The first shoe dropped in Atlanta when Mathieu Schneider (centre) was dealt to the Habs. Which Thrasher will be sent packing next? (Associated Press)
The Atlanta Thrashers, a team that’s mostly been a thrashee as opposed to a thrasher this season, have suddenly woken up, winning three of their past four including the first two games of their four-game Western road swing – their longest road trek of the season. Where has this been all season? And why the hell would it emerge during perhaps the toughest stretch the team faces all year long?
The Thrashers have really been in free fall since the 2006-07 season, when they approached 100 points, won their division and made the one and only playoff appearance in franchise history. Last season was a fiasco, as the team’s offense and defense where both near the bottom of the league. In fact, they finished tied for last in goals against average. This season, while the offense has bounced back, the goaltending has been even more horrific, and if it weren’t for the laughable Leafs, Atlanta would be dead last in GAA. Despite the improved scoring, the Thrashers have completely bottomed out, and currently have the second worst record in the entire NHL.
So now that the pressure of making the playoffs is a thing of the past – Atlanta has already started focusing on the future by dealing away veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider to Montreal for a pair of draft picks – the team is putting up some Ws. The Thrashers are now closing in on Tampa Bay as they attempt to crawl out of the division cellar. And Thursday night, they could easily continue the roll as they face off against the NHL’s coldest team in Phoenix, losers of six straight at home.
However, expecting the club to continue winning the way they have this week – 8-4 over Anaheim and 7-6 in a shootout over LA – is a stretch. I mean, come on, the last time the Ducks gave up eight goals against anyone was March 21, 2001, the second longest current streak in the league. Atlanta better tighten up its lackluster defensive play if it hopes to continue to show improvements down the stretch. But one bright sign has been the play of rookie defensemen Zach Bogosian and Nathan Oystrick, who have been paired together since the Schneider deal. These two youngsters (well, Oystrick isn’t that much of a youngster, but he’s still a veritable NHL neophyte) have been drawing rave reviews, and Bogosian’s emergence is definitely something to watch. He logged three assists and went +2 in the win over LA, drawing some fantasy traction in the past couple of days. If you’re in a deep league, it may be time to consider last season’s No. 3 overall pick. He’s been rushed to the Show, but for a good reason. This 18-year-old has fans around the league buzzing.
With the trade deadline coming soon and Atlanta clearly falling under the seller umbrella, more house cleaning may be in order soon for the Thrashers. The most likely candidates to be moved now that Schneider has been dispatched are Ilya Kovalchuk and Colby Armstrong, the later of which is enjoying his finest season, and appears headed for his first 20-goal campaign. A move to a contender could definitely provide a nice boost for Armstrong, making him a waiver wire possibility. If your league is deep enough that you can stash him, now might be the time to consider it. Otherwise, wait and see how this situation plays out. One prominent rumour has the Leafs offering a package centred around Nik Antropov that will land both Kovalchuk and Armstrong in Toronto.
As we alluded to, expecting these kind of offensive fireworks from the Thrashers on a regular basis is unwise. Consider that they have potted 13 goals in the first two games of this road trip. Then consider that in the previous eight games, they had totaled just 12 goals. Can you say unsustainable? And even with the goal explosion, the Thrashers still almost found a way to blow it against the Kings on Monday. They frittered away a 6-3 lead, allowing LA to score three times over the final 12:30 to force overtime before the Thrashers pulled out the two points in the shootout.
After topping 50 goals for the second time in three seasons in 2007-08, Kovalchuk has been a major disappointment this year. In fact, he’s been so bad that he earned a not-so-coveted RotoRob Award as our 2008 Fantasy Dud of the Year. However, perhaps the thought of escaping Atlanta has him frothing at the mouth, because he sure looks like a different player lately. He’s scored goals in five straight games, totaling eight scores with three assists during this stretch. The team’s leading scorer (29 goals, 61 points) has five goals and two assists in the last two games alone. Can you can blazing? Kovalchuk is suddenly back on pace to nearly match last season’s point total and is definitely upping his trade value with each passing game. There’s talk he could wind up in Boston, although the Bruins aren’t known for bringing in high-priced talent, and at $7.5 million per year for this season and next, Kovalchuk is one of the top-paid players in the NHL.
Another tremendously hot Thrasher is Slava Kozlov. He potted a pair of assists Monday to run his point-scoring streak to five games, totaling two goals and five assists during this run. Kozlov was slumping for a while, but is clearly past that, and he’s someone we identified as a major target should Kovalchuk be sent packing. The 16-year veteran, who passed the 800 career point mark with his two helpers Monday, stands to be the stud in Atlanta once Kovalchuk is dealt, so if he’s still unowned in your league, you better add him now.
Centre Todd White’s finest NHL season has continued, as he’s got three points in the last two games. His goal Monday was his 15th of the season, already more than he scored all of last season. He has a good chance of recording his first ever 70-point season and you’ve got to figure this is another veteran who stands to gain more responsibility after the trade deadline. Given that he’s currently owned in just over a third of the leagues out there, White makes a great player to target.