A comprehensive guide to the Thrashers
Let's face it; the Atlanta Thrashers aren't exactly the best known of NHL teams.
Unless you have the Centre Ice cable package or are a hardcore fan, it's not the most notable or buzz-worthy franchise. The attention factor cuts two ways, and a number of Thrashers players could be in for quite the change should the team move to Winnipeg and this land of wall-to-wall hockey coverage.
Here's a primer on the franchise — past, present and future — from an on-ice perspective.
The franchise, awarded by the NHL in 1997, has made the playoffs just once in its 10 seasons of play. They went out in four straight games in that 2006 playoff series.
7 before '11
Should the Thrashers move to Winnipeg, they will be the seventh Canadian NHL franchise. Aside from the ownership issues that have long plagued Atlanta, here are seven other key dates in the franchise's history.
June 26, 1999: The criticism Atlanta received for taking Patrick Stefan first overall is fairly unwarranted. Aside from the Sedin twins, it turned out to be a dismal first-round crop overall. Where the franchise really fell down was in their subsequent 10 picks. Only depth defender Garnet Exelby had any kind of NHL career and their second-round pick was taken before the likes of Jordan Leopold, Craig Anderson and Chris Kelly.
Oct. 5, 2003: The team is plunged into grief after a high-speed car crash, which six days later claims the life of forward Dan Snyder. Teammate Dany Heatley, who'd emerged with 89 points the previous season, escapes jail time. But damage to Heatley's body sees him play just 31 more games for the franchise, and his reputation is tarnished. He's dealt the following year to Ottawa for Marian Hossa.
April 18, 2006: Hopes come crashing down in ignominious fashion after a four-game playoff sweep vs. the Rangers. Atlanta scores just six goals and allows 17, with young goalie Kari Lehtonen clearly rattled. The Thrashers would plummet 21 points the following season and return to also-ran status.
Feb. 25, 2008: There are several playoff-bound suitors for impending free-agent Hossa, and Waddell makes a deal with Pittsburgh. The two players received are no longer on Atlanta's roster (Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen), while the two prospects that resulted from the deal (Angelo Esposito, Daultan Levielle) have yet to reach the NHL.
Feb. 4, 2010: Bona fide star Ilya Kovalchuk is dealt when it's clear he won't re-sign in the summer. The Thrashers get several parts, including current players Patrice Cormier and Johnny Oduya, and a pick that they later parlay (see two entries down). Given the ridiculous contract Kovalchuk would receive from the Devils, you can make a strong case the Thrashers were wise.
April 14, 2010: Waddell is one of the nicest guys in the NHL, but his record as general manager spoke for itself. He's "promoted" to team president, with Rick Dudley taking over as GM.
June 23, 2010: Thrashers make a multi-player deal with Chicago. While they've already traded away two of the parts they received, they got the best player in the deal, big and versatile Dustin Byfuglien.
While Don Waddell provided stability at the GM position for about a decade Atlanta's poor hockey fortunes have been in large part due to weak drafting and developing.
The hiring of Rick Dudley last year as GM was legitimate cause for hope, as he had a hand in a number of moves that helped Chicago to their 2010 Stanley Cup, and had served as GM in other NHL stops.
Dudley, who played very briefly with the Winnipeg Jets in his playing career, hired Craig Ramsay as coach. The pair were roommates nearly 40 years earlier with their first pro team, the Cincinnati Swords of the AHL. Ramsay is the fifth coach in franchise history.
Fans of the world junior tournament should be familiar with a number of players who've already established themselves at the NHL level. Thrashers team captain Andrew Ladd, Anthony Stewart, Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Patrice Cormier suited up for Canada, while players like Tobias Enstrom, Rob Schremp, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler and Ondrej Pavelec played for their home countries.
A number of players in the organization yet to establish themselves at the NHL level also played at the tournament.
There are no players on the current roster born in Manitoba. For what it's worth, there are three from neighbouring state Minnesota — Byfuglien, Wheeler and Mark Stuart. That's indicative of the overall active roster, in which over one-third are American players.
If he can stay healthy, Stuart could be an early depth player favourite in Winnipeg due to his willingness to go to the wall for his teammates.
About a half-dozen players on the past season's roster were juniors in the Western Hockey League.
The Thrashers received attention and praise this season for a roster that was ethnically and racially diverse. Byfuglien, Kane, Stewart, Johnny Oduya, and prospect Akem Aliu are black.
