Re-Drafting the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers, Part II

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This is Part II of a two-part series on re-drafting the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers, giving them the same rules as Vegas had in the 2017 Expansion Draft. If you have not checked out Part I of this series, take a look here to see who has been selected under the new expansion rules.


 

October 2, 1999

ATLANTA, GEORGIA

For the first time since 1980, hockey was back in Atlanta. It wasn’t without a bit of controversy, though.

Prior to the 1999 Expansion Draft, the National Hockey League announced a change in the protection rules, limiting the amount of players that the other teams could hold on to – now, teams could protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight skaters and a goalie. The rules were much more favourable to the Thrashers than they were to the Nashville Predators, who came into the league the year prior, and finished with 63 points, second-worst in the Western Conference. Though no reason was publicly given by the NHL or by Thrashers’ front-office personnel, the prevailing theory was that because of the market size, Atlanta was allowed to have an easier path to success.

Whatever the case, the Thrashers were ready to begin play, hoping that this team could do what the Flames couldn’t: give the city of Atlanta a successful team, and give the NHL a lasting presence in the city. Not long after the expansion draft, General Manager Don Waddell got to work in fleshing out the rest of the team, hiring Curt Fraser from the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears as the team’s first head coach. Also coming to the team was #1 Overall Pick Patrik Stefan, a Czech centre with tons of promise; he would be inserted into the Thrashers’ NHL line-up right away, having already proven himself as a point-a-game player in the IHL in his draft year.

Stefan was one of many young players who would be given regular NHL action in Atlanta’s first year. Joining him were the likes of Eric Cairns, a bruising blue-liner selected in the Expansion Draft from the New York Islanders, and Stephane Yelle, who had already spent several years with the Colorado Avalanche prior to his selection by the Thrashers. Some veterans were also brought along, with Mike Vernon getting the nod in goal for the team’s opening game, and Steve Duchesne starting on the blue-line. Two of the team’s unrestricted free agent signings, Nelson Emerson and Ray Ferraro, both skated out as two of the three starting forwards, flanked by former Dallas winger Pat Verbeek.

1999-2000

The Thrashers start off lukewarm, as they try and figure out who exactly is going to be an important part of the team going forward, and who will find themselves unable to even crack the line-up of an expansion team. Waddell wheels and deals, looking for a fit, but eventually, the pieces fall into place. The veteran duo of Ferraro and Verbeek is moderately effective, and players like Andrew Cassels, Fredrik Modin, and Craig Rivet acquit themselves well in their new locale. The biggest surprise, however, is pugilistic winger Chris Simon, who manages to somehow lead the team with 29 goals, a runaway career high for the former Colorado man.

The strategy of drafting for depth proves more beneficial than anyone could have imagined. Not only is Atlanta immediately competitive, but they find themselves in playoff territory by March. The team makes a few late changes, hoping to bring in some bona fide post-season performers, with Tom Barrasso being the most notable acquisition. In the end, the Thrashers manage to squeak in with 88 points, losing out on 7th place due to having less wins than Pittsburgh. Atlanta’s first playoff opponent in this incarnation is the Philadelphia Flyers, who stand top of the East. Though Atlanta manages to take Game Two in Philly, the Flyers take the next 3, with Game Five being a 7-3 rampage. The Thrashers are eliminated, but positive signs are already being seen.

The Thrashers go to the 2000 Entry Draft with the 17th Overall Pick, which they use on 6’5” Russian forward Alexei Mikhnov.

