The Atlanta Thrashers missed the playoffs yet again, and go into this summer with a new GM, Rick Dudley, looking for a new coach after firing John Anderson.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the job ahead for Dudley and what the Thrashers might be able to do in order to compete for a playoff spot next season.
Taking over the general manager's duties, Rick Dudley has a reputation as a strong personnel man and that should serve him well as he helps build the Thrashers into a more consistent contender.
His first order of business will be to find a head coach. Blackhawks assistant John Torchetti is the name being thrown about most often as the top candidate for the position, due to his having worked with Dudley in several previous NHL stops.
While the coaching search is an obvious task at hand, Dudley also has to go about putting his player evaluation skills to work so that he can provide the new coach with a roster capable of making the postseason.
There is quality young talent in the organization around which to build, with Zach Bogosian, Niclas Bergfors, Bryan Little and Evander Kane among the young guns that the Thrashers will expect to be part of their core group going forward.
At the same time, this young group could, and should, be augmented with more proven talent. The Thrashers have a lot of cap room to play with and whether that means bringing back their own free agents or looking outside the organization, either for free agents or trades (say, from teams that are looking to cut salary), there is an opportunity for the Thrashers to enter next season with a lineup that will be more competitive than they've been at any other time in their franchise history.
"We thought we should make the playoffs this year so obviously we think we should make the playoffs next year. I think we're at a point now where we can evolve into something pretty good," Dudley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
What Dudley's able to accomplish the summer will determine just how quickly this team evolves into a team that can be in playoff contention on an annual basis.
If there is some urgency to the situation -- perhaps after years of waiting it would be time -- then maybe the Thrashers would consider moving their eighth overall pick in this year's draft, if the move would help them secure a proven scoring forward.
Dudley suggested that's possible, in an interview with the team's site (http://thrashers.nhl.com), saying, "I've already had a couple people call who want to move up or add a second first round pick. And do you know what? They're available. There's just a price. I have a pretty good knowledge of what they're worth and if you want to move up to eight or acquire another pick you're going to have to pony up with something, and it's going to have to be something pretty good because they are very valuable."
It's that kind of aggressive approach -- not afraid to deal a pick if it can yield what this team needs -- that makes Dudley the most intriguing change for the Thrashers this offseason.
Nik Antropov seemed to be working out as a decent free agent signing; a complementary piece to play with Ilya Kovalchuk -- and then the Thrashers traded Kovalchuk, which figured to limit Antropov's production the rest of the way.
Not so fast. Antropov finished the season with 25 points in the last 24 games, including nine multi-point efforts after Kovalchuk was dealt to New Jersey, on his way to a career-high 67 points.
On that basis, Antropov gets billing -- albeit somewhat tentatively -- as a legitimately productive forward in his own right.
One of the great bargains in the league, Rich Peverley started the season strong, scoring 26 points in the first 23 games, then the points got harder to come by and he was minus-20 in the last 56 games.
Expecting a point-per-game out of Peverley over the long haul isn't necessarily fair, but he's proven in 121 games (90 points, plus-2) with the Thrashers that he's a fine two-way, second-line centre.
It shouldn't really have come as a surprise that 18-year-old Evander Kane earned a spot in the Thrashers lineup last season, but he did and didn't look out of place, showing some offensive skills, but moreover playing a reliable and physical game that bodes well for his future as a power forward.
With some power play time and, generally, more offensive opportunities in his second season, Kane could see a nice spike in his production, but the Thrashers have to be wary of not putting too much on a teenager who may already be exceeding expectations.
A year after roaring to a career-best 73 points, Todd White dropped to one of the worst years of his pro career, scoring just seven goals, 26 points and posting a minus-11 rating. Sure, White wasn't centering Kovalchuk any more, but going 34 games without a goal just isn't good enough.
Chris Thorburn has developed into a quality grinding forward. He'll fight, but can also take a regular shift and not hurt the team defensively in that limited role.
