Ranking the Southeast Division: Atlanta

Atlanta
Atlanta

Had it not been for Tampa Bay’s similar inability to perform, Atlanta would have finished at the very bottom of the Southeast Division. Everyone knows of the Lightning’s marquee signings thus far. So will the Thrashers be the bottom feeder in 2008-2009?

If they are as poor on both sides of the puck as last season, there is no doubt that will be the case. By scoring the fewest goals in the division and allowing the most in the NHL, Atlanta mapped out the equation on how to be a bad hockey team.

With a brand new season ahead of them, it is clear that only major changes and improvements will pull this team out of the gutter. Realistically, how much can they improve?

Defense:

The most glaring problems were on defense last year. Only one defenseman on the roster at the end of last season, Niclas Havelid, had a plus rating, plus-2. The rest combined to average a rating of worse than minus-9.

Niclas Havelid
Niclas Havelid

Five of those defensemen currently are not signed to the Thrashers, which is probably the good news. The bad news, however, is that they have only signed one defenseman in free agency, and don’t have enough ‘NHL-ready’ defensemen to create three pairings.

Of those who are gone, the most prominent is Alexei Zhitnik. None of the others played any more than 33 games except for Steve McCarthy. He, however, was a major contributor to the astounding plus/minus average.

Zhitnik had his contract bought out by Atlanta, likely because he is now 35 and his numbers haven’t been the same since the NHL returned from the lockout.

Once a significant producer offensively in Buffalo, Zhitnik averaged 29 points a season. He hit that total in the inaugural post-lockout season. Age is obviously slowing him down. He has yet to sign with another team.

The four returning defensemen, Tobias Enstrom, Ken Klee, Garnet Exelby and Havelid, are the most solid of the bunch. Each played 72 games or more, and most have a decent plus/minus rating. That is, for being a blue-liner on the Thrashers.

Joining the four is Ron Hainsey, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Hainsey adds an offensive threat, and will likely see time with Enstrom on the power play. He also likely adds more solidarity, having played in 78 games last year and 80 the season before that.

Offense:

Point production lies in one man: Ilya Kovalchuk. He scored 52 goals last year and finished with 87 points.

Thrashers’ management signed Jason Williams as a free agent, who could be a nice fit on Kovalchuk’s line. Williams has 20-goal potential, and his time in Detroit a few years ago proves that if he is put in the right situation he can be very productive.

Atlanta was strong at the center position in ’07-’08. Bobby Holik was part of that strength, but left on the first day of free agency to go back to New Jersey where he won a Stanley Cup.

Holik
Holik

Holik will not be missed too much, except as the captain and leader of the team. He is getting older and his production will go down with age.

A bit younger, and now center for the Atlanta Thrashers, Marty Reasoner will take Holik’s place. Reasoner has consistently put up 20+ points a season, and is a nice fit as a third line center.

Most of Atlanta’s free agent moves dealt with forwards. Many of the other signings secured players to minor league deals. There are a few prospects in the Thrashers’ minor league system, however, that could surface in the NHL in ’08-’09.

Former No. 1 pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins Angelo Esposito leads the group.

All told, the Thrashers lost 105 points from last season. The majority of those came from Holik (34 pts.) and Mark Recchi (48 pts.). Recchi has signed with division rival Tampa Bay in free agency.

Goalies:

Atlanta has two capable starting goaltenders on it’s roster in Johan Hedberg and Kari Lehtonen.

Lehtonen will likely be the starter, though he only played in 12 more games than Hedberg last year. The real reason he will be the starter is because is GAA average was .56 lower than Hedberg.

Lehtonen’s GAA average was 2.90 last season, which is nothing to write home about. However, his SV% was 91.6%, which proves that he faced a lot of shots and had little defensive help.

At 6’4″ and weighing 205 pounds, Lehtonen has a significant advantage in net. His long legs take away virtually the entire lower half of the net.

My Take:

The Thrashers will be lucky to finish with a higher point total than last year. I don’t expect it to happen. That is, unless the defense get firmed up with another signing or two.

Having only 5 NHL-ready defensemen is a huge concern. That will not help the worst defense in the game. Unless there are quality defensemen that are still available, and would be willing to play in Atlanta, I don’t expect the defensive situation to get much brighter.

I know many people are counting on first-round pick Zach Bogosian (No. 3 overall) to make the team out of camp. Whether he does or not, relying on a rookie to fill such a huge void is risky.

Offensively, I think the addition of Williams will be a help. However, others will need to step up as well to create more offense. This team lacks a second, potent scoring line to draw attention. Thus, opponents are able to key on Kovalchuk’s line solely.

It also needs to be noted that the Thrashers had the worst power play and penalty kill in the Southeast. With improvements in both areas, those goal numbers on both ends will grow closer to each other.

Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, all but one scored more goals than they gave up. That one was the Boston Bruins.

Accordingly, 11 of the 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs allowed more goals than they scored.

What’s the recipe for success? Score more than you allow.

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