Notable Trades (trades that happen differently in this timeline):

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Rob DiMaio to the New York Rangers for F Mike Knuble

Atlanta Thrashers trade G Mike Vernon and F Nelson Emerson to the Florida Panthers for F Radek Dvorak

Atlanta Thrashers trade D Darryl Shannon and F Per Svartvadet to the Calgary Flames for F Hnat Domenichelli and the rights to Dmitri Vlasenkov

Atlanta Thrashers trade G Ron Tugnutt and D Sheldon Souray to the Pittsburgh Penguins for G Tom Barrasso

2000-2001

In their first season of existence, the Thrashers stunned everybody by not only being competitive, but making the playoffs immediately. The fans are packing Philips Arena early on, and they expect more. Curt Fraser responds to the enthusiasm by giving the crowd something to cheer for in almost every game, as he utilizes all of his forwards to great effect. Atlanta games rank amongst some of the highest-scoring affairs in the 2000-01 season, as several Thrashers are scoresheet regulars. Ray Ferraro, in particular, turns back the clock, notching 71 points at the age of 36.

Though the team is offensively gifted, their defending leaves a lot to be desired, especially between the pipes. Free agent Milan Hnilicka starts off as the starter, but doesn’t seem to have much success. Mid-season, the Thrashers acquire Dan Cloutier from the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving Cloutier the starting job the rest of the way. In the end, the defensive woes cost the Thrashers a playoff spot, as they finish 10th in the East with 87 points – only one point behind the 8th-place Carolina Hurricanes. Looking for some defensive help, Atlanta uses their 12th Overall pick in the 2001 Draft on Dan Hamhuis, a strong D-man out of Prince George in the WHL.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade D Darius Kasparaitis and a 2001 2nd-Round Pick (used on Alexander Polushin) to the Tampa Bay Lightning for G Dan Cloutier

2001-2002

The Thrashers had taken a slight step back in the standings, but management acted quickly to try and get the team back on track. While Pat Verbeek was headed out, the team picked up more veterans to take his place, including Bob Corkum, Tony Hrkac, and Todd Reirden. Hrkac was at least somewhat useful (44 points in 80 games), but Corkum would prove detrimental, managing a plus-minus rating of -30. The young players couldn’t make up for their older teammates’ failures, but the likes of Fredrik Modin and Radek Dvorak could only do so much.

The biggest failing of the Thrashers, however, was in sheer asset management, especially with defending. Having already shipped out Darius Kasparaitis and Sheldon Souray, Atlanta eventually did the same to Craig Rivet, letting go of another prime blue-liner in favour of another forward in Mike York. Though the Thrashers do acquire some young blue-line help in Andy Sutton, it’s just not enough. The team’s goaltending at least improves, as Milan Hnilicka does well in his second year as the anointed starter. Dan Cloutier is relegated to the back-up role, but isn’t horrible by any stretch.

Having already taken one step back, the Thrashers’ poor defending means that they are once again doomed to fade away. Atlanta finishes in 14th in the East with a paltry 65 points, barely breaking the 20-win mark. They do have a solid pick, #3 Overall, which they use on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. (NOTE: In looking back at this draft, I may have made a misjudgement, and I will address this in the post-script.)

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Rem Murray and D Craig Rivet to the New York Rangers for F Mike York and a 2002 4th-Round Pick (used on Ivan Koltsov)

2002-2003

With fan interest beginning to wane a bit (the previous season only saw an average attendance of just over 15,000 fans), the Thrashers had to act quickly to resolve their woes, especially in the blue line. Veterans Uwe Krupp and Richard Smehlik were brought in from free agency, while Jay Bouwmeester would make the team right out of training camp. Though Bouwmeester became a regular, Krupp would only suit up for four games in the 02-03 season, a sad end to the career of one of Germany’s greatest hockey players. None of those three, however, would compare to the impact of early-season acquisition Derek Morris. Brought in from Calgary for Stephane Yelle, Morris would play 75 games, putting up 48 points.

The offensive dynamic had also changed, but while the likes of Ray Ferraro and Andrew Cassels were no longer around, Mike York and Mike Knuble came in to pick up the slack. Knuble, in particular, had a breakout campaign with 30 goals and 59 points, easily career highs. Marc Savard was acquired from Calgary, in a trade that turned out to be a heist. The player he was traded for, Ruslan Zainullin, would never see an NHL game, while Savard would put up 47 points in 57 games with his new club. And last, but not least, Slava Kozlov, acquired in the off-season from Buffalo, would lead the way with 70 points.

