After tasting the playoffs, ever so briefly, at the end of the 2006-2007 season, the Atlanta Thrashers dropped out of contention this season and, a team without a head coach is in danger of alienating players who aren't thrilled with the direction of the franchise.
Off-Season Game Plan examines some possibilities for the Thrashers to improve their chances of turning it around next season.
The first order of business is for the Thrashers to find a full-time head coach. General manager Don Waddell took over the reigns after firing Bob Hartley, but Waddell knows that he needs to find a new head coach.
The first option would figure to be Brad McCrimmon, currently the Associate Coach. McCrimmon seems to have the support of the players and has accumulated enough experience that it's about time he got a legitimate chance behind the bench.
Even once the coaching situation is resolved, there is the dilemma of how hard to push for player acquisitions this summer.
After missing the playoffs, the Thrashers are feeling some pressure to get back to the postseason and that leads to the temptation to go after veteran free agents who may not have long-term value to the franchise.
Considering that the Thrashers are still a team in the building phase, it's important not to get overly seduced by the idea of the quick fix veteran additions. That means that, even when signing free agents, the Thrashers should target younger players (say 27, 28 years of age) that can give some of their best years as Atlanta's young players develop.
Resisting the urge for a short-term fix, however, isn't going to be easy when the team's lone marquee talent is despondent after missing the playoffs.
"Yeah, we have to," Kovalchuk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the Thrashers making the playoffs for next season. "It's going to be my seventh year; four games in the playoffs is not enough. Hopefully we'll make the right moves and be a great competitive team next year."
Given Marian Hossa's apparent dissatisfaction with the organization before he was traded, it's going to be tough for the Thrashers to resist making moves to keep Kovalchuk happy.
However, with the roster they have heading into this off-season, it will be a major accomplishment if the Thrashers turn into a playoff team by next season.
Angelo Esposito, Riley Holzapfel, Brett Sterling
Atlanta's offence begins, and unfortunately ends, with Ilya Kovalchuk. The gifted Russian sniper is coming off a 52-goal season and it's now imperative for the Thrashers to provide Kovalchuk with an adequate supporting cast. That means improving the quality of his linemates, and improving the quality of other lines, so that opposing teams won't only worry about stopping Kovalchuk.
Colby Armstrong is a good energy guy, with enough upside to contribute offensively. Ideally, he's a second or third-liner, but there is a very real possibility that he could find himself on the top line with the Thrashers.
While Eric Perrin's upside would seem to be limited now that he's north of 30, the Thrashers surely wouldn't complain about a repeat 45-point performance from the late bloomer.
On the other hand, it would be a major letdown if Vyacheslav Kozlov couldn't improve upon his 41-point campaign, his lowest total since 2001-2002. For the money the Thrashers are paying him, and considering Kozlov has a no-trade clause, performance simply has to improve.
Expectations were probably unreasonably high for Todd White when he was signed as a free agent last summer, but he didn't produce enough for a playmaking centre who was given the opportunity to play with an elite scoring winger. Now, White needs to prove that he can at least be solid in a second or third-line role.
Erik Christensen is somewhat of a wildcard. He didn't get a lot of opportunities in Pittsburgh and was injured late in the year with Atlanta after struggling in his earliest time with the Thrashers, but he's shown that he can handle the puck and has the ability to finish and that could land him a regular spot.
Ideally for the Thrashers, Bryan Little would be capable of handling a prime role as an offensive centre, but that's a lot to ask from a 20-year-old. Little had his moments as a rookie, but is probably still a couple of years away from being ready to handle top six minutes for a winning team.
The depth guys aren't bad, though. Chris Thorburn adds toughness and Jim Slater provides speed that should theoretically lead to more offence. Brad Larsen had a forgettable season (four points, minus-17), but he's an inexpensive veteran.
The Thrashers have yet to find a playmaking centre to feed Kovalchuk and that would figure to be a priority entering this off-season, whether through trade or free agency.
What makes free agency all the more challenging for the Thrashers is that, as a team without a winning pedigree, they likely need to overpay to lure an elite free agent. So, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg may be out there, but it would qualify as a huge shock for a player of that ilk to join the Thrashers.
Given that situation, the Thrashers may need to explore the trade market to find Kovalchuk a setup man. L.A.'s Mike Cammalleri might be an interesting option or, as a short-term fix, Chicago's Robert Lang might fill the role.
Otherwise, the free agent market isn't ripe with elite playmaking centres, so the Thrashers may look to improve their offensive balance by adding some second-tier scorers along the lines of Jason Williams, Jan Hlavac, Niklas Hagman or Ladislav Nagy.
