Here’s a recipe for NHL disaster:
• In a bowl, take one part messy ownership situation and one part mediocre attendance
• Throw in an unsigned star player and a perpetually injured No. 1 goaltender
• Add an executive desperate to sign said player
• In another bowl, placate said star player with a few new additions to the roster
• Add a middling start to the season and a depressed market for said star player
• Mix until star player and No. 1 goaltender are traded for less than remarkable return, and another season is seemingly lost.
• There, you have the Atlanta Thrashers.
Here’s the crib notes:
The Atlanta Spirit Group is fractured and in the courts to decide who gets to run the club. And it all began in 2005 over a $70-million contract for forward Joe Johnson. Never heard of him? He plays in the NBA.
The Thrashers average 13,479 fans per game, 28th in the league.
Ilya Kovalchuk was Atlanta’s franchise face and is one of the most dynamic players in the world. Kari Lehtonen was the second overall pick of the 2002 draft and played just 204 games during parts of five seasons.
Don Waddell was THN’s 30th-ranked GM in 2009 and is the architect of a team that has made the post-season once in nine seasons of existence. He has presided over the club since its inception and seen every star player the Thrashers have ever had leave town.
With Kovalchuk wavering over his future, Waddell signed Nik Antropov to an inflated contract, brought embattled Russian winger Max Afinogenov in and traded for defenseman Pavel Kubina.
The Thrashers began the season 18-12-3, but went into a tailspin in mid-December that saw them lose nine in a row and stalled the contract-extension talks with Kovalchuk (if there was ever going to be a extension).
In February, Waddell announced the Thrashers could not sign Kovalchuk, released the parameters of what they had offered their star sniper in a naked attempt to gain sympathy for his/their plight, gave a drop-dead date for a Kovalchuk trade and moved him to New Jersey for a seeming pittance.
Lehtonen never played a game this season and was sent to Dallas at the trade deadline in an ibuprofen transaction. It took care of a headache.
But maybe it wasn’t all so bad.
Kovalchuk has been anything but spectacular in New Jersey with five goals and 12 points in 16 games. And the linchpin of the trade in Atlanta’s eyes, rookie Niclas Bergfors, has seven goals and 13 points in 17 games with Atlanta, while steady blueliner Johnny Oduya is plus-10 and playing 20-plus minutes a game.
Lehtonen was a $3-million a year distraction and a restricted-free-agent-to-be, to boot. He also was hindering the advancement of possible future No. 1 Ondrej Pavelec.
The summer additions have turned into the team’s core. Antropov is the leading scorer and tied with Afinogenov for most goals with 22, while Kubina is his squad’s best all-around defenseman.
And best of all, the future doesn’t so look bleak in Atlanta.
In THN’s Future Watch 2010, the Thrashers were ranked as having the ninth-best group of 21-and-under players in the minors and with the big club, and that was before they received young blueliner Ivan Vishnevskiy – the No. 51 prospect in hockey – from Dallas for Lehtonen.
Salary cap space is as important in today’s NHL as players. And not having signed Kovalchuk to a gargantuan long-term deal means the Thrashers have oodles of money to spend in coming seasons, $28 million or so for next year alone.
And since Kovalchuk was traded, the Thrashers are 8-6-3 and now find themselves within a point of Boston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. If the Thrashers were to make the playoffs it would be a minor miracle considering how the season was looking. It also would make them more marketable in Atlanta and, maybe more importantly, outside the Peach State.
And if the rumblings are true, the Thrashers are for a sale and ticketed for a change of venue.
A win in Tuesday’s tilt with the Bruins could, temporarily at least, vault the Thrashers into a playoff position. It’s not a be-all and end-all for the franchise, but it would sure be a step in the right direction.
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