Though there were clear signs of progress, the Thrashers weren’t back in the post-season just yet. Atlanta would fall just short in the regular season, finishing 9th place in the East with 80 points. They have the 14th Overall Pick in what turns out to be a stacked 2003 Draft. Following in their recent trend, the Thrashers pick blue-liner Brent Seabrook, hoping that he will help solidify the defense along with Bouwmeester and Morris. Also of note is the fact that the Thrashers, having never acquired Francis Lessard a couple years ago, still have their natural 3rd and 7th-Round picks. The 3rd-Rounder is used on Tyler Redenbach, while the 7th-Rounder is used to select Joe Pavelski.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Chris Simon and F Pascal Rheaume to the Chicao Blackhawks for F Michael Nylander, a 2003 3rd-Round Pick (used on Stephen Werner), and future considerations

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Stephane Yelle and the rights to Andrei Taratukhin to the Calgary Flames for D Derek Morris

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Radek Dvorak and D Andy Sutton to the Edmonton Oilers for F Anson Carter and D Ales Pisa

2003-2004

After almost four seasons with Curt Fraser in charge, the Thrashers go into their fifth campaign with Bob Hartley behind the bench. Hartley took over late in the previous season, and did good work in getting Atlanta to nearly make the playoffs. Already with an abundance of forwards with which to work with, Hartley is given a major piece in January, as Jaromir Jagr is traded to the Thrashers for Anson Carter, who moved over to Atlanta the previous year in the Dvorak trade. Jagr makes an effort to connect well with the collection of Thrasher forwards, and manages 29 points in 31 games down the stretch.

The emergence of Dan Hamhuis in the defense means that Atlanta has room to trade one of their other young blue-liners. Derek Morris, who was traded to the Thrashers last year, is shipped out to Phoenix (along with Dan Cloutier) in a trade that sees Ossi Vaananen, Chris Gratton, and a 2005 2nd-Rounder go the other way. Cloutier was expendable, as Pasi Nurminen had become the starter of choice. Nurminen, in his third year with Atlanta, would play 64 games, registering a perfectly acceptable .903 SV%.

The return of the high-powered offense in Atlanta would see the Thrashers return to the playoff picture, if only barely. The Thrashers would finish the year in 8th place in the East, just a single point above the New York Islanders for the final spot. This puts them squarely in the sights of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are more than happy to face their division rivals. The Lightning not only shut down Atlanta’s potent attack, but also exploit the team’s young blue line, managing an 8-3 win in Game Three. All in all, the series would go five games, but for Thrashers fans, it was enough of a relief just to make it back to the post-season in the first place. Atlanta gets the 17th Pick in the 2004 Draft, and uses it on goalie Marek Schwarz.

Because the Thrashers did not draft Dany Heatley in 2000 in this timeline, a tragedy is averted. Heatley, in our timeline, would be at the wheel when his Ferrari crashed in Atlanta, killing passenger Dan Snyder. With Heatley now no longer in Atlanta, this incident very likely doesn’t happen at all. Instead, Snyder sees out the year with the Thrashers, only to be let go to free agency at the end of the season. With Atlanta so stacked offensively, he is simply surplus to requirements.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade D Derek Morris and G Dan Cloutier to the Phoenix Coyotes for D Ossi Vaananen, F Chris Gratton, and a 2005 2nd-Rounder (used on Paul Stastny)

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Anson Carter to the Washington Capitals for F Jaromir Jagr

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Michael Nylander to the Boston Bruins for a 2005 4th-Round Pick (used on Patrick McNeill) and a 2006 2nd-Round Pick (used on Francois Bouchard)

2004-2005

The good news for Atlanta was that excitement was beginning to return to the Thrashers after a few years of dwindling interest. The bad news, however, was that all of that excitement would go for naught. On September 15th, the NHL announced a lockout of the players following a failure to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout would ultimately culminate in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, the first time in hockey history that an entire year was wiped out.