The Winnipeg Jets of the 1970s were at the vanguard as far as talented Europeans were concerned. The Thrashers have few European stars, though goalie Pavelec and defenceman Tobias Enstrom are two of their top players.
The recent past
The Thrashers weren't great from inception to 2003 as far as the draft, but their first-round picks were strong enough to help the team to its lone playoff berth. Atlanta has paid dearly in recent years for a dismal draft record between 2004 and 2008.
Defenceman Boris Valabik (first round, 2004) is nothing more than big and tough, while their next top pick, Alex Bourret, didn't pan out at all. Zach Bogosian (2008) and Bryan Little (2006) have been OK first-round picks, but each has been inconsistent. Ondrej Pavelec came in the second round of 2005, but had to wait his turn for several years before Kari Lehtonen was traded.
There were no late round finds during this period (in contrast to Enstrom, selected in the eighth in 2003).
The 2007 draft was particularly damaging. After a series of trades, they had just four picks overall and none before the third round. By that time, the likes of Logan Couture and Wayne Simmonds had already been picked in the late first and second round. Their first selection, Spencer Machacek in the third round, just completed his third full season in the AHL. (It should be noted that the Thrashers did pick up second-round pick Aliu in the 2010 trade with Chicago).
The Thrashers have just treated draft picks cavalierly throughout their history. A recent example? Clarke MacArthur, who played just 21 games for the Georgia club in 2010, cost third- and fourth-round picks.
Because they haven't been a prime free agent destination, the Thrashers have overpaid in the past for players who have shown interest. Serviceable defenceman Ron Hainsey was given what would have to be considered one of the worst NHL contracts in recent years (five years for $22.5 million US in 2008), as he's tallied 14 goals and 84 points total in the first three years of the deal, with a minus-25 rating overall.
The past season
The Thrashers appeared to be one of the surprise stories of the season after a positive first half of the season under Ramsay, getting his first permanent crack at an NHL coach's job after several turns as an assistant.
But Atlanta went just 1-9 in the first 10 games after the all-star break and they never got much better after that. The Thrashers won just 12 of 39 games once 2010 was in the rear view (12-21-6).
Their overall record: 34-36-12, sixth worst in the NHL.
On the positive side: Byfuglien and Enstrom were fourth and sixth, respectively, among NHL defencemen in points and Evander Kane took another leap forward in his sophomore season.
The Thrashers did tie for the NHL lead with 15 wins in overtime and the shootout. But what that also means is that the club only played 19 games in which the other team didn't earn at least one point.
A brief synopsis of a lengthy list of negatives:
Ladd led the team in scoring with just 59 points, and he was the only forward to go over 20 goals (defenceman Byfuglien also reached that standard. Alex Burmistrov, the first-round pick last summer, was thrust into the lineup before really being ready. He finished with six goals and 20 points in 74 games.
Atlanta dropped from 23rd to 29th in goals against compared to the previous season, although the skaters generally received more of the criticism for that standing than goalies Pavelec and Chris Mason. The penalty kill hurt in this regard, ranking just 27th.
The loss of Ilya Kovalchuk saw the Thrashers go from 12th in total goals in 2009-10 to 20th. Atlanta did finish a respectable 12th on the power play. Given their low goal output overall, it means their ability to score while even strength was pretty terrible.
The club had a winning record against Southeast Division rivals, which won't do much good in Manitoba.
It was the league's predominant issue and the Thrashers did not escape it — eight players suffered concussions, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat reporter Chris Vivlamore.
Present & future
The club moved quickly to lock up Byfuglien, but time will be the judge of his $26 million ticket over five years.
The organization picks seventh in the June entry draft, dropping one spot in the lottery. Befitting the team's star-crossed history with the event, that situates them just where the so-called "can't miss" prospects end and the uncertainty begins.
While it's just one opinion, prospect resource Hockeysfuture.com has the organization's pipeline of prospects ranked 25th of the 30 NHL teams.
Draft picks Burmistrov, Paul Postma and Arturs Kudelka made their NHL debuts the past season, while in the past 15 months the team has pick up former prized prospects of other clubs, such as Aliu, Cormier and Ben Maxwell from Montreal.
In addition, 2009 second-round pick Carl Klingberg is coming over from his native Sweden to try and crack the roster.
The positive news on the free agent front is that there are no significant unrestricted free agents.
But the Thrashers do have seven restricted free agents this summer, with the most pressing decisions involving Ladd, Bogosian, Stewart and Wheeler.
While a lot is to be determined, a Winnipeg organization would figure to be less parsimonious than Atlanta, which has often operated with over $15 million US in cap space.