Points aren't the measuring stick for Marty Reasoner's game, though his 17 points last season represented his lowest total since the lockout. With his speed, Reasoner is an effective checker and has only missed five games in the last three seasons.
The centrepiece of the package that the Thrashers got in exchange for Kovalchuk, Niclas Bergfors should never be saddled with expectations that he'll somehow morph into a 50-goal-scorer, but scoring 21 in his rookie season does seem to open up the possibility that 30 could be in his future and he does play both ends of the rink.
For now, 23-year-old Bergfors should have ample opportunity to grow his game alongside the Thrashers other young core players.
One of those young core players is right winger Bryan Little, who saw his goal total dip from 31 in 2008-2009 to 13 last season. Expecting Little to bury 18% of his shots, as he did in the 31-goal season, is a tad optimistic, but he can do better than 13.
Providing some scoring depth, 25-year-old Clarke MacArthur finished with a career-high 35 points last season and he does have some instincts in the offensive zone. After going minus-16 last year, however, it's also apparent that MacArthur can improve his play without the puck.
The unrestricted free agent forwards are a mixed bag. Maxim Afinogenov had a productive year on a bargain contract and may be just fine to bring back, but it could be worth looking for a top-line upgrade too.
Colby Armstrong will be in demand as a checker with some upside and Jim Slater played well when given the chance last year, but the rest are replaceable.
With the room they have under the cap, the Thrashers could aim to make a splash in free agency, depending on their budget plans.
Even if Kovalchuk isn't returning, Atlanta could have room in the budget to take a run at big scorers like Patrick Marleau, Tomas Plekanec or Alexander Frolov, or they might find better value with Alexei Ponikarovsky or Olli Jokinen -- a couple of veteran players that have had the bloom fall off the rose lately.
Though he's small for the position, Tobias Enstrom is a star player for the Thrashers, running the power play and generating chances in transition with his speed and passing ability. He's also played every game in each of his three NHL seasons, so that durability is nice to have anchoring the defensive unit.
Ron Hainsey is similarly reliable, having missed nine games over the last four seasons, but his game changed some last season. He was no longer a primary option on the power play and spent more time in a shutdown role.
Perhaps if Pavel Kubina departs via free agency, there will be an opportunity for Hainsey to recapture some of the offensive production that was lost last season.
The key to the Thrashers' defence, perhaps for the next decade let alone next season, is 19-year-old Zach Bogosian, who struggled at times in his second season.
Bogosian has the right mix of talent and toughness to be an elite defender, but he finished his sophomore campaign with a team-worst minus-18 rating. As Bogosian learns to make better decisions, and he's surrounded by better teammates, his production should take off. It just may take some time.
His game can be easily overlooked, but Johnny Oduya is the kind of reliable defender that the Thrashers need. Oduya plays a sound positional game, has good mobility and makes smart reads. He'll be most valuable in a shutdown role.
With no goals and 210 penalty minutes in 80 career games, 6-foot-7 Boris Valabik's game is easily defined. He doesn't play much because his lack of mobility leaves him vulnerable to speedy forwards, but when there is a need for muscle, Valabik can provide it.
With three unrestricted free agents on the blueline, the Thrashers will need to fill some holes. Keeping Pavel Kubina is certainly a viable option as he has size, experience and the ability to handle big minutes.
Promoting Arturs Kulda or Ivan Vishnevskiy would be a possibility and, particularly if Kubina leaves, the Thrashers could look for some nastiness on the blueline in free agency. More defensive options like Anton Volchenkov, Zybnek Michalek, Dennis Seidenberg or Shaone Morrisonn would all bring a more physical dimension to the group.
Ondrej Pavelec may well be the Thrashers' goaltender of the future, but it would undermine the rest of the roster to entrust their playoff aspirations to a young goaltender who was terribly inconsistent as a 22-year-old last season.
Fortunately for the Thrashers, Johan Hedberg enjoyed a career season as a 36-year-old, allowing Atlanta to stay in the playoff race longer than they might have anticipated given this goaltending duo.
