A strong finish to the season provides the Atlanta Thrashers with a sense of optimism heading into the summer, though that optimism is still hinged on whether they can secure Ilya Kovalchuk's services with a long-term contract extension.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what Atlanta may be able to do this summer in an effort to put forth a more competitive team, which could help keep Kovalchuk in Thrasher blue.
"We need to sign some free agents, spend some money," Kovalchuk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I don't want to compete just for the playoffs. I want to compete for the Cup. I think this city deserves it."
That's laying it on the line, in no uncertain terms, for Thrashers management. With Kovalchuk heading into the final year of his contract, he's taking a wait-and-see approach before getting into talks about an extension, since he wants to see significant improvement on the roster.
If Kovalchuk doesn't sign an extension before the season starts, then there will be a season of unrest for the franchise, not unlike what happened in 2007-2008 with Marian Hossa, and that wouldn't seem to be in the best interests of anyone.
General manager Don Waddell is also under pressure since he's been presiding over this franchise since its inception and it would be a p.r. disaster to lose your franchise player because he's not impressed with the supporting cast provided to him.
Working in the Thrashers' favour, it would seem, is the rapid development of young players, led by Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian. Surrounding Kovalchuk with more elite talent is an obvious way to make the Thrashers more competitive.
What makes it more challenging for Thrashers management, however, is that Atlanta isn't exactly the first destination point for the top free agents, so the Thrashers are either left taking second or third-tier free agents (Ron Hainsey and Jason Williams last summer) or looking to make things happen on the trade market.
While the trade market is a challenge in its own right, it's also an opportunity for a team that is positioned well under the salary cap (no matter where it ends up). With some teams expected to be in cost-cutting mode this summer, the Thrashers may be able to trade for a quality player, effectively as a salary dump from their current team, if they are willing to take on the contract.
From the sounds of it, though, that may be a possibility. Co-owner Bruce Levenson was optimistic at season's end, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Some more pieces, and we can turn this thing around quickly. We've got this franchise headed in the right direction now. I can't wait for the (2009-10) season to start."
Optimism in Atlanta? Right now, yes.
Don Waddell/John Anderson
Top Prospects: Spencer Machacek (23-25-48, plus-10; Chicago-AHL), Riley Holzapfel (13-19-32, plus-8 in 73 GP; Chicago-AHL), Angelo Esposito (24-18-42, plus-8 in 35 GP; Montreal-QMJHL).
One of the game's premier scorers, Ilya Kovalchuk is the Thrashers' franchise player and he had an excellent 91-point season but, after seven NHL seasons, it remains to be seen if he's going to be anything more than a one-dimensional sniper who can count on an invite to the World Championships every spring.
Kovalchuk would obviously achieve more success with better teammates, and that could lure him to play out the final year of his contract so that he could test free agency, but he could still improve his own all-around game by playing with a more of a conscience when he doesn't have the puck.
While Todd White isn't necessarily the prototype No.1 centre, the 33-year-old tallied a career-best 73 points and worked well as the setup man to Kovalchuk and Bryan Little.
Little developed his goal-scoring touch quickly, burying 31 goals in only his second NHL season. It could be difficult for him to finish as efficiently as he did last season, converting better than 18% of his shots, but Little has raised expectations and may have found a home as a first-line right winger.
There may not have been a bigger surprise player in the NHL last year than Rich Peverley, who was claimed on waivers from Nashville, having scored 20 points in 73 career games, only to put up 35 points and a plus-16 rating in 39 games with the Thrashers. What can he do for an encore?
Vyacheslav Kozlov seems to alternate his point production from one year to the next. Soon to be 37, he's especially valuable with the man advantage, scoring 43 of his 76 points on the power play. Unfortunately, if Kozlov holds true to recent form, next season may not be so productive.
After several years of seasoning in the AHL, Colin Stuart finally cracked the lineup as a regular after the All-Star break. A winger with good size, Stuart plays a no-frills game and should be able to handle a regular checking role.
Tough guy Eric Boulton sees little ice time, but is a willing scrapper and put up a career-best 13 points last season.
An energy winger with a scoring touch, Colby Armstrong meshed well with Peverley and notched a career-high 22 goals while only seeing rare power play time. There's a lot to like about Armstrong's reliability as a competitive two-way forward.
Jim Slater is a fine skater who hasn't developed much offensively, yet remains a quality checking forward who may be capable of handling a few more minutes if need be.
While he did play in the first 29 games of his NHL career last season, Joey Crabb is pretty much organizational depth; capable of filling in when needed, but not necessarily expected to stick on the roster for the full season.
