Saturday, October 20, 2007

Can the Thrashers recover from their very poor start?

While many traditional hockey observers wonder if NHL hockey could work in Atlanta with a second opportunity, the first six years seemed to put that into question. The struggles of an expansion team to shed that label, become competitive and be in the National Hockey League's second season warranted it.

The city of Atlanta was awarded their second franchise in NHL history as the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999 and had a brand-new arena to play in. We know what happened the first time, just eight years in the Peach State and the Flames were off to Calgary in 1980. But this time, Atlanta proclaimed this is a different era. While that may be true, Kansas City is hoping for that same opportunity after the Scouts flopped in the mid-1970s.

The Thrashers began to put the pieces together just as the lockout forced a league-wide shutdown for a year with their superstar swap with the Ottawa Senators in which Atlanta sent Dany Heatley north on August 23, 2005 and received Marian Hossa in return. Before that trade, they drafted rising star forward Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001 and then promising goaltender Kari Lehtonen in 2002. Even though Kovalchuk and Heatley flourished with Curt Fraser behind the bench as the franchise's original head coach, the team struggled. Heatley needed a change of scenery after he had a difficult time dealing with the loss of his friend and teammate Dan Snyder in a 2003 fatal car accident in the Atlanta area.

Fraser was later fired during the 2002-2003 season and then the Thrashers hired a new head coach that many deemed with his winning resume would finally turn their fortunes around. Bob Hartley won a Stanley Cup championship in Colorado during the 2000-2001 season and had the reputation as a no nonsense coach. Atlanta finally became a playoff contender under Hartley's watch where they just missed the postseason in the 2005-2006 campaign and then finally made it last season by finishing 43-39 and clinched their first Southeast Division title. With Scott Mellanby as their captain and trade deadline acquistions that included Keith Tkachuk, they appeared primed for a long postseason run. Fans really got behind the team with frequent capacity crowds in Philips Arena during the regular season and the joint was pretty loud during their first round playoff series. It appeared Thrashers hockey in Atlanta finally gained genuine momentum.

But then came Atlanta's worst nightmare during their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. A freak carom off the sideboard plexiglass in Game 2 enabled Rangers forward Sean Avery's clearout to skip into the Thrashers net past Johan Hedberg to score the first goal of that game. It would ultimately give New York momentum they needed. Hartley had switched goaltenders following Game 1 with Lehtonen between the pipes. It would happen again in Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden as the Rangers ended up sweeping the Thrashers out of the playoffs. Hartley came under fire for his handling of his two goaltenders in that series. None of Atlanta's top guns stepped up to the table in the four games as Kovalchuk, Hossa, Tkachuk and others were no-shows offensively.

Two key members of the team left over the summer as Mellanby ended up retiring and Tkachuk returned to St. Louis as a free agent. While turnover can sometimes be used as an excuse, but it is difficult to use that claim when you were a playoff team the season before. Atlanta lost all of their first six games to open the 2007-2008 season and on Wednesday, Hartley was fired. Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell took over for Hartley on an interim basis until he hires a successor.

With an 0-6 record heading into Thursday's game against the Rangers, the first meeting between teams since their playoff series this past spring, all eyes were on Waddell and his group of players. The size of the crowd at Philips Arena seemed to resemble yesteryears where there were numerous empty seats and among those at the game were signs that pointed the blame on the Thrashers' poor start on Waddell instead of Hartley. Even Atlanta Journal-Constitution hockey writer Jeff Schultz wondered the same thing. Same with the newspaper's fellow columnist Carroll Rogers in not blaming Hartley. Some observers may believe that the players eventually tuned out Hartley. When that happens and the head coach has his voice fall on deaf ears, it's only a matter of time he'll be dismissed.

Despite Lehtonen leaving during the first period by aggravating a nagging groin problem, the Thrashers finally got some revenge against New York with a 5-3 victory, their first of the season overall. Will it mark the start of a turnaround? Lord knows what to expect, but a setback in Atlanta's ongoing project to turn this team into a perrenial winner will need to be overcome. With Bobby Holik as the new captain this season, he will need to be a factor in moving forward. As the overused cliché would say, one game at a time.

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