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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    No changes coming to CHL-NHL agreement: Branch

    SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 26:  Mitchell Marner poses for a portrait after being selected fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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    Every year, a handful of NHL teams have to decide whether to keep a teenage player or send him back to his CHL club.

    What’s not an option is to send that teenager to the AHL. The CHL and NHL have an agreement that forbids that.

    And according to CHL commissioner David Branch, that agreement isn’t about to change.

    “So far the National Hockey League has not expressed any viewer opinion that it should be changed,” Branch said recently, per the Canadian Press. “Now we know time to time when there’s an NHL team that thinks, ‘Gee I’d like to place him in our AHL franchise setting,’ that always comes back into this discussion. It’s only driven in a few isolated situations.”

    If, for example, Jonathan Drouin had been allowed to join Tampa Bay’s AHL squad after being drafted in 2013, that’s perhaps where he would’ve gone. Instead, he was sent back to dominate the Q again.

    Jared McCann, traded yesterday to Florida, would’ve been another teenage AHL candidate, had it been allowed. The Canucks chose to keep him last season, but they were worried the NHL would wear him down (which it did).

    Next year, the Maple Leafs may have a similar worry with diminutive forward Mitch Marner, who just turned 19 and has nothing left to prove in the CHL. The AHL won’t be an option for him either.

    Some people think that’s unfair, that the agreement should be amended, that the CHL is actually looking out for its own best interests, not the players’.

    Not Branch.

    “My view of it is when hockey people get together in an unemotional environment, without specific examples, they say the best thing to do is play in the CHL or NHL,” Branch said. “That’s not something we push at (NHL clubs), that’s what hockey people have collectively agreed to.”

    Red Wings acquire unsigned prospect Sadowy from Sharks

    PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28:  Dylan Sadowy of the San Jose Sharks poses for a portrait during the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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    The Detroit Red Wings have acquired 20-year-old forward Dylan Sadowy from the San Jose Sharks, in return for a third-round draft pick in 2017.

    Sadowy, the 81st overall pick in 2014, scored 45 goals in the OHL this past season. He had 42 the year before.

    But Sadowy never did sign with the Sharks. The deadline for him to do so was June 1; otherwise, he could’ve re-entered the draft.

    He won’t be doing that, though. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Sadowy has already agreed to terms on an entry-level contract with the Wings.

    It’s been a ‘roller coaster’ — Pens, Bolts ready for Game 7

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    PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby is in no mood to get caught up in his own personal narrative, the one eager to attach whatever happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday against Tampa Bay to the superstar’s legacy.

    Forget that Crosby has the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s victories in its entertaining back-and-forth with the resilient Lightning. Forget that he hasn’t been on the winning side of a post-series handshake line this deep into the playoffs since his glorious night in Detroit seven years ago, which ended with him hoisting the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

    Yes, he’s playing well. Yes, his dazzling, imminently GIF-able sprint through the Tampa Bay zone late in the second period of Game 6 added another signature moment to a career full of them. Yet lifting Pittsburgh back to the Cup final for the first time since 2009 does not rely solely on him so much as the collective effort of all 20 guys in his team’s retro black and Vegas gold uniforms.

    Depth has carried the Penguins this far. Crosby insists Game 7 will be about the team, not him.

    “You give yourself the best chance of winning by keeping it simple and not putting too much emphasis on kind of the story line around it,” Crosby said.

    Even if it’s easy to get lost in those story lines. The Lightning are on the verge of a second straight berth in the final despite playing the entire postseason without captain Steven Stamkos and losing Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the first period of the conference finals when he twisted his left leg awkwardly while scrambling to get into position.

    Yet Tampa Bay has stuck around, ceding the ice to the Penguins for significant stretches but using their speed to counterattack brilliantly while relying on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Lightning are hardly intimidated by having to go on the road in a series decider. They did it a year ago in the Eastern final against New York, beating the Rangers 2-0 in Madison Square Garden.

    “You’ve got to go back to a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’ve got to have your A-game.”

    The Lightning hoped to avoid revisiting this spot. They could have closed out Pittsburgh at home but fell behind by three goals and didn’t recover, fitting for a series that appears to be a coin flip as a whole but not so much night to night. The team that’s scored first is 5-1 and there’s only been a single lead change in 18-plus periods spread out over nearly two weeks: Tyler Johnson‘s deflection in overtime that gave Tampa Bay Game 5.

    “You always want to play with the lead, and always the first goal is big,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in Game 7s. “But, again, we were down 2-0 in Game 5 and came back from that. So it’s not cut in stone, the outcome of the game, no matter if you’re down a goal or two.”

    Maybe, but it’d be cutting it pretty close. Tampa Bay’s rally in Game 5 was Pittsburgh’s first loss when leading after two periods all year. The Penguins responded by going back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray – who turned 22 on Wednesday – and putting together perhaps their finest hockey of the postseason. Their stars played like stars while Murray performed like a guy a decade older with his name already etched on the Cup a few times.

    The Penguins will need to rely on Murray’s precocious maturity if it wants to buck a curious trend that started well before Murray was born. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a Game 7 on home ice since Mario Lemieux and company beat New Jersey in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs to escape from a 3-2 series deficit and propel the Penguins to their first championship. The Penguins have dropped five straight winner-take-all matchups since then, including a loss to Tampa Bay in the first round in 2011, a series Pittsburgh played without either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries.

    They’re healthy now and showing extended flashes of the form that seemed to have the Penguins on the brink of a dynasty when they toppled Detroit. And the Lightning, who are 5-1 in Game 7s, are hardly comfortable but hardly intimidated as they play on the road.

    “I think it’s a roller coaster,” Cooper said. “But Game 7 is Game 7. There’s no two better words than that.”

    Coyotes ‘thrilled’ to bring assistant coach Newell Brown back

    GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12:  Head coach Dave Tippett and assitant coach Newell Brown of the Arizona Coyotes during the NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Gila River Arena on November 12, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    The Arizona Coyotes have signed assistant coach Newell Brown to a multi-year contract extension.

    “Newell is an excellent coach and has done a great job overseeing our power play,” said GM John Chayka in a release. “He has been a valuable addition to Dave Tippett’s coaching staff and we are all thrilled to have him back.”

    Brown joined the Coyotes in the summer of 2013, after three mostly successful years with the Vancouver Canucks on Alain Vigneault’s staff.

    The Coyotes also announced today that Steve Sullivan has been promoted to Director of Player Development and has signed a multi-year contract extension.