By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The Thrashers aren't asking too much from their fourth season in the NHL. All they want to do is play some meaningful games in March. But for a team that hasn't finished with more than 60 points in its first three seasons and was 15-34-7-4 heading into March last season, that may be a lofty goal -- especially since it took 87 points for the Canadiens to secure the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference last season.
"Our goal is to compete for the playoffs," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "I don't know if we can get there, but that's our goal. Once you get there, then the goal is to win the Cup. This year at the trade deadline I want to be receiving a player rather than dealing players away. If we can be in the hunt in March, that would be good experience for our team down the road."
Atlanta's minor league system is extremely deep, as evidenced by dual titles at the AHL (Chicago) and ECHL (Greenville, S.C.) levels last year. The Thrashers' top affiliate also won the final IHL Turner Cup title as the Orlando Solar Bears in 2001, so the quality and depth in the organization is no fluke.
Atlanta bumped its payroll modestly in the offseason by acquiring Slava Kozlov from Buffalo in a trade, getting Shawn McEachern from Ottawa for rookie defenseman Brian Pothier and signing unrestricted free-agent defenseman Richard Smehlik from Buffalo. In addition, veteran defenseman Uwe Krupp came over from the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings, but with his injury history and declining skating ability, Krupp can't be counted on for anything more than third-pair duty.
A playoff berth in 2002-03 may not be all that far-fetched. After all, the Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks set the expansion benchmark by reaching the playoffs in their third seasons. And the Islanders made a 44-point improvement last season to go from the worst record in 2000-01 to a tie for the ninth-most points last season. But the Thrashers didn't add top-rate talent like Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, either, so a down-to-the-wire battle for the final playoff spot in the East is a best-case scenario for Atlanta.
Dany Heatley, C -- Everyone has assumed that Heatley is future captain material, and he has done nothing to indicate otherwise. In fact, Heatley seems to relish the idea of someday holding that honored role. But the Thrashers are likely to opt for a more experienced player (likely McEachern) to wear the C this season, with Heatley getting it sometime down the road. Heatley is a possibility for an assistant captain honor, though semantics will do little to change the fact that he is the team leader.
The organization doesn’t want to put too much pressure on him as a 21-year-old, especially having seen Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier struggle with his development after becoming the youngest team captain ever at age 19 in March 2000. Only seven players (Lecavalier, Steve Yzerman, Ryan Walter, Dale Hawerchuk, Trevor Linden, Kirk Muller and Eric Lindros) have been captains before their 22nd birthday, which Heatley will celebrate on Jan. 21, 2003.
Depth in the nets -- Milan Hnilicka has played only one season as a full-time goaltender and won just 13 games. The Thrashers are negotiating a new contract with the restricted free agent and hope to get him signed before training camp begins Sept. 12. If Hnilicka doesn’t sign, look for Waddell to pursue a two-year deal with former Bruin Byron Dafoe, the big loser thus far on the free-agent market. Waddell is in a golden negotiating position, able to choose between Hnilicka and Dafoe -- at the right price, of course -- with the loser knowing there are no more starting jobs remaining in the NHL.
The slated backup, Pasi Nurminen, went just 2-5 with a 3.49 GAA and .898 save pct. in nine games. Nurminen, however, did get a taste of the postseason by leading the Thrashers' top affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, to the AHL Calder Cup title with a 15-5 record, a 1.94 GAA and a .935 save pct.
Frederic Cassivi went 2-3 with a 3.32 GAA and a .918 save percentage in a six-game call-up with Atlanta at the end of the season after being acquired from Colorado for defenseman Brett Clark. The highlight of Cassivi's stint in the NHL was an incredible 50-save performance in a 3-2 victory at Ottawa on Mar. 23. Cassivi will be the primary goalie in Chicago this season, getting the majority of starts ahead of 19-year-old Michael Garnett, the Thrashers' 2001 third-round pick.
How will Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk fare in their sophomore campaigns?
It's not often that two rookies garner as much attention as Heatley and Kovalchuk did last season. But with Ray Ferraro struggling mightily in his final season before being dealt to St. Louis at the trade deadline and 1999 No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan failing to live up to his potential, opposing teams were free to lavish hard-checking, first-pair defensive attention on Atlanta's wunderkinds. And after Heatley, 20, and Kovalchuk, 18, finished 1-2 in the Calder Trophy voting, teams may pay even more attention to them this season.
“They are going to have more things to deal with,” Waddell said. “But more balance on our team will help them. They will have more attention paid to them this season and won’t have as much freedom. I’m sure they’ll be challenged every night and that they are going to be checked more. But they are going to score their goals.”
Heatley showed he has the vision and on-ice awareness to become an elite playmaker along the lines of Ron Francis. While Francis' career total of 1,187 assists would certainly be a best-case scenario, a goal of matching the 2001-02 numbers of Francis (27 goals, 50 assists) might be reasonable. After scoring 29 goals in 65 games last year before a season-ending injury, Kovalchuk could score 40 goals in his second season if he can stay healthy. His physical play and occasional poor judgment about backing down from confrontations could continue to cost him games if he doesn’t learn to pick his spots.
Playing on a top line with fellow Russian winger Kozlov should help Kovalchuk's development and free him up for more exciting dashes through the neutral zone. Heatley might be wise to learn a little Russian if he's going to center these two talented snipers, though the phrase he'll most often hear from them probably will be "I'm open!"
The continuing influx of European goalies was justified last season when two non-North American netminders squared off in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time. The Thrashers continued to break the mold on Europeans goalies when they made Lehtonen the highest Euro goalie selected in the draft's history.
Lehtonen covers a lot of net with his imposing size and rarely finds himself out of position. He plays a standup style, as opposed to the more popular butterfly style, and he doesn't sprawl on the ice often to make saves as Hasek popularized and many European goalies have emulated.
It's no coincidence that Atlanta is offering restricted free agent Milan Hnilicka only a two-year contract. The Thrashers are confident Lehtonen will be in the crease to open the 2004-05 season as a 20-year-old. Lehtonen will play for Jokerit in the Finnish SM-Liiga again next season before coming to AHL Chicago for the 2003-04 campaign.
It's expected that Lehtonen will spend one season as the regular starter with the Wolves to learn the differences in the North American game. European goalies rarely leave their net to play the puck, so the Thrashers would like Lehtonen to spend a full season in the AHL to learn the nuances of the different style and work on his puckhandling.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.