While that list is admittedly less than inspiring, they would undoubtedly elevate the skill level of Atlanta's forwards and that's the quickest way to more goals.
When it comes to the prospects, Atlanta can't expect immediate help. Angelo Esposito hasn't improved in the QMJHL, so he may need some time in the AHL to help him get acclimated to the pro game and to re-establish his credentials as a prospect.
Riley Holzapfel is a promising two-way forward, but he's not going to be a big scorer and probably needs some seasoning before he's ready as well.
Brett Sterling might be able to make an impact but, after three points in 13 games last season, it's risky to expect too much from the undersized AHL scoring sensation. If he makes it, and can be a 20-goal scorer, then consider it a bonus.
Whatever they do, the Thrashers need to improve the supporting cast for Kovalchuk, and finding three or four guys who can score 20 goals would be a good way to at least try and replace the production lost when Atlanta traded Marian Hossa at the deadline.
Boris Valabik, Andrei Zubarev, Grant Lewis
If anything positive can be taken from the 2007-2008 season it is that Tobias Enstrom emerged as a quality NHL defenceman. Though small, Enstrom's mobility and excellent puck skills made him an asset in all facets of the game and he ended up playing more than 24 minutes per game. Continued development from the 23-year-old is a must.
Niclas Havelid is underrated in many respects, but he's the only other Thrashers defenceman who is a bona fide top four defenceman. Now approaching his mid-30s, Havelid is reliable, steady and willing to sacrifice as the team's top shot blocker.
After those two, however, the Thrashers defence is murky.
Veteran Ken Klee was pressed into significant duty, playing more than 20 minutes per game, but that's not ideal for the soon-to-be 37-year-old. That's not to say his stability isn't appreciated, it would just be better if he wasn't asked to handle quite such a heavy load.
Alexei Zhitnik finished the 2006-2007 season with a flourish, scoring 14 points in 18 games after arriving in Atlanta, but he fell out of favour last season and finished with a career-low eight points. Either Zhitnik rebounds and plays the top four role he's expected to handle, or the Thrashers may want to investigate Zhitnik's value around the league as he heads into the final year of his contract.
Heavy hitter Garnet Exelby seemed to tire late in the season, but his physical presence is valuable on a defence corps that isn't hard enough on opposing forwards. If Exelby gets better at diagnosing the right time to deliver the big hit, and not get caught out of position, he would be even better.
Monstrous Boris Valabik will have a chance to win a spot next season, as the 6-foot-7 blueliner brings a nastiness that should help keep the front of the net clear for Kari Lehtonen. Valabik was decent in a late-season trial, but the 22-year-old is still a depth defenceman at this stage of his development.
If the Thrashers are going to make a legitimate move in the standings, solidifying this defence corps needs to be part of the plan.
First off, the Thrashers are likely in position to take a defenceman with the number three pick in the draft, though it's unlikely that any defenceman is going to come in as an 18-year-old and play, let alone make a difference.
Thus, the Thrashers could dip into the free agent market for some possible top four defencemen. Puck movers like Paul Mara or Karel Rachunek would be relatively reasonably-priced options that might like the opportunity to play significant minutes in Atlanta, while stay-at-home types like Jeff Finger, Dmitri Kalinin, Bryce Salvador and Mark Eaton should all be of interest as proven veterans.
Behind a mediocre defence, Kari Lehtonen took some lumps, but also displayed the kind of skills that justify his being taken second overall in the 2002 draft. While the record (17-22-5) and goals against average (2.90) were below average, Lehtonen's .916 save percentage was solid, and downright impressive when compared to Johan Hedberg's .892, playing behind the same defence.
If Lehtonen is going to establish himself as a bona fide number one goalie, though, he needs to stay healthy and prove that he can handle the heavy load for 60-plus games, as he did in 2006-2007 when he played in 68 games.
The Thrashers should be able to let Hedberg go in free agency and give the backup role to Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec is only 20 years-old, but his play last season -- both in the AHL and in a seven-game call-up to the Thrashers -- indicates that he's ready for the bright lights, even if it's in a limited role to start.
3rd - Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo
27th (via Penguins) - Joe Colborne, David Toews, Daultan Leveille
The Thrashers have approximately $24-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top line forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Thrashers needed last year: Four top six forwards, two top four defencemen.
Who did they add? Eric Perrin, Todd White, Chris Thorburn, Bryan Little, Tobias Enstrom, Ken Klee
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org