It is, however, a good opportunity to assess just where the Thrashers are after five years in the NHL. After half a decade, the team has made two playoff appearances, the first of those coming in their inaugural year. They haven’t won a playoff series yet, with both of their first-round appearances ending in five-game losses. Despite their inability to make a deep run, the fans are still turning out to see games at Philips Arena. The team sold out in their first two seasons, and despite a small dip in years 3 and 4, their fifth season saw a few more sell-outs by the end of the year as playoffs became a reality. The team is in healthy shape, but not quite a certainty to be called a “big market” team.

After a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified, the Thrashers’ next order of business is to prepare for the 2005 Entry Draft, which has a new wrinkle. With no season played, the draft order has to be determined by weighted lottery, with each team getting anywhere from 1-3 balls depending on playoff appearances and previous #1 picks. Having made one post-season appearance in the last three years, and having not received a #1 pick in the new millennium, the Thrashers get a pair of balls. They end up in the #8 spot, but trade down twice at the draft to take winger Alex Bourret at #16.

Notable Trades (prior to 2005-06 season):

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Mike York and a 2006 5th-Round Pick (used on Alex Kangas) for F Michael Peca

2005-2006

With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, hockey is back for 2005-06. Unfortunately for the Thrashers, many of their in-their-prime players aren’t. Among some of the names that have found new homes as free agents include Mike Knuble, Ian Laperriere, and Eric Cairns. The Thrashers attempt to compensate by signing several new players well into their 30s, including Bobby Holik, Jaroslav Modry, and Peter Bondra. While there are still a few younger players scattered across the line-up, the new-look Thrashers are no longer a team built for future success, but a team aiming for a playoff run right now.

One of the vacancies the Thrashers have to address, however, is in goal. Pasi Nurminen, their starter in 2003-04, suffers a serious knee injury, forcing the Finnish netminder to hang up the pads. This leaves Atlanta to run a tandem of Michael Garnett and Mike Dunham. The two prove to be an awful duo, and combined with the young blue-line core that includes Dan Hamhuis, Jay Bouwmeester, and rookie Brent Seabrook, the Thrashers ship goals at an alarming rate.

As much as they allow goals, however, the Thrashers find ways to score even more, despite their aging forward core. The new rules of play allow Atlanta to play a swift, attacking game, and nobody benefits more from the changes than winger Jaromir Jagr. Once one of the most dangerous snipers in the game, Jagr recaptures the old spark that made him so lethal, racking up 54 goals and 123 points – both totals good for 2nd in the league in their respective categories. Marc Savard, given a full season, picks up 97 points, an easy career high. Fredrik Modin breaks the 30-goal mark, and Peter Bondra and Slava Kozlov pitch in with over 20 goals each. The Thrashers finish the season with the 4th-highest goals in the NHL, at 285.

Atlanta’s devastating attack is just enough to power the team to a playoff spot. Finishing 7th in the East with 96 points, the Thrashers are given a Southeastern rivalry match-up with the Carolina Hurricanes. It is in the first round that Atlanta’s abysmal goaltending finally catches up with them, as Bob Hartley changes goalies in three of the four games. The Hurricanes take it in a sweep, and would go on to claim the Stanley Cup. The Thrashers end up with the 16th pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, using their selection on D-man Mark Mitera.

Notable Trades:

NONE

2006-2007

The Thrashers’ major focus of the 2006 off-season is attempting to find pieces to make the team a serious competitive force. Their search begins on June 30th, as forward Fredrik Modin is shipped off to Columbus in a trade to get Blue Jackets’ goalie Marc Denis, who Atlanta believes to be their starting goalie of the immediate future. Also of importance is Atlanta’s search for a #1 centreman, as Marc Savard departs in free agency for the Boston Bruins. As it turns out, the Thrashers don’t need to look too far to fill this gap; thanks to an impressive training camp, 2005 draftee Paul Stastny is given the top spot alongside Slava Kozlov and Jaromir Jagr. Stastny would finish his rookie year with an astounding 78 points, certainly helped by providing many a pass to Jagr.

