Thrashers’ Organizational Audit
Here’s the Thrashers’ depth chart (as of May 20, 2011):
C: Antropov, Burmistrov, Slater, Cormier
LW: Ladd, Kane, Thorburn, Maxwell
RW: Little, Wheeler, Stewart, Schremp
D: Byfuglien, Enstrom, Bogosian, Hainsey, Oduya, Stuart
G: Pavelec, Mason
Salary commitments: $37.5M
Cap space: $21M
Key free agents (all restricted): *Andrew Ladd, *Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian
*Possess arbitration rights
Draft: 7th overall
Players likely available: Dougie Hamilton (D), Ryan Strome (F), Ryan Murphy (D), Nathan Beaulieu (D), Sven Bartschi (F), Mika Zibanejad (F)
The future of this group rests on the broad shoulders of Evander Kane. After being drafted 4th overall in 2009, he made the NHL as an 18 year old, and looks to be well on his way to being one of the better power forwards in the game. As a 19 year old, he put up 19 goals and 43 points in 73 games, and dazzled fans and teammates alike with his uncommon blend of skill, strength, and speed. He plays a style reminiscent of Jarome Iginla.
Alex Burmistrov was drafted 8th overall in the 2010 draft, and in typical Thrashers fashion, was rushed to the NHL. He had a tough year with only 20 points, but he has the tools to be a 1st line centre. A playmaker who takes his defensive responsibilities seriously, he plays a generally similar style to Pavel Datsyuk – though he doesn’t have the same high-end skill.
Bryan Little is another former top-10 draft pick who is quickly becoming a good offensive threat. He had a tough start to last year with only 10 points in his first 21 games, but then came on strong with 38 points in his last 55 games. At only 23 years old, he may still have some untapped potential.
Andrew Ladd was the team’s leading scorer last year with 29 goals and 59 points. No one really expected that kind of offensive outburst from Ladd, who previously was a solid but quiet contributor on a deep Chicago squad. At 6’2, 200+, he has size and grit, to go along with a good set of mitts. He’s also the team’s captain, and brings good experience to a young team. He’s a restricted free agent on July 1, so it’ll be interesting to see how the (potential) move affects his contract negotiations.
There is a lot of size and skill among the remaining players, but just as many question marks. Nik Antropov has become a pretty solid top-6 forward in this league, but is well known for his indifferent and unusually timid play considering his frame (6’6, 240). Blake Wheeler is a similar case, with silky smooth hands, but a reputation for being soft, shying away from the physical play despite standing 6’5, 215. He did have 17 points in 23 games after being traded from Boston, but his career thus far has been marked by inconsistency. Rob Schremp and Anthony Stewart are two more cases of unrealized potential. Schremp lit up junior hockey with 388 points in 4 OHL seasons, mainly with the powerhouse London Knights. An Oiler draft pick, he struggled to make his way to the NHL, in part due to questions about his attitude and work ethic, famously brought about by former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish. Stewart meanwhile was taken 25th overall by Florida in the famed 2003 draft, ahead of stars like Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, and Shea Weber. He was also a part of the 2005 Canadian World Junior squad – widely regarded as the best junior team of all time – playing on a line with Nigel Dawes and Mike Richards. After toiling in the minors with Florida, he was given a fresh start in Atlanta and put up a pretty good year with 39 points. The remaining forwards include Patrice Cormier – a 21 year old centre who was captain of the 2010 Canadian World Junior team, famous for his dirty elbows (type in “Cormier elbow” on youtube); Chris Thorburn – a gritty, hard working 4th line centre; Jim Slater – a speedy 4th liner who is great on faceoffs and can play centre or wing; and Ben Maxwell, who came over from Monteal in the Brent Sopel trade – who looks to be a bit of a ‘tweener’ (one who may be too good for the AHL but not good enough for the NHL).
This is the strength of the team, led by dynamic players like Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. Everyone knows about Byfuglien due in large part to his tormenting of Roberto Luongo as a Blackhawk in 2009 and 2010. Drafted as a defenceman, he played his first few NHL seasons primarily as a forward before Atlanta converted him back to defence this past year. That was a good decision, as he put up 20 goals and 53 points, garnering serious Norris trophy consideration, particularly in the first-half of the season. With incredible size and strength, and a booming shot, Byfuglien is essentially a clone of Shea Weber – and though he’s not as capable defensively, he’s every bit as good offensively.
Tobias Enstrom may be the most underrated defenceman in the league. He is among the best powerplay quarterbacks in the league, with incredible vision and passing ability. He’s put up over 30 points in all 4 years in the NHL, including 51 points in just 72 last year. He now has 50+ points in 2 straight years. Despite being just 5’10, 175, he’s been quite durable thus far in his NHL career. He played 246 straight games in his first three seasons before missing 10 games this past year.
