Finding positives to build on over the past few years in Atlanta has been like trying to convince someone that Alexandre Daigle's NHL career was a successful one.
Next to impossible.
While futility is nothing new in the land of the Thrashers, Ilya Kovalchuk was always the lone bright star that could be leaned on for goals, hype and entertainment. Since he left for greener pastures, Thrashers’ fans have had very little to be happy about, or look forward to, but there is always hope in the NHL that next year will be different.
And this year could truly mark the beginning of good things to come for the Thrash, and a lot of the credit may have to go to the salary cap woes of the Chicago Blackhawks. Over the offseason, Thrashers General Manager Rick Dudley took advantage of the fact that the Hawks were pressed tightly against the cap and swiftly made moves to acquire Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, and most notably, playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien. Not only are these players expected to improve the on-ice product for Atlanta, the team is also hoping that they can bring a winning attitude and some much needed leadership in the dressing room.
There is hope for the 2010-2011 season, and that alone is a step in the right direction. Combining the talents of a skilled winger in Byfuglien, emerging youngsters Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian, and proven scorers like Nik Antropov, is the right way to rebuild and the reason why there is more positivity than in year's past.
Aside from the offensive additions made by Dudley, the biggest move that the team made may come in the form of Chris Mason. Both Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg were mediocre at best last year, and the feeling is that Mason will finally be able to give the team some stability in net, while hopefully improving the -22 goal differential that the team finished with last year. If he can come close to the .913 save percentage that he put up last season, it will not only improve the team but will also help mold young Pavelec for the future.
Unfortunately, with all of the positives and additions are a number of losses and drawbacks, as well. All in all, the Thrashers lost Maxim Afinogenov, Pavel Kubina, and Colby Armstrong to the KHL, Tampa Bay and Toronto respectively. Noting the fact that the team's defense struggled all of last year, the loss of Kubina could have the biggest impact. The hope left on the back end is that Bogosian will continue to improve with experience and that the presence of Johnny Oduya will have an impact on all defensemen around him.
Anyone with any insight as to what is going on in Atlanta will admit that this is a rebuilding team. In fact, they have been renovating for as long as most fans can remember. However, with all of the missteps, wrong turns, and the ominous shadow casted by Kovalchuk, it seemed that the team may never climb out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference. While losing Kovalchuk puts a huge dent into their offense, it may just be the change of pace that allows them to crawl out from that shadow and truly build a new, unique and successful identity.
It's time for new names, young players, and a new strategy to take over for Atlanta as they try to find the recipe for winning that has been as elusive as Rick DiPietro's health. With that said, and even noting the fact that the Eastern Conference is the weaker of its rival, the playoffs may prove once again to be out of reach this year. But at least the team has stopped sacrificing long-term success for short-term gains, and in a few years they could prove to be a poor man's 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.
THE BIG GUNS
Dustin Byfuglien (LW) : While 17 goals and 17 assists in the entire regular season does not normally help you achieve recognition as a “big gun,” there is no doubting that all eyes in Atlanta will be on big
Buffy. His impressive playoff performance, stunning size, passion for winning and penchant for the front of the net, are the reasons why he will get every chance at first-line minutes and become targeted by plenty of fantasy owners this year. Now that Dustin isn’t sitting behind the logjam of talent that was in Chicago, he will be looked upon to put up 25 goals as a team leader on the power play. The only question that remains is whether he will thrive in his newly found role, or wither away now that opposing teams will be game-planning to counter his abilities. Byfuglien deserves a top roster spot in all fantasy hockey leagues, just be patient and do not over-reach to get him in the early rounds of your draft. If you can find a way to nab him as your third or fourth winger, you will be more than happy with his output. On top of all that, there is word from Rick Dudley that Dustin may be shifted back to the blue line at some point during the season, so he may have ‘W’ and ‘D’ eligibility in a number of fantasy leagues.
Nik Antropov (RW) : Antropov is constantly referred to as the top talent left on this young Atlanta team. He finished off last year with 24 goals and an impressive 43 assists, and also had eight power-play points, surprisingly leaving him behind only Niclas Bergfors. Without Maxim Afinogenov hogging the puck (he had 181 shots last year) and with a little more depth on the team, Antropov should be able to match his numbers for last season, if not better them slightly. At any rate, there is opportunity for Nik to hit the 30-goal plateau, which could be huge for anyone that is able to steal him in the draft.