Though the offense is once again threatening, the defending still leaves a ton to be desired. It’s hard to blame the young blue-liners for this, as they continue to improve in their own zone, but Marc Denis proves to be an awful choice as starting goalie. He plays 68 games, finishing with a .883 save percentage – worst among all starters. Despite making huge gambles at the deadline, including a massive deal that sees veteran forward Keith Tkachuk don a Thrashers jersey for 18 regular season games, the Thrashers are still in danger of missing out on a playoff spot by the very last game. Needing a win over Tampa to clinch, a shootout goal by Jon Sim ensures the Thrashers will once again play post-season hockey.

The Thrashers’ playoff spot is earned by the thinnest of margins, as they finish tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs on 91 points. With 41 wins compared to 40, Atlanta goes through, while the Leafs are on the outside looking in, stuck in 9th place. The Thrashers are “rewarded” with a tough match-up against the President’s Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres. Atlanta is clearly overwhelmed by Buffalo’s deep forward core, and Marc Denis is pulled in Game One in favour of Johan Hedberg, who plays out the rest of the series. Atlanta is scrappy, trying desperately to stay in the series, but only manages to take a single game as the Sabres advance in five.

The Tkachuk trade leaves the Thrashers without a 1st or 2nd-Rounder in the 2007 Draft. Their first pick this year is in the 3rd Round, which is used on winger Spencer Machacek.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Fredrik Modin and G Adam Berkhoel to the Columbus Blue Jackets for G Marc Denis

2007-2008

While the Thrashers’ playoff window seemed to be on the verge of closing, another one was close to opening. Sure, the team was losing several key free agents, and was one year away from losing Jaromir Jagr, but the duo of Joe Pavelski and Paul Stastny had made their NHL debuts in the previous year, and looked to be dangerous players for years to come. In an effort to try and remain competitive in the short term, Atlanta would sign veteran Slava Kozlov to a three-year extension. Jagr, however, would not negotiate, looking for a better deal in free agency in July of 2008. He would eventually be dealt out near the deadline, returning to Pittsburgh, where he got his start in the NHL.

The deadline move would be necessary thanks to the woeful play of the Thrashers this season. Already struggling defensively, the team’s obvious lack of goaltending talent proves fatal to Bob Hartley’s job; he is sacked only six games in to the season, all of them losses. Don Waddell takes over the reins the rest of the way, but even a coaching change isn’t good enough. Johan Hedberg, try as he might in 68 games of work, is simply not starting material at this point, racking up a .895 SV%. Marc Denis proves even worse, getting 20 games, and finishing with a horrifying .859 save rate.

For Atlanta, the window has closed. They finish out of the playoffs, their 80 points leaving them 13th in the Eastern Conference. Though the Thrashers traded their 2008 1st-Rounder to St. Louis in the Keith Tkachuk deal, the two sides strike another agreement that sees the Blues get the power forward back in exchange for the pick that they had originally acquired from Atlanta. Though they are originally slotted at #5, the Thrashers trade down twice on Draft Day, with Toronto and Nashville. Now with the #9 pick, the Thrashers select Josh Bailey, a centreman from the Windsor Spitfires. They grab another Ontarian centreman, Daultan Leveille, with the pick they acquired from the Penguins in the Jagr deal.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Jaromir Jagr and F Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for F Colby Armstrong, F Erik Christensen, F Angelo Esposito, and a 2008 1st-Round Pick (used on Daultan Leveille)

2008-2009

It was now time for a rebuild to begin in Atlanta. Gone were the veteran forwards that had previously populated the Thrashers’ line-up, and in their place were younger replacements, including Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, and rookie Josh Bailey. Guiding this younger team is John Anderson, a former NHLer with 800 games under his belt. Anderson does little to change the primarily attacking Thrashers, but does get the defense to be even tighter than previous years, but the goaltending is still horrid. Johan Hedberg’s .886 SV% in 66 games ranks worst among all starting netminders (41+ games), and his back-up, Ondrej Pavelec, isn’t much better.

