The Atlanta Thrashers are in a state of limbo, and the 2010 off-season will go a long way in determining their future. New General Manager Rick Dudley, who took over for Atlanta hockey czar Don Waddell on April 14, certainly faced an uphill battle in his first full season at the helm of the struggling franchise.
A new coaching staff needed to be assembled, and how on Earth could he possibly fill the hole left by Ilya Kovalchuk?
While Kovalchuk wasn’t the first high-profile Thrasher to force his way out of town (see: Heatley, Dany and Hossa, Marian) his departure hurt the most. Captain Kovalchuk was beloved in Atlanta and many believed the team’s future in the South was intertwined with his.
And while Niclas Begfors, Johnny Oduya and much-maligned prospect Patrice Cormier will never exceed Kovalchuk’s importance individually, they have a chance to show the whole is always greater than its individual parts.
Now, onto my analysis of the Thrashers 2010 off-season…
The Chicago Blackhawks cap trouble most certainly became the Atlanta Thrashers’ gain. In two separate deals with the 2010 Stanley Cup Champs, the Thrashers acquired four NHL players, highlighted by star power forward Dustin Byfuglien.
In addition, new GM Rick Dudley acquired forwards Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd and defenseman Brent Sopel.
Since taking over for Waddell, who saw the Thrashers play in just four playoff games under his tenure, Dudley has done a magnificent job overhauling his roster without sacrificing the team’s future and by, more importantly, not spending money.
While he did trade away talent in Jeremy Morin and Ivan Vishnevskiy, the former Florida Panthers GM brought back several established NHL players — not prospects. With a dwindling fan base and with their long term future in doubt, Atlanta must become competitive and must do it soon.
Undoubtedly the prize of the summer for Blueland, is Big Buff, prototypical NHL power forward. He found his game in the playoffs, notching 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 22 games. He led the league with five game-winners and tied for the lead with five power play strikes.
The 25 year-old Minnesota native instantly provides the Thrashers with size, tenacity and a nose for scoring garbage goals. They don’t ask how pretty, just how many.
When Byfuglien is on his game, as he was in the postseason, he can be the difference maker the Thrashers desperately need. He also has the potential to become an instant fan favorite, another piece the Thrashers have been searching for since the departure of Kovalchuk.
In a weaker division and the confidence of winning a Stanley Cup behind him, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect 50-60 points from Byfuglien this season.
Ladd is coming off a career season with Chicago not only brings size and talent, but championship experience. The two-time Cup winner (Chicago and Carolina in 2006) is only 24 and certainly has not reached his peak. He was a No. 4 overall selection by the Hurricanes in 2004 and hopefully last season’s success will launch him forward as a Thrasher.
In Eager, Atlanta is not acquiring the offensive skill of Byfuglien or Ladd as much as an enforcer that can score. Eager, a former Blackhawk and Flyer, led Chicago in penalty minutes last season and also served as a dependable penalty killer. He is a necessary piece to any puzzle, as depth is almost as important as skill.
Sopel is a solid defenseman the Thrashers need to shut down opposing offensive talents, such as Washington’s Alex Ovechkin or Carolina’s Eric Staal. While Sopel is not blessed with the offensive talent of Zach Bogosian, he prevents goals. He has good penalty killing ability and has the hands to make crisp breakout passes, something a young team like the Thrashers needs.
Atlanta also received prospect Akim Aliu, a power forward with a bit of a nasty streak. He amassed 407 minutes in four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and last season was demoted from Chicago’s AHL to their ECHL affiliate. However, Dudley, who was a part of the team that drafted him in Chicago, must have faith in Aliu’s ability or he wouldn’t have acquired him twice.
Dudley has essentially been forbidden from spending money this free agency season and its showed. Atlanta has only re-signed one player from last season’s team (enforcer Eric Boulton) and saw defenseman Pavel Kubina return to Toronto and longtime netminder Johan Hedberg sign with New Jersey.
But Dudley was able to ink veteran goalie Chris Mason who could prove to be valuable in both his play between the pipes and as mentor for youngster Ondrej Pavelec.
The jury will remain out regarding Dudley’s first free agency however, as Bergfors, Pavelec and Bryan Little, amongst others, are all unsigned as restricted free agents
The prize in the draft was eighth overall pick Alexander Burmistrov, Atlanta’s only pick in the first three rounds. Burmistrov is likely to be under pressure to replace Kovalchuk, to whom he has drawn comparisons. But the Barrie Colt of the OHL, told the Thrashers web site that he would much rather play like Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk rather than Kovalchuk or Ovechkin.
Burmistrov is a talented two-way center with blazing speed and prides himself his defensive abilities, a trait tailor made to suit the demands of new coach Craig Ramsey.
While Burmistrov admitted he is nervous about the pressure of playing in Kovalchuk’s stead, Dudley told the Thrashers web site he doesn’t think the young Russian will have any difficulty playing in Atlanta because his “character, skating, and hockey sense marks are off the chart.”
And if Burmistrov approaches anything resembling a player of Datsyuk’s quality, no one in Atlanta will be heard complaining.
THE COACHING STAFF
As a longtime follower of the Boston Bruins, it pained me to learn Dudley tabbed Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsey to coach the Thrashers. And in my opinion, this is the best move he made the entire off-season.
The last two seasons, Boston finished first and second in goals allowed and had a penalty kill in the top-three both years. This past season, the Bruins made the playoffs despite finishing last in the league in scoring.
And much of that can be attributed to Ramsey’s defensive prowess and coaching ability.
Just don’t think the new mantra in Atlanta will be all defense, all the time.
“I believe in offense,” Ramsey said in a statement. “ And I think that we want to an up-tempo game.”
And with the young talent in Atlanta, that is not a far-fetched hope. Ramsey will certainly improve the Thrasher’s 16th-ranked penalty kill and 25th-ranked power play this upcoming season especially with the talent Dudley is assembling around him.
There is still a long time between now and the start of the season for Atlanta, and Dudley has shown he is not afraid of change, but if his first few months as GM are any indication, the Atlanta Thrashers may finally be headed in the right direction.