Zach Bogosian is a classic case of too much too soon. He was drafted 3rd overall in 2008, immediately after Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty. Some scouts actually had him ranked ahead of Doughty. He was a beast at the NHL draft combine, impressing everyone with his strength and physical maturity. He had a solid rookie year at age 18, putting up 19 points in 47 games and finishing at +11. However, his play (or at least his statistics) stalled a bit in 2009-2010, and regressed this past year, managing just 17 points in 71 games and a horrid –27. Trade rumours dogged him for much of the season, and he lost playing time due the team’s strong blueline depth. Though he hasn’t developed as expected thus far, he’s still just 20 years old, and a key piece of the organization which 29 other teams would love to have.
The remaining three are solid players in their own right. Ron Hainsey is a good two-way defender, leading all Thrashers in plus-minus this past year (+3) despite taking a regular shifts against the other teams’ top players. His offensive totals have dropped in recent years, but that’s mainly due to the emergence of players like Enstrom and Byfuglien and not any lack of ability. Johnny Oduya was a big contributor with the New Jersey Devils and came over in the Kovalchuk trade. He hasn’t been nearly as good in Atlanta, and is a bit overpaid at $3.5M, but he only has 1 year left on his deal and could be a trade deadline castoff next February, if not sooner. Mark Stuart was brought over last season from Boston and immediately re-signed an affordable three-year deal at $1.7M. He’s a tough, defensive d-man who is capable of being more than just a #6 defenceman.
Atlanta was in the playoff race the first half of last season for 1 reason: Ondrej Pavelec. He missed the first several weeks after a strange incident which saw him lose consciousness while on the ice, but was lights out upon his return, regularly making 40+ saves in guiding the Thrashers to improbable wins. At just 23 years of age, he’s well ahead of most of his peers, and is establishing himself as one of the best young goaltenders in the league.
Chris Mason has had an interesting few years. After 5+ years in the minors, he made his NHL debut with Nashville in 2006, filling in for then-injured Nashville starter Tomas Vokoun. He ended up playing so well that the team traded Vokoun to Florida. However, he eventually lost his job to Dan Ellis (who lost his job to Pekka Rinne) and then made his way to St. Louis where he put up two pretty solid seasons. While he had a pretty disappointing first season in Atlanta, he’s still a very reliable backup who can be pressed into starting duty if needed.
The pool of pre-NHL prospects is pretty thin, since the Thrashers have rushed players like Kane, Bogosian, and Burmistrov to the NHL as teenagers. Their best propect is Paul Postma – a lanky offensive defenceman who put up 29 points in his rookie AHL season followed by 45 points last season. His game isn’t well-rounded at this point, but he definitively has the ability to run the powerplay and should expect to receive a call-up this year in the event of injury. Also worth following is Carl Klingberg – a big Swedish forward with good skill who is playing his first full AHL season this coming year.
The team picks 7th overall in this year’s draft, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be available come selection time. This year’s draft is wide open, with some players ranked as high as #2 by some scouts and as low as 7th or 8th by others. Then there’s the issue of draft philosophy – should you draft based on a team need, i.e a 1st line centre, or a top defenceman – or should you simply draft the best player available? In practice, it’s very hard to determine who the best player is, so teams tend to covet players they think will fit into their long-term plan. The top-half of the defence corps is somewhat solidified with the likes of Byfuglien, Enstrom, Bogosian, etc. The team’s most pressing need is a forward, particularly a centre. Talented pivots like Sean Couturier and Jonathan Huberdeau are expected to go in the 3-6 spots, but dyanmic OHL centre Ryan Strome – fresh off a 106 point season with the Niagra Ice Dogs – may still be available. (Note: I’ll post a mock draft sometime before Draft Day weekend). Swiss forward Sven Bartschi also possesses high-end skill, while Swedish centre Mika Zabinejad has been rising rapidly in draft rankings (though he looks to be more of a two-way, power forward rather than a pure skill player).
The team has plenty of size and skill but is thin on experienced NHL players. As a result, they suffer defensively, especially on the pk where they finished 27th overall. They’d probably be smart to flush one-dimensional forwards like Rob Schremp and Ben Maxwell in favour of defensively reliable vets like free agent Max Talbot, or Chad Larose. Apart from that, they just need to let their defence corps and young goaltender mature, and gradually replenish their forward ranks with young players who possess high-end skill – players whom they’ll acquire primarily through the draft.