With the news of Nicklas Bergfors re-signing this morning via Chris Vivlamore, it appears that the Atlanta Thrashers training camp roster is nearly set. Since 2002 the Thrashers have pinned their hopes on a young superstar talent such as Heatley, Kovalchuk or Lehtonen. This season the Thrashers will not be able to look to any one individual and their fortunes will hinge on team performance.
At the 2009 NHL Training Camp the Thrashers had the best depth in team history. Players like Manny Legace and Nathan Oystrick competed hard for NHL spots and lost out. This year the competition for the final spots will be even more wide open and probably even more intense.
With Dustin Byfuglien moving back to the blueline, it would appear that Bergfors-Antropov-Little, Kane-Peverley-Ladd are the early favorites to fill out the top two scoring lines. The Thrashers certainly can't rely on just those two lines to provide all the offense, so getting contributions from the 3rd and 4th line will be important. Which players will grab one of those final 6-8 roster spots is a big question. If you assume that Boulton-Slater-Thorburn return as the 4th line (perhaps a bad assumption with a new head coach), then that leaves a battle royal for 3rd line spots between Cormier, Modin, Dawes, Machacek, Eager, Pettersson,
Klingberg, Aliu and perhaps rookie Burmistrov. Modin and Eager appear to have NHL contracts so that might indicate that they have an edge (or perhaps not). The Thrashers have shown a tendency to play 18 year olds so Burmistrov has a shot at winning a job, especially if say Modin gets injured or looks used up in training camp.
My guess on opening night lines would be the following:
- extras: Boulton, Petterson
With Byfuglien moving back to the blue line there is an unmitigated log jam. Enstrom-Bogosian are they young guys. Hainsey and Byfuglien are the guys hitting their prime. Oduya and Sopel are the veterans. That leaves several youngish prospects battling for the 7th spot and the first call-up after an injury: Valabik, Kulda, Zubarev and Meyer. Valabik already has NHL experience. Kulda is ready for the NHL in my view. Zubarev is a bit of an unknown since he just came over to North America. Meyer is likely just a depth guy. If it were me, I'd pick Kulda, but I suspect the organization will go with Valabik.
Pavelec and Chris Mason clearly have these two spots. The Thrashers need both of them to have hot streaks during the season if they hope to contend for the playoffs. Both have demonstrated that they can play great in stretches, but can the team get enough great games out of their goalies this season?
Can they defend enough?
A lot of people look at this roster and ask "can this score enough?" but I think that is the wrong question. Last season the Thrashers finished 12th in team offense and missed the playoffs (they finished 25th in team defense). Six different teams scored fewer goals than Atlanta and still made the post-season (Boston, Montreal, Phoenix, Devils, Predators, and Detroit). Boston finished dead last in team offense and still made the playoffs--think about that for a second, dead last. NOBODY has ever finished dead last in team defense and made the playoffs in NHL history.
The key question is "can this team defend enough?" because virtually every good defensive team made the post-season. The Thrashers finished 25th in team GAA. Every team that finished in the bottom 10 of defense missed the playoffs. If the Thrasher can defend as a team, their offense should be enough to keep them in the playoff race. Whether they can become a solid defensive team is the critical question.