2010-11 NHL season preview: Atlanta Thrashers

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for studlydudley.jpgLast season: (35-34-13, 83 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference) Considering that the Thrashers got rid of Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen, it’s a solid testament to the team that they actually stayed in playoff contention until (just about) the very end. Still, it’s probably best that former GM Don Waddell, who is now the team president, might leave the personnel decisions to new GM Rick Dudley, even if Dudley hasn’t received high marks from Jeremy Roenick.

Head coach: Dudley (and by extension, the Thrashers) are being accused of being a Southeast version of the Chicago Blackhawks. Ramsay’s been an assistant coach for ages and a head coach for brief periods of time, most recently with the Boston Bruins, so experience shouldn’t be an issue. New ideas and innovative thoughts? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Key departures: F Maxim Afinogenov, F Clarke MacArthur, F Colby Armstrong, F Johan Hedberg, D Pavel Kubina, F Todd White. Really, the biggest departures happened before last season concluded, with two should-have-been franchise players in Kovalchuk and Lehtonen leaving via trades. Afinogenov put up a nice bit of points last season (61), but his one-dimensional game won’t be missed. Both MacArthur and Armstrong wanted far more money than they were worth while Hedberg was squeezed out and Kubina left via free agency. The only guy that left during the offseason they really should miss is Kubina.

Key arrivals: G Chris Mason, F/D Dustin Byfuglien, F Ben Eager, F Akim Aliu, D Brent Sopel, F Andrew Ladd, F Nigel Dawes. Much like he makes waves when he cannon balls into swimming pools, the trade to bring Byfuglien is the splashy move. Mason, however, might be the bigger acquisition. The other two trends in Atlanta were a) adding former Chicago Blackhawks and b) adding black players. Both are interesting strategies, with the latter being a clever play on local demographics (while hopefully being a good opportunity for minority hockey players).

byfuglieninatlanta.jpgUnder pressure: The team will have a grace period for at least a year, but perhaps Byfuglien will be under the heat a little bit. The pressure would be greater if the big guy came into camp overweight or played at the more numbers-oriented position of forward, but as a defenseman, that might be diffused a little bit. Other than that, management is under the most scrutiny.

Protecting the house: Mason brings a nice amount of experience and stability to a goaltending position that was often in a state of chaos with departed former No. 1 Lehtonen (Mason can also bring an astounding, Abe Lincoln reminiscent playoff beard to the table if Atlanta gets that far). Ondrej Pavelec showed flashes of brilliance last year and it’s good that he’ll either be a backup or a 1b because it didn’t seem like he was quite ready for the top job. This duo of goalies is better than the steady-but-unspectacular pair in Tampa Bay.

I was inclined to say that Byfuglien is better off as a forward since that’s a thinner position while Atlanta might be (borderline) stacked on D. The team has a host of solid-to-good offensive types, with Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey drawing the biggest minutes. Johnny Oduya (the kids like to call him, “Oh do ya?”) and Brent Sopel round up a group that might lack a true elite player but looks impressively deep on paper.

Top line we’d like to see: Evander Kane-Bryan Little-Byfuglien. I’m not the world’s biggest Nik Antropov fan, so I opted for this old trio of forwards. Kane is an up-and-coming forward who might be most famous for dropping the Penguins’ Matt Cooke with one punch. Little is an underrated scorer who is one season removed from a 30-goal campaign. Byfuglien is a crease-crashing nightmare when he’s focused. Sure, this is a pretty impotent top line, but it would be fun to watch.

Oh captain, my captain: The Thrashers haven’t had a captain since Kovalchuk was traded, and honestly, there isn’t an obvious choice for that position right now. Maybe Bogosian becomes a star and leader, perhaps Little takes on a bigger role or maybe the team waits for a voice to emerge in the locker room. But, really, you shouldn’t just name a captain for the sake of naming a captain, so don’t begrudge the team for taking its time.

slaterfightshartnell.jpgStreet fighting man:  Ben Eager gets into scraps (though he often comes out on the losing end) while Eric Boulton was their top pugilist last season. Chris Thorburn and Jim Slater are still hanging out in Atlanta. Boulton hasn’t seen a fight he didn’t like much either, leading the team with 13 fights last season. Let’s just say that Atlanta might not be that much tougher to beat on the scoreboard this season, but you’ll leave their games sore and bruised far more often.

Best-case scenario: Atlanta harnesses its greatest strengths (defense, stable goaltending) and bludgeons their way to a solid sixth seed. That combination bodes well for a match against a weak Northeast Division winner (likely Buffalo or Boston) that provides a favorable opponent. The Thrashers sneak into the second round, but then their lack of forward talent is exposed.

Worst-case scenario: Byfuglien floats through the regular season while the Thrashers struggle mightily to score goals. Bogosian doesn’t make the jump many hope for, leaving Atlanta with a bunch of second pairing-caliber defensemen. Ramsay appears better suited for an assistant role. The Thrashers find themselves in the Florida Panthers zone of being too good for a lottery pick but too bad for a playoff spot.

Keeping it real: Atlanta is truly an unique entity in the Southeast Division. While the Capitals, Lightning and Hurricane are built to run and score, the Thrashers seem like they’re built to bully. Their defense is pretty deep, but not quite great while their goalies are solid but short of star status. The forward group is pretty thin, though, and that’s what will keep them from being a playoff team. They might benefit from tanking to add a blue-chip offensive weapon, but they’ll likely be on the bubble and finish just a few points short of a playoff berth.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Atlanta gets a 2. The Thrashers should be fairly competitive if they can create goals from the blue line out and don’t be surprised if they manage to sneak into a seventh or eighth seed. Still, they don’t seem like they’re quite ‘there’ yet. I’d love to see them snag a solid-to-great center or two next summer to help complete the puzzle.