Chris Mason (G) : As a warning, labeling any goalie that must play in front of the Thrasher's defense as a “big gun,” is essentially an oxymoron. However, Mason has the tools, experience, and skill set to really improve the Thrashers team and help give them the stability in net that they so desperately need. He put up a .916 save percentage two years ago and a .913 save percentage last year, so you can imagine how much those type of numbers could help the Thrashers and your fantasy team. Mason will not go early on in drafts, so he is the type of guy you should target as a second option in net during the late rounds. If you have a top goaltender that can pick up a ton of wins, handcuffing him with Mason could put you in a very good spot.
ON THE RISE
Niclas Bergfors (RW) : In just 27 games after being acquired by the Thrashers last year, Bergfors managed to settle in quite nicely and pick up 17 points. Now that he has a full offseason with the team and a full preseason coming, there is no doubt that he will be more comfortable, possibly earning a bigger role with the team. His overall fantasy value will be dramatically affected by the battle in training camp between him and Dustin Byfuglien. If Bergfors can wrangle away the first line spot from him, or if Byfuglien is moved back to the D-line, then he will hold a ton of value at the very thin RW position.
Also note that even if Niclas doesn’t get a spot on the first line, he will see power-play time throughout the year. This gives him even more potential and a worthy gamble in late rounds of standard fantasy drafts.
Evander Kane (LW) : Many fantasy hockey experts and players alike were salivating at the potential of Evander Kane last year, but his final numbers were hardly anything to get excited about. He finished off the disappointing year with 14 goals and 12 assists but had a number of games where his true skill, speed, and potential really stood out. However, the fact that Kane was seen as a slight disappointment last year may actually work in your favor this year, as only those in deep to very deep leagues will be eying him in the late rounds. While he won’t be a noticeable pick in the draft, he does have the talent to put up numbers and will have every opportunity to do so this year. If he happens to be matched up opposite Dustin Byfuglien, then he should have more than enough space on the ice for his elusiveness and quick hands to go to work. Peg this kid late in the draft and take a flier on him - the potential is too much to ignore in 2010-11.
TWO TO AVOID
Zach Bogosian (D) : As a disclaimer, you do not want to avoid Bogosian at all costs during your fantasy hockey draft, so by all means, nab him if he is available late in the draft. However, the reason we are listing him as a player to avoid is simply because he is overvalued by the vast majority of fantasy owners out there. The young, skilled defenseman didn’t break out last year as many experts thought he would, and is being babied into the league by the Thrashers. He only finished the season with 23 points and wrapped up the year with a minus-18 rating, yet many owners will target him as a steady, second blue liner. Bogosian is going to a very skilled and very special NHL player over the course of his career, but his time may simply not be here yet. Be sure to target this young man in keeper leagues, and take a flier on him late if you are looking for depth, but do not go out of your way expecting (Drew) Doughty-esque numbers like many owners will.
Ron Hainsey (D) : Hainsey is another name that gets his spot on this list based purely on his inflated value, more than his skills or numbers. Hainsey consistently picks up between 30 and 40 points each year, but when you look at where he is drafted in some leagues, you would expect him to be a prototypical 50 point blueliner. Couple the fact that most owners always reach for Hainsey with the reality that he hasn’t put together a plus/minus rating better than -6 since 2005-06, and it’s easy to see why you should drop him down a few pegs on your fantasy wish list.
Alex Burmistrov (C) : Burmistrov, the eighth overall draft pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, is the young stud that Thrashers management dreams will play along with Evander Kane on the top line for years to come. While some say that this speedy Russian is undersized, others have compared him to the likes of Alexei Kovalev and Pavel Datsyuk. There are also rumblings out of “Hotlanta” that Alex could make the team out of training camp. If he does, then he definitely deserves a late-round draft pick in deep leagues, as the potential is most definitely there. While it’s his offensive burst that gets him fantasy recognition, Burmistrov differentiates himself from other young speedsters as he blocks shots, kills penalties and isn’t afraid to muck it up in the corners. All in all, this is a guy that could really benefit from at least one year in the AHL, but you simply never know what the Thrashers will do come time for the regular season.
Akim Aliu (RW) : Aliu is yet another member of the young core of power forwards that Rick Dudley has been working to stockpile. His disappointing season in the AHL - finishing with just 11 goals over the course of 48 games - allowed Dudley to pick him up at an affordable price in the offseason, a trade that could turn out to be quite a steal. While Aliu comes with all kinds of question marks when it comes to his attitude and personality, there is no doubting the talent that he possesses. He is a strong, intimidating winger that has one of the most impressive wrist shots seen in quite some time. If the Thrashers management can get him the proper coaching and he meshes with his teammates, he could become a household name in future fantasy drafts.