There's no denying the effort and feistiness of Chris Thorburn, so the scrappy foot soldier is okay for a limited role, which means he doesn't necessarily need to play in all 82 games again.
Since the Thrashers' likelihood of re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk appears to depend on the quality of the supporting cast they provide for him, they may need to dip into the free agent market to acquire some quality complementary pieces.
If meshing with Kovalchuk is part of the criteria, why not target a free agent forward like Nik Antropov or Russian veterans Maxim Afinogenov, Alex Kovalev or Sergei Fedorov? For all their flaws, any of them would represent an upgrade to the Thrashers' skill level up front. Otherwise, a reliable veteran like Mikael Samuelsson, who can play in all situations, might have some appeal at a relatively moderate cost.
There would also be nothing wrong with keeping unrestricted free agent Marty Reasoner in Atlanta, after the 32-year-old checker completed one of the better seasons of his career, which included a career-high 14 goals.
Additionally, the Thrashers hold the fourth overall pick in the draft and, while it seems like the top three prospects are separating from the crowd, there's still not a huge drop in quality to the Thrashers' pick.
Brayden Schenn may be the most physically-ready, but Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson fared well as a 17-year-old in the Swedish Elite League and Evander Kane is a dynamic scorer. Any one of them could challenge for a spot in Atlanta's lineup next season.
Based on the results in the second half of the season, the Thrashers have enough scoring to compete, but bringing in another scorer or two, along with improved depth on the checking lines would provide sorely-needed insurance.
Top Prospects: Andrei Zubarev (0-4-4, plus-5 in 35 GP; Mytishi Atlant-KHL), Grant Lewis (0-22-22, plus-17 in 54 GP; Chicago-AHL), Arturs Kulda (1-14-15, plus-7 in 57 GP; Chicago-AHL), Paul Postma (23-61-84, plus-67 in 70 GP; Calgary-WHL).
If not for his broken leg, Zach Bogosian could have forced his way into the Rookie of the Year discussion. The 18-year-old came on strong in the second half, playing heavy minutes and making an impact at both ends of the ice, giving every indication that he's on his way to becoming a true franchise defenceman.
Tobias Enstrom is undersized, but is a smooth skater with good puck skills who has proven to be very durable in two NHL seasons. He should have an even greater impact with more consistent power play time next season.
Last summer's big free agent acquisition, Ron Hainsey, put up a career-best 39 points, but he also struggled at times in his own end. Nevertheless, Hainsey has shown that he's capable of fulfilling a top-four role and, with the right partner, can be effective defensively.
Garnet Exelby provides a physical element, to say the least. He's a punishing hitter who plays to his strengths and therefore does what he can to avoid handling the puck.
Though he didn't play a lot after coming over at the trade deadline, Anssi Salmela is worth a longer look next season. If his career warrants it, I'll offer to write his biography, tentatively titled, The Devil Went Down To Georgia.
Big, bad Boris Valabik remains a project. He has size and isn't afraid to use it, but he's still at least a step slow for anything more than depth duty. If Valabik could become merely solid in his own end, he'd be an intimidating presence in the lineup.
If Atlanta is going to make a push for playoff contention next season, they would need to add another top four defenceman (ostensibly to replace Mathieu Schneider, who was dealt to Montreal). While someone like Mattias Ohlund would be ideal, the Thrashers could also resort to more reasonable defensive options like Dennis Seidenberg, Nick Boynton or Paul Mara.
Top Prospect: Ondrej Pavelec (18-20-2, 2.58 GAA, .914 SVPCT in 40 GP; Chicago-AHL)
When he's healthy, Kari Lehtonen has the skills to be a number one goaltender, yet he's played more than 50 games just once in his four NHL seasons. With a potential logjam in the crease, Lehtonen could be the bait if the Thrashers are inclined to make a significant trade this summer. Naturally, the return would have to be significant, like a first-line forward or top four defenceman, to get talks moving.
If Lehtonen is moved, that would create an opening for top prospect Ondrej Pavelec, who has played well in the American Hockey League, but his results in 19 career NHL games have been uneven (3.42 GAA, .890 SVPCT), so it would take a leap of faith to simply hand the 21-year-old a starting job.
36-year-old Johan Hedberg is still under contract for another season, so he might as well stick around, but given his play over the last two seasons (a combined 3.47 GAA, .890 SVPCT) it's imperative that the Thrashers have a number one goaltender they can count on for 60-plus games, to limit their dependence on Hedberg.
4th - Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Magnus Paajaarvi-Svensson.
The Thrashers have approximately $29.0-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Thrashers needed last year: One top line forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Jason Williams, Mathieu Schneider, Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian.
Kari Lehtonen, Ondrej Pavelec, Boris Valabik.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca