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Atlanta Thrashers Offseason Game Plan
Posted By Kevin Thurston On Jun 13 2010 @ 4:11 pm In All Sports | 3 Comments
Yes, it’s another offseason for the Atlanta Thrashers in which serious questions need answering and important positions need filling. The 2009-2010 campaign ended in disappointment as the team, yet again, failed to qualify for the post-season. The franchise’s best player to date, Ilya Kovalchuk, was traded. At season’s end, the entire coaching staff was fired, and the formerly “associate” General Manager Rick Dudley was given full control of the GM’s chair as Don Waddell took a “promotion” into the business side of things.
This offseason is as important as all the prior offseasons, but this summer comes with a new feel for fans, as the club is “under new management” and once-and-for-all turning the page on the Heatley/Kovalchuk draft era. Allow me to break down the various elements that the Thrashers must take care of before the 2010-2011 season opener.
1- Find A New Bench Boss- Rick Dudley has interviewed 3 candidates that the media has been made aware of. Those names include Boston Bruins assistant Craig Ramsey, Chicago Wolves (AHL) head coach Don Lever, and Manitoba Moose (AHL) head coach Scott Arniel. As of last week, Arniel signed a contract to coach the Columbus Blue Jackets, so consider him off the table.
However, Chicago Blackhawks assistant John Torchetti has yet to be interviewed. He’s probably getting his ring-finger examined so his Stanley Cup Champsionship jewel will fit correctly. Torchetti comes into the offseason having just won the Stanley Cup as an assistant coach for the B-Hawks. As a Thrashers fan, you can’t help but get giddy at the notion of your new coach boasting a championship to his record. The last time Atlanta picked up a Trophy coach was the 2003 hire of Bob Hartley.
Don Lever is probably the odd man out. Dudley knows that his team’s small fanbase won’t be too thrilled at the idea of hiring another Wolves coach, seeing that former Wolves and Thrashers coach John Anderson did little to help the franchise.
I’d venture to say that Torchetti will most likely receive the call, although Craig Ramsay is not a bad choice at all if things fall through with Torchetti. Both guys are familiar with Rick Dudley and would probably relish the opportunity to work under him. One thing is for sure: whoever gets the job has got their work cut out for them.
2-Draft, draft, draft: In the NHL’s salary cap era, teams are forced to do a lot more building from within, rather than making big free agent signings. Personally, I love this aspect of the league. A team like the Thrashers, with a penny-pinching ownership, needs to make the most of their opportunity to bring in the best of the newly-eligible talent. The best way to build a team, as proven by the Blackhawks and Penguins (the last two Stanley Cup champions), is to draft the best players available as much as possible. That means getting picks and holding on to them.
Good news: The Thrashers have 9 picks in 7 rounds, two of those picks being in the first round alone. Looking down the draft order, the Thrashers will select at #8 and #24 of the first round, #54 of the second round, #87 of the third round, #101 of the fourth round, #128 and #150 of the fifth round, #158 of the sixth round, and #188 of the seventh round.
Those first round picks are monumental for the future of the club. At #8, the Thrashers should be able to pick up some real talent, perhaps edgy scoring winger Nino Niederreiter, shifty center Alexander Burmistrov, or perhaps shut-down d-man Derek Forbort. There are several names that Dudley’s got on his draft card for that spot, and there’s no reason he can’t pick up a difference maker.
Although the Thrashers high-end draft legacy has been completely obliterated by the depatures of Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Kari Lehtonen, they have shown some major improvement over the last three years with the additions of Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and Bryan Little, and this is an important draft year to build on that success.
3- Ink the RFA’s- Bryan Little, Ondrej Pavelec, Niclas Bergfors, and Clarke MacArthur should all be re-upped without much of a hassle.
Bryan Little, who’s sub-par play last season probably made the difference between the golf course and the playoffs, will probably get a raise…a raise that will surely come with a firm “you better friggin earn this, kid” from the front office. Alas, we’ve all seen the 30-goal potential of Little, who should come into training camp with determination to reassert himself as a legitimate scoring threat.
Bergfors will get paid nicely, as his rookie campaign of 25 goals was perhaps the most underrated of all the rookies league-wide. The centerpiece of Atlanta’s return on the Kovalchuk deal, Bergfors is an indescribably important factor in the future of the Thrashers franchise.
Pavelec should be re-signed, but it’s still a question as to whether he’s the starter in October. I’ll touch on this in a minute. Clarke MacArthur, who is about as average as average gets, should also be on a Thrashers contract for the training camp. Whether he makes the cut is another story. I wouldn’t be upset if he did not get a contract, but given that Waddell traded a 3rd and a 4th round pick for MacArthur last season gives me the impression that management likes the guy and will keep him around. Otherwise, thats gross overpayment to acquire the quintessence of mediocrity and then not offer him a deal.
Other RFA’s include Chad Denny, Anthony Stewart, Mike Vernace, Scott Lehman, Rylan Kaip, Matt Siddall, Peter Mannino, and Thomas Pospisil, all of whom manned posts in the AHL or ECHL last year. I would venture to say that most, if not all, will be sent qualifying offers before July 1. However none of them should be expected to earn an NHL roster spot for opening night, although someone might surprise us.
4- Pick a goalie, any goalie. – It’s an annual issue when it comes to the historical lack of solidarity between the Thrashers pipes. As I stated previously, the Thrashers shouldn’t hesitate or have much of an issue with re-upping Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec has loads of potential, but his age (22) suggests that he may not be ready to be the TRUE starter of an NHL club. It is in the nature of most goalies to really hit their stride in the late 20′s, so I’m sure the Thrashers will keep Pavelec on board in the hopes that he will return on their investment down the road.
Fan-favorite Johan “Moose” Hedberg is scheduled to be an Unrestricted Free Agent on July 1. To my knowledge, the Thrashers have tabled him a contract, but that sounds more like a “lets talk” kind of thing rather than “here’s the actual deal we want you to sign” move. So far, no signature yet.
So the questions remain: Does Pavelec get the starting job out of camp? Does Hedberg get another year with the team? If not, who does Dudley bring in?
If Hedberg were to set sails for another shore, Dudley would have options. Limited options, however. Dan Ellis is probably the most attractive goaltender of this years Free Agency period. He’s young, put up good numbers as a starter in Nashville, and seems like a great fit to take the job here in Atlanta. However, better teams will offer him good money, so unless he’s got something in his heart for the ATL, or Dudley gives him a big overpayment, he’s probably not going to wear the Thrashers sweater any time soon.
Dudley could try to make a big splash by signing veteran goaltenders like Marty Turco or Evgeni Nabokov, but given those players’ age, I’d list those signings as doubtful. Turco’s performance has suffered the past two seasons and Nabokov is making a name for himself as the best goalie to be totally ineffective when it matters.
Dudley could perhaps tap the shoulder of Peter Mannino, who put up outstanding numbers last year for the Chicago Wolves. If Mannino comes up, that makes Pavelec the starter, and the team has a promising but unstable goaltending tandem.
Of course, there’s still the very realistic chance that Hedberg comes back for one more round and shares the load with Pavelec. The two did adequate enough last year to give the team a chance behind what has always been a grossly underachieving defensive squadron.
5- Approach Free Agency with Caution.
I do not expect the Thrashers to make much of a statement during free agency this summer. One NHL official has described this summers free agency as “the thinnest ever.” What he’s saying is that there isn’t much talent to be had. Because of this, more teams will be forced into bidding wars for the players that are worth the big bucks. The Thrashers should avoid bidding wars at all costs. Bogosian and Kane are going to want raises in the near future. Dudley needs to manage the bank account and play it conservatively while his crop of young players grow into legitimate money-makers in the NHL. The salary cap era is not kind to teams who spend too much too quickly.
Let’s face it: We should expect the Thrashers to push for the playoffs, but, barring miracles, the Thrashers are likely not going to contend for the Cup Finals in the next two seasons. So why waste big money? A new page is turning for this franchise: A new GM, an all-new coaching staff, and plenty of talent to grow. Play it conservatively, exercise patience, and allow the young players to grow an identity for the team.
As for current Thrashers players pending UFA, there’s not much to get excited or concerned about. Colby Armstrong is totally out the door, but fans are hard-pressed to find anything in his resume to suggest he’s worth a new contract. Spencer Machacek, the gritty winger who’s made a name for himself as a leader with the AHL Wolves, is probably drooling at the opportunity to take Armstrong’s spot, and if I we’re GM I’d be more than happy to give it to him.
Maxim Afinogenov is probably about 50-50 in terms of re-signing here, and I suspect he will test the free agent market before he makes a decision. Pavel Kubina would be welcomed back by fans, as his strong play really helped the team stay in competition last year. However, he’s probably not going to even think about signing with the Thrashers until he knows who’s going to coach him.
Attractive UFA names for the Thrashers include Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anton Volchenkov, and Alexander Frolov.
Ponikarovsky is widely noted as current Thrasher Nikolai Antropov’s best friend. Given that Ponikarovsky underachieved with the Penguins in the post-season, his market value may be reduced to a point where the Thrashers can make a legitimate run at signing him. Frolov would be an attractive option to replace the missing “Russian-factor” that left with Ilya Kovalchuk, but Frolov is reportedly in talks with the KHL about playing over there. Volchenkov would replace Kubina and then some, but several other teams will probably have the same idea.
So, yes, it’s going to be an interesting off-season for the Atlanta Thrashers. Can they build off of the improvement of last season? It’s hard to say given the shakeup of coaches and players, but new GM Rick Dudley is exuding confidence in these matters. Despite losing Kovalchuk and missing the playoffs yet again, one could argue that the franchise is on its best footing since the 2006-2007 playoff season.
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