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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    One of the two? Sens will interview Boudreau on Friday

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    Ottawa’s search for a new head coach is moving along quickly.

    Just one day after owner Eugene Melnyk said the Sens would be down to a two-person shortlist by Friday, the Ottawa Sun reported that Bruce Boudreau would interview for the bench boss gig tomorrow.

    Tomorrow… which is Friday.

    Boudreau’s the latest in a long line of coaching prospects brought in GM Pierre Dorion. Others include Mike Yeo, Marc Crawford, Guy Boucher, Randy Carlyle and Kevin Dineen.

    Boudreau, fired by the Ducks last week, is in hot demand. Bleacher Report’s Adrian Dater reported Calgary has already made an offer, and it’s believed the Minnesota Wild have also reached out, though GM Chuck Fletcher remains unclear what he plans to do with interim bench boss John Torchetti.

    As for the Senators, there could be one more coach in the running to crack said shortlist:

    Bob Hartley.

    Dismissed by Calgary earlier this week, Hartley is seen as a good fit for the Sens gig. He speaks French, which is a bonus for a bi-lingual city like Ottawa, and has ties to player development coach Shean Donovan (Hartley coached Donovan in both Colorado and Atlanta)

    Hartley’s also liked by former GM and current special advisor Bryan Murray, who nearly hired Hartley back in 2008 — but instead opted for Craig Hartsburg.

    From the Globe:

    [Murray] narrowed his search to Hartsburg, former Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup championship coach Bob Hartley and highly regarded junior coach Peter DeBoer of the Kitchener Rangers. DeBoer beat Hartsburg in the OHL Western Conference final this season, 4-1. They emerged as the two finalists for the job.

    Both met earlier this week with Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who said he wanted to become familiar with both as well as “have a couple of beers and pizza.” The final decision was up to Murray, and Hartsburg became the man.

    “I was impressed with all of them,” Murray said. “[Hartley’s]presentation was excellent and I can see why he’s had success.

    Other candidates believed to be in the running for the Ottawa job are Kings assistant John Stevens, and Blues assistant Brad Shaw.

    If the Stars don’t get some better goaltending, their GM will have some explaining to do

    Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi (31) subs in for goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-5. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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    Kari Lehtonen was reportedly the first Stars goalie off the ice this morning, meaning he’s your likely starter tonight in St. Louis.

    The decision by coach Lindy Ruff to go back to Lehtonen is no surprise after Antti Niemi started Game 3 and didn’t even last half of it. This is the way the Stars have rolled all season — back and forth between their two veteran netminders.

    Yesterday, Ruff reiterated his frustration at having to constantly explain the two-goalie system.

    “I’m just trying to stay consistent with what we have done all year,” Ruff told reporters. “I know that’s hard for you guys to buy into, because this two-goalie thing is new to you guys and you’d rather just ask me about one goalie, but we’ve had two goalies that have played really well that have got us to where we are.”

    Ruff’s frustration is understandable, but then, so are the constant questions from reporters. Because if the Stars don’t get some better goaltending soon, they’ll be out of the playoffs and GM Jim Nill will be left to justify the $10.4 million in cap space he’s got tied up in Lehtonen and Niemi through 2017-18.

    No other team has that much cap space allocated to a pair of goalies.

    Now, was it all Niemi’s fault that the Stars lost Game 3? Of course it wasn’t. The Blues were the better team.

    But the fact remains, Lehtonen and Niemi have combined to give Dallas an .892 save percentage in the playoffs, and that’s not even close to good enough.

    Nill said going into the season that the Stars had “two No. 1 goalies.”

    Right now, they don’t even have one.

    If they did, he’d be playing all the time, and the coach wouldn’t have to explain a thing.

    Miller wants to get another contract in Detroit

    DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 24:  Drew Miller #20 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on the Dallas Stars on February 24, 2011 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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    When healthy, Drew Miller is an effective checking forward and solid penalty killer.

    When healthy, that is.

    Miller struggled through a nightmarish campaign in ’15-16, missing extensive time with a broken jaw and torn ACL. The result? Just 28 games played, and only two points scored.

    Set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the 32-year-old Miller wants to re-up in Detroit, get healthy, and return to form next season.

    “Right now, for me it’s just getting myself healthy and giving myself an opportunity to get another contract,” Miller said, per MLive. “Everything is on the right path. The knee is feeling a lot better every time.”

    Scooped off waivers from Tampa Bay seven years ago, Miller has really flourished during his time with the Red Wings and, not unlike a fine wine, got better with age.

    He didn’t miss a single game from 2013-15, appearing in 82 contests each season while racking up 15 and 13 points, respectively. Miller was also one of the Red Wings’ best shot-blocking forwards and a staple of the penalty kill.

    There are some questions about his future in Detroit, however.

    The knee has to be a concern. Miller said the ligament had been partially torn for the better part of a decade but, since it didn’t bother him that much, he never had it addressed. Yet there has to be pause from GM Ken Holland about investing in a guy, on the wrong side of 30, coming off major surgery.

    There’s also the potential for Detroit to continue with its youth movement up front. Young guys like Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Martin Frk and Evgeny Svechnikov could be pushing for full-time NHL gigs next year, which could make Miller expendable.

    Of course, the whole thing could simply come down to dollars. Miller’s last contract was a three-year, $4.05 million deal that paid $1.35M annually, and it’s hard to say if he’d score a similar payday if he sticks in Detroit.

    Testing free agent waters could ultimately be the play.

    The ‘style of play’ difference that Treliving cited ‘was news’ to Hartley

    Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley gives instructions during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, March 5, 2016. The Flames won 4-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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    When Bob Hartley was fired as head coach of the Calgary Flames, GM Brad Treliving left the impression that there was a difference between the “style of play” that Hartley coached and the style that Treliving wanted.

    Yesterday, on a conference call with reporters, Hartley called that “news to me.”

    “I felt that Brad and I always talked,” Hartley said, per the Calgary Sun, “and I always thought that we were on the same page.”

    Now, for the record, Treliving did not say that he and Hartley were constantly butting heads, or that their working relationship had gone completely off the rails. In fact, the GM made a point to say, “I don’t want to characterize this as I’m standing in one end of the corner and Bob’s at the other end, and one’s talking chess and the other’s talking checkers.”

    But that’s sort of how it came off — that Hartley had his philosophy, Treliving had his philosophy, and the two were incompatible.

    Hence, the coach’s surprise.

    “Brad Treliving was a great help to the coaching staff, was very supportive of us, so at no point was there a difference of opinion and everything,” said Hartley.

    “So yesterday that was news to me.”

    Related: Travis Green thinks he’s ready to coach in the NHL