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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    Coyotes have work to do, with RFAs Murphy, Stone still unsigned

    BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: John Chayka of the Arizona Coyotes attends the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The Arizona Coyotes added a defenseman with a right shot to their roster, signing Luke Schenn on Saturday. And there could be more moves to the back end on the way for Arizona.

    They still have work left with respect to two restricted free agents. Defensemen Connor Murphy, 23, and Michael Stone, 26, are still looking for new contracts.

    Stone, another right-shot blue liner, had a career-best 36 points in 75 games last season for the Coyotes and has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Aug. 4.

    His previous contract was a three-year deal with an average annual value of $1.15 million. But he’s also coming off surgery to repair the ACL and MCL in his left knee, according to azcentral.com. In April, it was expected he could be out at least six months.

    “I know he’s running well and moving pretty well,” said Coyotes GM John Chayka, as per azcentral.com. “ … He’s a big part of our blue line, so we’re hoping to get him back as soon as we can.”

    However, when it comes to a new deal for Murphy, it appears there is some distance between the two sides.

    From Arizona Sports 98.7:

    While Chayka said the tenor of talks with Murphy has been good, Murphy’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said on July 18 that he was uncertain when a deal might be struck, and he reiterated on Saturday that nothing has changed in those negotiations.

    “I hope we are close,” he wrote via text message last week. “Still have a gap to bridge, but confident we will get it done eventually. Could wrap up with one phone call but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to get on the same page.”

    Murphy is a Coyotes first-round pick from 2011. His entry-level contract, with its AAV of more than $1,075 million, is expired.

    He appeared in 78 games for the Coyotes last season, increasing his point total from seven in 73 games in 2014-15, to 17 points in the 2015-16 campaign.

    Blues’ Allen says he still needs to prove he’s a ‘legit’ No. 1 goalie

    St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) is scored on by the Edmonton Oilers during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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    The goaltending roles in St. Louis have been clearly defined this summer. Jake Allen is the No. 1 netminder and Carter Hutton, a free agent acquisition, is the No. 2.

    For the past two seasons, especially, Allen and Brian Elliott were both counted on to shoulder the goaltending duties, but the platoon scenario was ended when Elliott was traded to Calgary last month.

    Allen recently commented on what was a positive working relationship between himself and Elliott, but seemed relieved that the leash may not be as short as it may have been in the past if he has an off night.

    “It was tough to make mistakes when Brian was around because one game — you had a bad game — he was right back in the net and vice versa with him and me,” said the 25-year-old Allen, as per a video on the Blues’ website.

    “I think you get a little bit more leeway, I guess, now. But not a whole lot. Carter’s a great goalie and I’ve heard a lot of great things about him.

    “I feel that I had to etch myself into the league consistently. Now that I’ve done that, I still have another place to go and prove I’m a legit No. 1 guy.”

    Allen just wrapped up only his second full NHL season.

    The highest number of starts he’s made in a single season at the NHL level is 44 — in the 2015-16 season.

    Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong said in June that Allen lost the crease, with Elliott taking it over with his strong play down the stretch and in the playoffs. He also made it clear Allen would have to battle to get it back in September. That changes to some degree now that Elliott is no longer in St. Louis.

    Hutton, 30, was the back-up in Nashville, but made a career-high 34 starts in the 2013-14 season, posting a .910 save percentage.

    Eberle: ‘We haven’t made the playoffs … and something needed to change’

    SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 06:  Jordan Eberie #14 and Taylor Hall #4 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates after Eberie scores a goal 10 seconds into the game against the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on March 6, 2012 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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    The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade between the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators continues to make waves. That will probably be the case right up until the start of the season and beyond.

    On that same late-June day, however, the Edmonton Oilers shocked the hockey world by sending Taylor Hall, who four times in his young career has hit the 20-goal plateau, to New Jersey for right-shot defenseman Adam Larsson, who isn’t likely to be mistaken for a dynamic offensive blue liner.

    It, too, is a deal that’s considered a major victory for one team — in this case, the Devils.

    In trading Hall, the Oilers gave up a dynamic forward, although they certainly had a plethora of skilled forwards, and their need to make upgrades to their blue line, made it necessary to part with a player up front.

    Hall and Jordan Eberle — now his former Oilers teammate — broke into the league with Edmonton in the same year, back in 2010-11. But despite an increase in talent up front, with four first-overall picks in a six-year span, Edmonton really hasn’t been close to competing for a playoff spot in years.

    Eberle, with 425 games with the Oilers through some difficult times, at first said in an interview with the Andrew Walker Show that he couldn’t comment on the deal, but eventually admitted something had to give when it came to Edmonton’s quest to land a d-man, which led GM Peter Chiarelli to make the deal.

    “Obviously I think he recognized there was an area on our team we needed to improve and maybe we had a surplus of forwards and it was something he needed to do,” Eberle told The Andrew Walker Show.

    “Ultimately, at the end of the day, we haven’t made the playoffs … and something needed to change, whether it was Taylor or whoever.

    “I think Taylor will do very well in New Jersey and I think we significantly increased our blue line. I think that’s definitely going to help us in a tough Western Conference.”

    Related:

    Oilers GM justifies Hall trade, even if Larsson isn’t a ‘sexy defenseman’ 

    Why are the Oilers still bad? Look at their drafting

    The ECHL would have an ‘open mind’ if Las Vegas NHL team wanted Wranglers name

    LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  (l-r) Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak and Bill Foley celebrate the admittance of a new NHL franchise during the Board Of Governors Press Conference prior to the 2016 NHL Awards at Encore Las Vegas on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The search for a general manager has been over for a while, the successful candidate in place. However, the Las Vegas NHL franchise is still looking to name its team. That search is still ongoing.

    With its first season in the league set for 2017-18, the Las Vegas franchise has run into some trade mark issues with potential names, much to the dismay of owner Bill Foley.

    One possibility could be the ‘Wranglers’ — the name of the former Las Vegas ECHL franchise, which officially folded in January of 2015.

    However, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the ECHL still owns the rights to the name ‘Wranglers.’ The report also stated that the team does have a temporary logo — the NHL shield with ‘Las Vegas’ written underneath. Again. Only temporary.

    “I have not been approached by either Mr. Foley or by the NHL,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

    “We own all the names of all the teams that have played or are playing (in the ECHL). Frankly, I would be surprised to hear from them now. But if they called to say they were interested in reviving the Wranglers name in Las Vegas, we would have an open mind about it. We always liked the name and the logo and the way they built up the brand in the community.”

    Meanwhile, the people of Las Vegas have had their say on team names.

    According to a bracket posted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the name ‘Outlaws’ emerged as the favorite among the people after the polls, which the newspaper admits are completely unscientific.

    The Las Vegas Visitors didn’t make it out of the first round…

    Related:

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