The Thrashers, despite their clear goaltending woes, actually seem somewhat competitive for a while, but an injury to Paul Stastny derails their chances early on. Though players like Todd White and Rich Peverley (claimed on waivers from Nashville) do their part to keep the team in the hunt, it is just not enough. Atlanta finishes in a tie for 11th place in the Eastern Conference with 83 points, finishing ahead of Ottawa by virtue of wins. Given the 9th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, the Thrashers pick up defender Jared Cowen of the Spokane Chiefs.

Also of note is the fact that defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is traded on Draft Day, sent to Calgary for Jordan Leopold and a 2009 3rd-Rounder, used on Josh Birkholz.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade D Jay Bouwmeester to the Calgary Flames for D Jordan Leopold, and a 2009 3rd-Round Pick (used on Josh Birkholz)

2009-2010

Though the future was looking a bit brighter for the Thrashers, their resurrection would have to come pretty soon. For the first time since the early 2000s, attendance at Philips Arena had fallen below the 16,000 mark, and it was pretty clear that if the team continued to struggle, that number would fall even further. Trading former #1 blue-liner Jay Bouwmeester didn’t help matters, and the team was now forced to make moves in the off-season to shore up the squad. Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov were brought in as free agents, while Pavel Kubina was acquired from the Maple Leafs in a July 1st trade. Despite the new personnel on the ice, there was no change in goaltending, their major position of need. Hedberg and Pavelec, the awful tandem from last year, were back in for the 09-10 campaign, and fans were dreading the worst.

Surprisingly, the Thrashers’ goalkeepers finally get it together. Hedberg and Pavelec split the load, and combine for a team SV% of .908 – not amazing by any stretch, but far better than they had performed the last two years. The offensive strategies are multi-faceted, with production coming from all areas of the ice. Both Antropov and Afinogenov add over 60 points each, while Tobias Enstrom adds another 50 from the point. The team’s multiple threats make the Thrashers dangerous at any point in a game, making Atlanta a serious contender. They finish in 5th in the East, grabbing 96 points.

Atlanta is back in the playoffs, but in order to make any progression, they have to deal with the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a few seasons of being easy post-season pushovers, the Thrashers are not ready to be brushed aside once more. They battle hard to stun the Pens, taking the opening series in five games. For the first time, Atlanta has won a playoff series, and the hockey world has taken notice. Their second-round series pits the Thrashers against 8th-seeded Philadelphia, who are clearly not taking their opposition lightly. The series turns into a slug-fest, which suits Philly more, but even then, the Thrashers take it in seven games. It costs the team a lot of energy and man games, but the Thrashers have made it to the Conference Final.

The Philips Arena, which was previously starting to become less and less populated for Thrashers games, was now rocking. Energy was beginning to return to the building, comparable to the first year of the club, and it seemed as if a spot in the Stanley Cup Final was within reach. To get to the next round, Atlanta would have to take down the Ottawa Senators, who had already gotten past two Northeastern rivals in Buffalo and Boston. Despite less familiarity with Atlanta, the Sens showed much more versatility than their opponents, who were emotionally and physically drained from the previous series. Atlanta would fight hard once more, but the Sens would take the Conference Final in six games, setting up a showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The focus has shifted. The Thrashers’ job is no longer to build for the future, but to build for a Cup. Their first big move in the off-season is to send off their natural 1st-Rounder in 2010 (the #27 Pick) to Chicago in a massive deal that sees Cup-winning blue-liners Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel go to Atlanta.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade a 2010 1st-Round Pick (used on Mark Visentin), F Marty Reasoner, F Joey Crabb, and the rights to Jeremy Morin to the Chicago Blackhawks for F/D Dustin Byfuglien, F Ben Eager, D Brent Sopel, and F Akim Aliu

