The 17-11-3 Atlanta Thrashers are flying high this season. Not Washington Capitals or San Jose Sharks high, but Atlanta high.
The Thrashers are second in the Southeast Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference, 16th in the league and firmly in the thick of the East’s playoff race.
And sorry Maple Leafs fans, but much of that success can be attributed to the work of two former Buds, Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina, two great off-season finds by Thrashers GM Don Waddell.
Antropov has settled in nicely as Atlanta’s top pivot between Ilya Kovalchuk and former Buffalo Sabre Maxim Afinogenov. Yes, Antropov’s still driving fans crazy by not shooting (41 shots in 31 games) or scoring enough (four goals), but his 21 assists are tied for 14th in the NHL and he’s a plus-8 to boot; among the league’s best 50 skaters.
The big Kazakh came at a premium – four years, $16.25 million – but if he stays healthy and puts up 65 to 70 points (as he’s on pace to do) he’ll be a steal compared to other 2009 unrestricted free agents, such as the more expensive Brian Gionta, Martin Havlat and Alex Kovalev.
Kubina, meanwhile, is thriving as a member of the suddenly decent Atlanta defense corps. Is it because he’s out of the Toronto fishbowl? Maybe, but he never seemed overly affected by the crush of expectations and media. More likely it’s because he’s the No. 2 or 3 man on a blueline vastly superior to the one he was a part of in Toronto the past few seasons.
With Tobias Enstrom and sophomore Zach Bogosian playing the most minutes and providing offensive punch, and Ron Hainsey playing a steady game, Kubina has had room to find a comfort zone. He’s tallied three goals and 14 points and, most impressively, a plus-14 rating, good for a fourth-place tie league-wide.
Consistent goaltending – thanks to the rise of Ondrej Pavelec and another Kari Lehtonen injury – some luck up front with the ascension of Rich Peverley and surprising play by another off-season acquisition, Afinogenov (11 goals, 26 points), have also helped greatly.
“Definitely the new team; the different style of the game here, it matches my style more,” said Afinogenov of the difference in his production this season versus last. “It’s a new life, a new chapter. I feel great, and we’re winning games and that’s most important.”
The Thrashers’ turnaround began last season once the team started to take to new coach John Anderson’s methods. Unfortunately, it took until New Year’s to get there.
“It’s not supposed to take that long, but I don’t think everybody was on the same page for the first couple of months,” said Enstrom of Atlanta’s poor 2008-09 start. “Finally after Christmas, everybody figured it out and we played like a team.”
Atlanta posted a 23-19-1 record after Jan. 1, a pattern of play that has continued this season.
A lot of that can be attributed to captain and superstar Kovalchuk, he of 17 goals, 31 points and enumerable moments of sheer excitement in 25 games.
“Yeah, last year it took a little long,” Kovalchuk said. “I think the last 30 games we were playing pretty well – we got over .500 record and that’s what we take from last year. And this year everyone is on the same page and we bring some size and experience and that’s the difference.”
The Thrashers have indeed been on the same page, as displayed in October and November while Kovalchuk was injured for six games. Atlanta’s strong play continued as the team won three of six games without its superstar.
There’s depth in Atlanta like never before, a lot of which is the work of moves made by Waddell this past off-season.
Kovalchuk thriving in leadership role
REPORTER: John Grigg | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.