If Hedberg is allowed to depart via free agency, the Thrashers can look to several free agent goaltenders that could start ahead of -- or, at the very least, share time with -- Pavelec for the next year or two.
From veterans like Marty Turco, Jose Theodore and Chris Mason to Dan Ellis, Antero Niittymaki and Ray Emery, there will be options available to Atlanta so that they can upgrade at the most important position.
||Vastra Frolunda (SEL)
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Carl Klingberg is an intriguing prospect, with good size and skating ability. He might be ready to play in the NHL in 2010-2011 though, considering the relationship with Chicago (their AHL affiliate), the Thrashers would want to be very confident that Klingberg could at least stick in a fourth-line role with Atlanta, rather than risk him getting buried on the AHL depth chart.
Klingberg does have the checking game to handle a depth role, but it may benefit the Thrashers to give him more time to develop his offensive game so that he can have greater impact in the NHL.
Acquired from Dallas in the Kari Lehtonen deal, Ivan Vishnevskiy is a good puck-moving defence prospect. Whether he lands a spot in Atlanta could depend on how much the Thrashers decide they can use his skills at the point on the power play.
Like Klingberg, Jeremy Morin was a second-round pick of the Thrashers in 2009 and he lit up the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 47 goals and 83 points in 59 games with Kitchener; the kind of offensive promise that should project him into a top-six forward role whenever he's deemed ready.
Latvian blueliner Arturs Kulda impressed in his second pro season, often in a rugged pairing with Chris Chelios, on his way to a plus-46 rating in 66 AHL games. Either Kulda or Vishnevskiy should have a shot at opening the season in Atlanta.
Suspended for the second half of his junior season, Patrice Cormier definitely plays with an edge and that should give him a chance to earn a spot quickly and he will develop into a checking centre as he matures.
At the same time, it seems Cormier's offensive upside is limited, having never put up more than 51 points in any of his four junior seasons.
Spencer Machacek has been groomed for a couple of seasons in the American Hockey League and the versatile forward would seem ready to challenge for a third or fourth-line role in Atlanta next season. He may not be a big scorer, but he's a solid player.
21-year-old defenceman Paul Postma may need more seasoning -- time to gain the strength necessary to handle NHL forwards -- but his puck skills will allow him to make a difference on the power play whenever he arrives.
Picked up from the Ducks in a trade for Erik Christensen, Eric O'Dell is a nice developmental prospect who has 163 points in 159 OHL games with Sudbury. Some time with Chicago would seem a given.
Riley Holzapfel may be able to earn spot duty in a checking role, but he took a step back in his second pro season, scoring just seven goals and 23 points in 60 games.
At one time, Angelo Esposito was considered a surefire NHL star. Now, after declining production throughout his junior career and a knee injury that limited him to just 12 games last season, 21-year-old Esposito is facing a very important comeback season if he's going to develop into an NHL player.
Atlanta also has a lot of prospects in the pipeline, including the Finnish pair of Jonas Enlund and Niclas Lucenius, who starred for Tappara Tampere in Finland last season.
Then, there is a long list of collegians including: Daultan Leveille (Michigan State), Vinny Saponari (Boston University), John Albert (Ohio State), Zach Redmond (Ferris State), Jordan Samuels-Thomas (Bowling Green) and Will O'Neill (Maine); all of whom are productive players and, with some time and further development, could be under consideration for roles with the Thrashers.
Obviously, not all will make it, but if even a couple eventually do, that would be a significant accomplishment.
Additionally, the Thrashers have some strong goaltenders coming up through the system, with Alex Kangas at the University of Minnesota, along with OHLers Edward Pasquale and Chris Carrozzi, but it will naturally take some time for them to develop.
8th - Brett Connolly, Derek Forbort, Ryan Johansen.
23rd - Jarred Tinordi, John McFarland, Alexander Burmistrov.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Thrashers have approximately $28.6M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 11 players.
Needs: One top six forward, two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Thrashers needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman.
Who did they add? Evander Kane, Nik Antropov, Pavel Kubina.
TRADE MARKET Todd White, prospects, picks.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen