The 2002-03 season marks Year 4 of the Thrashers franchise, and with it the end of the expansion honeymoon and the beginning of increased expectations. The high draft picks that come from losing seasons have become poor consolation now. The time has come to start the climb towards contending.
The Thrashers continue to employ an up-tempo style, with a team built on offensive speed and skill. The skills of Heatley and Kovalchuk are now known around the league, so a challenge this year will be to balance out the scoring throughout the team. The additions of NHL veterans Shawn McEachern and Slava Kozlov will help round out the offense. The team concentration on offense will increase as three scoring lines are employed this year instead of the usual two.
The Thrashers have gotten significantly older and more experienced this year. The four veterans added over summer (McEachern and Kozlov plus Krupp and Smehlik) average 33.0 years of age, bringing the average age on the 23-man roster to 27.4 years. One interesting development for 2002-03 is the significant increase in Russian players. Ilya Kovalchuk is now joined by countrymen Slava Kozlov, Yuri Butsayev and Kirill Safronov. Already a tendency to play a more puck-possession style is evident when these players get together. It will be interesting to see how the Thrashers treat this difference in style, if it is embraced or discouraged.
In: LW Shawn McEachern, RW Slava Kozlov, D Uwe Krurpp, D Richard Smehlik, D Kirill Safronov
Out: D Todd Reirden, D Brian Pothier, G Rhodes (see below), D Adam Burt
Goaltending: Milan Hnilicka continues as the number one goalie. Damian Rhodes was thought to be successfully moved out of the picture over the summer with a buyout, but filed a grievance claiming he was still injured. The case is now being reviewed. Regardless, Rhodes is out of the plans of the Thrashers for the upcoming season. Pasi Nurminen, AHL Playoff MVP for 2002, will be a strong back up to Hnilicka. Frederic Cassivi will be the first call up in case of injury.
Defense: This has been the downfall of the Thrashers, who were last in the league in goals against in 2001-02 (288). The team is implementing a new defensive system for 2002-03. Team defense has improved over the course of the preseason, not just statistically but also in reality, so the new system appears to be helping so far. The defensive corps has three new faces: Uwe Krupp, Richard Smehlik and Kirill Safronov. Frank Kaberle, Yannick Tremblay, Daniel Tjarnqvist and Kirill Safronov will chip in offensively, while Uwe Krupp, Richard Smehlik, and Chris Tamer take care of things in the team’s own end. Andy Sutton will see ice time as his play warrants it. The top pairing of Tjarnqvist and Krupp will see the most icetime.
Forwards: The Thrashers strength remains in its forwards. In past years, the offense relied on one line: Audette-Ferraro-Brunette in Year 2 and Kovalchuk-Lucky Guy of the Month-Heatley line in Year 3. There should be three lines that can score this year. After some training camp experimenting, it appears that Kovalchuk and Heatley may remain on the same line after all. The plum job of centering that top line for now appears to be going to Pascal Rheaume, who saw a good deal of time between them last year as well. While on paper it seems unusual for a guy of his skill level to be on a line with two rookie of the year candidates, Rheaume’s willingness to stand in front of the net, occupy a defenseman and distract the goalie provides opportunities and open ice for the youngsters. The other two scoring lines were created based on chemistry demonstrated in training camp.
Here are the projected lines for opening night:
Extra: Butsayev, Lessard
Rookies: D Kirill Safronov, C Dan Snyder, RW Francis Lessard, G Pasi Nurminen. It is interesting to note how these four players were acquired. Safronov and Lessard were both acquired in trades last season, Safronov in the Hordichuck deal and Lessard in the Harlock deal. Snyder was a free agent signing out of juniors. Nurminen was the only player drafted by the Thrashers, an overage draftee out of Finland in 2001. None were drafted at age 18 by the Thrashers. Everyone knows how successful the Thrashers have been with their top draft picks, but the team has also been adept at acquiring talent in other ways as well.
Enforcer: Jeff Odgers is the veteran enforcer on the team, with help from Jeff Cowan, Chris Tamer and Andy Sutton. Rookie enforcer Francis Lessard will start the year with the team as well.
Injuries: Tamer (back), Herperger (concussion). Per Svartvadet is also coming off a wrist injury and was sent down to Chicago to start the season.
Outlook: Although management talks up the possibility of making the playoffs, realistically a good season would be to get out of the basement and become respectable. The veteran additions should help make the team more competitive. An increase of 15 points would be considered a good season.
23-man roster (10/9/02):
The two players in italics will begin the season on the IR.
Name Age Position
Bartecko, Lubos 26 Left wing
Butsayev, Yuri 23 Right wing/center
Cowan, Jeff 26 Left wing
Heatley, Dany 21 Right wing
Herperger, Chris 28 Center IR
Hrkac, Tony 36 Center
Kallio, Tomi 25 Right wing
Kovalchuk, Ilya 19 Left wing
Kozlov, Slava 30 Right wing
Lessard, Francis 23 Right wing/defense
McEachern, Shawn 33 Left wing
Odgers, Jeff 33 Right wing
Rheaume, Pascal 29 Center
Stefan, Patrik 22 Center
Snyder, Dan 22 Center
Kaberle, Frantisek 29
Krupp, Uwe 37
Safronov, Kirill 21
Smehlik, Richard 32
Sutton, Andy 27
Tamer, Chris 32 IR
Tjarnqvist, Daniel 25
Tremblay, Yannick 26
Hnilicka, Milan 29
Nurminen, Pasi 26
Comments and questions are welcomed on the HF Thrashers board.