the load.
The Thrashers appear to be embracing responsible hockey. The departure of Kovalchuk (and likely) Afinogenov open the door for the coaches to really crack down on lax defensive play by the forwards. It is very difficult to call out forwards when the team captain is the biggest culprit--that conundrum has been eliminated. Every player will get ice time and every player must play both ends of the ice. The quickest way for the Thrashers to make the playoffs is to make a big cut in their goals allowed (how many years have I typed that sentence?). The defensemen are a capable lot, but they whole team has to be committed and the goaltending must be there.
The Thrashers appear to be ready to have a team identity. In the past the Thrashers simply lacked an identity. The pieces never fit together all that well. The team looked like it was assembled by a fantasy hockey GM who was looking for bargains (and found some). But in real life a good hockey team is not just a collection of bargains, but a group of people who are all pulling in the same direction. I'm not wild about the cost of the Chicago trade, but it help change the organizational culture. The Thrashers are obviously moving in the direction of a tough, hard hitting forechecking club. Someone once wrote "luck is the residue of design" which means that when you have a plan--even a flawed plan--you're more likely to see some good fortune because of synergies between players who share a common approach. There are multiple ways to win a Stanley Cup, but it is hard to win a Cup unless you select a specific route.
The Thrashers have managed their cap space. The Thrashers have a lot of young (inexpensive) talent and loads of cap room. They have five Restricted Free Agents to sign, but even taking that into consideration the Thrashers MUST spend more money just to reach the cap floor (my projection). Therefore they are in a strong position to hunt for a goalie and a scoring forward in the next month. My hunch is that the Thrashers will probably sign a (non-Hedberg) goaltender and trade for a scoring player who is under contract.
So if you're a NHL free agent and you're reading this because you are considering the Atlanta Thrashers, I say give them a second look. This isn't the Thrashers of 2-3 years ago, this is a franchise on the verge of having some special seasons. The talented core of the team (Enstrom, Bogosian, Kane, Byfuglien, Pavelec) are all in the upswing phase of their careers and Burmistrov, Kulda, Klingberg, Cormier, Postma are knocking on the NHL door. The biggest question for the team in who will share the goaltending load with Pavelec. If the Thrashers land the right guy they could be the "surprise" story of the 2010-2011 season. Let's see what happens next.