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    Preds place Salomaki on IR, recall Sissons

    Jake Allen, Miikka Salomaki
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    Nashville made a minor roster transaction on Thursday, putting forward Miikka Salomaki on IR while recalling fellow forward Colton Sissons from AHL Milwaukee.

    Salomaki, 22, was a fairly regular lineup presence through the of November, appearing in eight games while averaging just under 12 minutes per night. Despite his relatively small frame (5-foot-11, 198 pounds), he racked up 28 hits over that time and emerged as a decent energy guy for the Preds.

    As for Sissons, he’s about to get yet another crack with the parent club.

    Having spent most of the last two seasons in Milwaukee, Sissons — the 50th overall pick in 2012 — has seen some action with the Preds this year. He has one goal in five games with Nashville, and eight points in 12 games with the Admirals.

    Oilers say McDavid ‘ahead of schedule’ in broken clavicle recovery

    Connor McDavid
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    There hasn’t been much good news for the Oilers lately — Connor McDavid‘s hurt, Nail Yakupov‘s hurt, they’ve lost seven of their last nine — so what GM Peter Chiarelli had to say on Thursday qualified as very welcome news.

    “He’s ahead of schedule,” Chiarelli said of Connor McDavid and his broken clavicle, per Sportsnet. “He’s been in the pool, been lifting weights… There are no soft tissue injuries, which is important.

    “When you get a break like that, oftentimes there is accompanying soft tissue injuries. That slows down the recovery.”

    McDavid, who suffered the injury on Nov. 3 against Philly, was originally supposed to be sidelined until early March. But per Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, there’s cautious optimism the star rookie could be back in the Edmonton lineup by “mid-to-late January.”

    But even with that cautious optimism, there’s still a long way to go.

    McDavid has yet to resume skating and is still at his parents’ home in Newmarket, Ontario. That said, he’s expected to join Edmonton soon — when the Oilers take on the Leafs in Toronto on Monday — and, according to Chiarelli, will want to get back onto the ice way sooner than expected.

    “I can tell you that when it comes time,” he said, “[McDavid] is going to want to come back a lot earlier than what we forecast internally.”

    There’s another Radulov NHL comeback rumor making the rounds

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    It’s been roughly six months since the last one so yeah, time for an Alex Radulov update.

    Radulov, who’s spent the last four seasons playing for KHL outfit CSKA Moscow, has reportedly rejected the club’s contract extension offer and is ready to become a free agent, per Russian sports writer Slava Malamud.

    Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko also reported the Radulov news, tweeting the ex-Preds forward claimed “there’s nothing” regarding a new deal with CSKA, adding “I’m a free agent after this season.”

    Radulov, 29, is having another terrific offensive campaign in Russia, with 37 points in 32 games. This comes one year after he tore up the KHL in ’14-15, with 24 goals and 71 points in just 46 contests — one of the best offensive campaigns in league history.

    Rumors of Radulov returning to North America happen with the same frequency as Ilya Kovalchuk comeback rumblings, and always with the same outcome. But it’s hard to ignore them completely.


    Well, back in late May, Radulov’s agent told Championat Colorado had been in contact about an NHL return once Radulov’s deal with CSKA expired. Colorado, of course, is coached by Patrick Roy — the same guy that had great success coaching Radulov in the QMJHL.

    The two were, at one time, a dynamic force for the Quebec Remparts. During the 2005-06 campaign, Radulov scored a ridiculous 61 goals and 152 points in just 62 games, the nine more in four Memorial Cup contests, helping Roy capture his first and only championship as a head coach.

    Radulov, of course, hasn’t played in the NHL since an ill-fated reunion with Nashville in 2012, which included him getting suspended for a playoff game after breaking curfew.

    Malamud does note that, should Radulov try to return to the NHL, he’d do so as a unrestricted free agent — meaning he’s no longer Nashville property.

    Just a friendly reminder about Friday’s Bruins-Rangers Thanksgiving Showdown, on NBC

    Brad Marchand, Dan Boyle

    If you don’t spend tomorrow eye-gouging someone to save 50 bucks on an iRobot, why not spend it watching hockey?

    In case you didn’t know, tomorrow’s a pretty big day. Not only is there an Original Six matchup between the Bruins and Rangers — essentially kicking off the NHL on NBC national broadcast campaign — but there’s also an additional evening game, and a good one at that:

    Anaheim hosting the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final.

    But before the Ducks and ‘Hawks do battle, the B’s and Rangers will get it on.

    This marks the second time in the last three years Boston and New York meet in the Thanksgiving Showdown. Back in ’13-14, the Bruins beat the Blueshirts 3-2, and this Farrelly Brothers commercial went to air:

    Tomorrow’s game promises to be a quality affair. The Bruins come in riding a four-game winning streak, which included Wednesday’s 3-2 OT win over Detroit. In that game, Jonas Gustavsson exacted a measure of revenge against his old Red Wings mates, stopping 32 of 34 shots for the win.

    The Rangers, meanwhile, come into Friday’s action looking for some redemption.

    Alain Vigneault’s club was waxed in Wednesday’s big test against top-seeded Montreal, dropping a 5-1 decision, at home, in front of the MSG faithful. The Rangers allowed five regulation goals for the first time this season, and saw All-Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist get yanked as a result.


    New York Rangers at Boston Bruins, 1 p.m. ET, NBC

    Chicago Blackhawks at Anaheim Ducks, 5 p.m. ET, NBCSN

    For online viewing information via NBC Sports’ Live Extra, click here.