Blueland Blues

My previous post in this space was entitled “Come in Off the Ledge.” That admonition does not apply to fans of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey club.

The Thrashers made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 2006-07, winning their first-ever Southeast Division title in their seventh season in the NHL. But the New York Rangers quickly and decisivley swept the Thrashers aside in four straight games. Over the summer, Atlanta’s most significant personnel additions were centers Eric Perrin and Todd White, and veteran defenseman Ken Klee.

Not quite two weeks into the NHL season, the Thrashers are in serious disrepair. After absorbing a 4-0 whitewash at the hands of the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, the Thrashers are the lone winless team in the league at 0-6. They’ve been outscored by a combined 27-9. Five of the nine Atlanta goals this season came in Saturday’s 6-5 loss to New Jersey. The Thrashers have scored as many as two goals in only one of their other five games. Throw in last spring’s playoff, and the Thrashers are 0-10 in their last 10 games and have been outscored 44-15 in the process.

Even last year’s woeful Flyers team didn’t start this poorly. Philly got off to a 1-6-1 start, and was outscored by a combined 32-15.

Things aren’t going to get any easier in Hot ‘Lanta, either. The Thrashers come home to face the Rangers for the first time this season on Thursday. After that, they play their next seven on the road, their longest stretch of road games this season.

When the NHL released its 2007-08 regular season schedule last July, I noted that Atlanta would be visiting Verizon Center for the first time on Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving. If you remember, the Thrashers also visited the District on the night before Thanksgiving last season, and a series of skirmishes broke out in the game’s final minutes. Atlanta coach Bob Hartley and Caps bench boss Glen Hanlon barked at each other from behind the benches, and some bad blood began brewing between the two Southeast Division rivals.

Seeing the Thrashers’ return visit for Thanksgiving Eve of this season, I mentioned casually to a few people that Hartley was no better than even money to make that trip with the team, figuring he might be replaced before that date. But I didn’t think Hartley’s team would struggle like it has thus far.

When the Caps took on the Thrashers in Atlanta on opening night less than two weeks ago, veteran center Bobby Holik was centering the team’s top line alongside Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov. White was in the middle of a trio featuring Ilya Kovalchuk and rookie Brett Sterling.

Holik, a couple months shy of his 37th birthday, was once a pretty fair shutdown center. He is a good leader and a guy who has played on two Stanley Cup champions. But his best days are in the rear-view mirror and he has been overpaid for the better part of this decade. He is currently in the last year of a three-year deal that pays him $4.25 million in 2007-08. For that same princely sum last season, he skated 15:56 a night and produced 11 goals and 29 points in 82 games.

This season, Holik has a goal and an assist in six games, picking up both points in the loss to New Jersey. In Tuesday’s loss to Philly, he played just 10:57 and was a minus-4. His minus-6 mark for the season is second worst on the team, and he has been dropped down to a more suitable spot between Brad Larsen and Pascal Dupuis.

Playing nearly 20 minutes a night, White has two assists in six games. Since posting a career high 60 points with Ottawa in 2002-03, White has failed to exceed 44 points in any season. Having Holik and White center the likes of Kozlov, Hossa (who has missed three games with a groin injury) and Kovalchuk is like giving Ricky Bobby a pace car as a teammate. No shake, and no bake.

The Thrashers have now resorted to using Perrin as the center for Kozlov and Hossa. Perrin will celebrate his 32nd birthday in a couple weeks, but he has yet to play in his 100th NHL game. He was Marty St. Louis’ sidekick at the U. of Vermont a decade or so ago, and he had a couple good years with the Hershey Bears. Perrin is minus-6 and is without a point in his six games this season. He has 13 goals and 36 points — all with the Lightning last season — in 92 NHL tilts.

Once they figure out that Perrin won’t be able to cut it in that role, the Thrashers’ next option is 19-year-old Bryan Little.

Without any bona fide playmaking pivots to set up snipers Hossa and Kovalchuk, the Thrashers are averaging a goal and a half a game and are just 2-for-26 (7.7%) on the power play. A long season looms, and fantasy owners all over this great land of ours are stumbling all over themselves to get out of the way of goaltender Kari Lehtonen’s oncoming season. Lehtonen is 0-4 with a 4.72 goals against average and an .870 save pct.

After they host the Rangers on Oct. 18, Atlanta’s next home game is Nov. 6 when the Caps pay the second of their four visits to Georgia’s capital city. It may take quite a turnaround to keep Hartley on the job even that long.

Atlanta has had a great deal of stability since it joined the league in 1999-00. Don Waddell — a really good guy in my book — is the only general manager the team has ever known. Excluding Waddell’s short interim stint behind the bench, Hartley is just the second coach employed in Atlanta during the team’s eight seasons. But last season’s division title and playoff appearance raised expectations in Atlanta. A failure to meet those expectations could result in the loss of Waddell’s and/or Hartley’s job.

In Blueland, they’re not coming in off the ledge. But they are accepting bids to build an addition onto the current ledge.

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9 Comments on “Blueland Blues”

  1. Mike L Says:

    Mike, you are so right about Atlanta, and their early playoff departure showed everyone that they were a bit of a fraud as a division winner. The current NHL schedule gives teams 32 games agains their division rivals, and I suspect that Atlanta won a whole boatload of them (I don’t want to go look it up). If more than half their points came in the division, I would not be surprised. Atlanta matched up well with the four teams in the division last year, in that they have a lot of talent and size up front and can overwhelm an opponent (the Caps included). The Caps started to reverse the trend by bringing in Jurcina and then this year with Poti. In addition the Caps added some size up front with Kozlov and Steckel.

    The Thrashers were exposed last year in the playoffs when they ran into a team that the matched up poorly against, that being the Rangers. The only surprise to me in that series is that it was a sweep. I would have though the Thrash could have won one game along the way.

    In the offseason, the Thrash didn’t address their pressing need, adding some defense to the line up. Lehtonen is a pretty good goaltender, but if all the starters in the division were placed on a team, he wouldn’t make the cut (Vokoun and Olie would be the NHL goalies, with Cam Ward as the goalie of the future..Lehtonen is #4 at best). They addressed their defensive woes by signing Ken Klee? Don’t get me wrong, I like Ken, he’s a rock solid player, and a really great person in the community. But if you have serious issues on the back line, he can’t be the only answer to it. He can help sure, but they needed to find someone to be the #1 defenseman.

    I think the Thrashers will get somewhat better, but they’re not a playoff team, and likely will finish 4th in the division (I think as the season wears on, it will wear on Vokoun in Florda and they’ll sink to the bottom. ) The Caps, on the other hand, will get out of this funk starting tomorrow. When you’re in a funk, there’s nothing like a bad team showing up at your building… and the NHL has arranged for the Islanders to come to visit. Hoe considerate! 🙂

  2. shaggy Says:

    Nice going Vogs – you just got Bob Hartley fired!
    http://www.tsn.ca/

  3. Andy Says:

    Mike Nostradamus Vogel.

  4. Empty Maybe Says:

    And BOOM goes the dynamite!

  5. Mike Says:

    I think most people saw this coming. I’m surprised it happened so soon, but it was coming.

    But I don’t think the problem is the coach. I think the GM, Waddel, has much more to do with the current situation. His trade-deadline and offseason moves were shortsighted and weak respectively. How you trade away a lot of your prospects for Tkachuk is beyond me. How do you come to the conclusion that Todd White is going to be your number 1 center? Or was that supposed to be Perrin? And is an old #5 or #6 defenseman (Klee) really going to solidify a defense that is anchored by the likes of Zhitnik, Exellby, and Havelid? Yikes.

    Poor GMing in a desperate attempt to get to the postseason killed this team. Waddell needs to be shown the door too.

  6. KP Says:

    Mike,

    With your dead on accuracy about Hartley’s job out of the way, can I have the lottery numbers for the next drawing? Thanks!

  7. TomW Says:

    Props on the timely article. I’m surprised Waddell wasn’t axed as well.

  8. CapitalSpirit Says:

    Looks like Justice got served in the end, after all.

    Nothing personal against Hartley, but I didn’t like the way he coached the Thrashers. Mike, you’ve pointed out yourself his teams’ habit of getting violent when the game’s out of reach, and I think that might have caught up with him. Call it bad karma, call it reaping what you sow, heck, call it the hockey gods calling in a marker on the guy if you like. But I think it is fitting, in a greater sense, that Hartley was the first coach of the season to be let go.

    No, Mr. Durocher, this was not a Nice Guy who finished last this time around.

  9. Frank M Says:

    Mike,

    Man, would I like to go into business with you foretelling the stock market! you must known, that’s was waaaaayyy to uncanny!


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