2010-2011

For the first time in a long while, Philips Arena is a regular sell-out. Fan enthusiasm is at unprecedented levels for Atlanta hockey, as the Thrashers stock up for a potential Cup run. One big change is made in the front office, as Don Waddell is promoted to team president, while Rick Dudley takes over the General Manager’s role. There were also changes in on-ice personnel, as the team would sign former St. Louis goalie Chris Mason to be Ondrej Pavelec’s back-up. Also coming back for a last hurrah was Fredrik Modin, one of the original expansion picks; he, along with Kris Draper, are the only players on Atlanta who were around for the debut season.

Quickly into the campaign, it becomes clear that free agency also left a huge dent in Atlanta’s roster. With Dan Hamhuis, Pavel Kubina, Slava Kozlov, Todd White, and Maxim Afinogenov all out of town, the Thrashers didn’t get enough quality players to fill all of the gaps. The once devastating offense is a shell of what it once was; Joe Pavelski is the only player to crack the 60-point mark, setting a career high of 66. Ondrej Pavelec is not bad by any stretch, putting up a respectable .914 SV% in 58 games. But despite his efforts, he just can’t make up for the team in front of him.

Not long into the season, John Anderson is given the boot, as it becomes clear that the Thrashers won’t repeat their success of a year ago. Craig Ramsay takes over, but does little to stop Atlanta’s tailspin. The Thrashers finish 12th in the East with 76 points, a drop of 20 from the previous campaign. With the 7th pick in the 2011 Entry Draft, the team reaches a bit, taking centreman Mark Schiefele, who was projected as a mid-round pick.

Notable Trades:

Atlanta Thrashers trade F Rich Peverley and D Arturs Kulda to the Boston Bruins for F Blake Wheeler and D Mark Stuart


 

ON THE THRASHERS AND THE NHL

After the 2011 season in our timeline, the Thrashers were sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, a group based mainly out of Winnipeg. The new owners proceeded to move the Thrashers north, reviving the Winnipeg Jets. Atlanta had been struggling in attendance for the past few years, and finished third-last in total attendance in the 2010-11 campaign. At this point, there are a few issues to think about with all of the changes in this world.

THE THRASHERS COMPARED TO THE OTL: The increase in available players makes the new Thrashers a much better team overall, which should be obvious. Right off the bat, they are a playoff team, managing almost 50 more points than they do in our timeline. But it doesn’t take long for this team to sink as poor asset management comes to bite them in the rear. In particular, the moves made in defense cripple the Thrashers going forward. Looking at those that were drafted at the beginning, the team has some solid talent that they would eventually squander. Craig Rivet would go on to be an NHL fixture who could be counted on for solid defensive play, as well as a few assists. Darius Kasparaitis would be shipped off for a goalie who wouldn’t even be the starter in Atlanta, and ended up serving as a third-stringer for a couple of years. And Sheldon Souray would go on to be one of the players that benefitted greatly from the rule changes in 05-06, becoming one of the game’s most powerful blue-line shooters.

Despite some of those mistakes in talent evaluation, the Thrashers do make some very good moves that end up being key in building some strong Atlanta teams. Because of the series of moves that sees Atlanta get Anson Carter, they get to be the ones that acquire Jaromir Jagr, who experiences a career revival starting from 2005-06. The Marc Savard trade still happens, and he still becomes a fantastic playmaker during his time in the Southeast – only this time, he’s sending passes to Jagr instead of Kovalchuk and Hossa. And because of trades that either are or aren’t made, Atlanta eventually gets the draft picks that are used on Paul Stastny and Joe Pavelski; both of those players become centrepieces of the team going into the new decade.

So, how have the Thrashers fared overall? Well, for starters, they are easily much better than they are in the OTL. In our timeline, the Thrashers made all of one playoff appearance, getting swept by the New York Rangers in 2007. This time around, not only do they make an immediate playoff appearance right off the bat, they also manage to win one more playoff game in their inaugural year than they do in all 11 seasons in real life. In this timeline, they make five playoff appearances, making a trip to the Conference Final in 2010. Clearly, having more talent to start off with ends up benefitting Atlanta in both the short and long run.

After 11 seasons in Atlanta, the roster on the final day of the 2010-11 campaign looks like this:

Joe Pavelski – Paul Stastny – Blake Wheeler

Anthony Stewart – Nik Antropov – Josh Bailey

Rob Schremp – Tim Stapleton – Carl Klingberg

Eric Boulton – Kris Draper – Chris Thorburn

Brent Seabrook – Dustin Byfuglien

Ron Hainsey – Tobias Enstrom

Andrei Zubarev – Mark Stuart

Ondrej Pavelec

Chris Mason

Though there is talent there, the depth simply isn’t good enough. Of course, this is after most of the team was shipped out in favour of picks and prospects. The likes of Fredrik Modin, Rich Peverley, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager had all found homes elsewhere in the year, and it was apparent that the team’s season was long gone. Of note is the fourth-line centreman Kris Draper; he is the only man left standing from the original expansion draft, playing the rest of his career in Atlanta. He would retire after the 2010-11 season, a fan favourite at Philips Arena.

So, with where the Thrashers were, and are now, a big question has to be asked…

DO THE THRASHERS MOVE TO WINNIPEG? The answer is no. Well, at least not immediately.

Atlanta Spirit, LLC bought the team in 2003 from Time Warner as part of a package deal that saw the group also pick up the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to Philips Arena. Having the Hawks was clearly the #1 priority for the ownership group, and the Thrashers were seen as an afterthought. As the Washington Post described the situation in 2014, the ownership group “showed little interest in fielding a competitive hockey team”, and with attendance plummeting in 2010-11, it was almost inevitable that if the team was sold to an outside investor, it would move.

The altered state of the Thrashers in this timeline changes quite a bit. Having made such a fantastic run in 2010, the Thrashers now have much more fan interest going into the 10-11 season, and start off the year selling out. As the year goes on, and the team starts to falter, fans are less enthusiastic about going to games, and attendance drops – but nowhere near as drastically as it does in the OTL. The drop brings Atlanta to an average of around 16,000, still a solid number by Southeastern standards. With the team still drawing at an acceptable rate, moving the team would be much less of a realistic possibility; sure, it could be done, but True North would face a much tougher fight from both local interests and the NHL, who were incredibly quick to relent after the team changed ownership in the OTL.

Speaking of which, the True North deal is going through, no matter what. Atlanta Spirit, LLC was embroiled in a contentious lawsuit for many years, and one of the details that came out in the suit was that the ownership group had been trying to sell off the Thrashers as early as 2004-05. With the suit settled in 2010, the group could now focus on selling off a team they seemed to have little interest in holding on to in the first place. True North were the first to make an offer, and that was all Atlanta Spirit needed to get the Thrashers off their hands.

Now, back to the whole re-location thing. True North, as mentioned, would have a tougher time convincing the NHL that the Thrashers were in need of a location change at this point in the new timeline. An attendance of 16,000 is still pretty solid, but how long would the team stay in Atlanta? To answer that, let’s look at the Thrashers’ Southeastern rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes, and their attendance from 2001-04:

In 2001-02, the Hurricanes are the best of a bad bunch in the Southeast. With 95 points, they are the worst of the six division winners that year, but they are division winners nonetheless. Their regular season attendance clocks in at 15,508 per game – their highest total in Carolina, and a jump of over 2,000 from the previous year. It is also worth noting that in this year, the ‘Canes go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Detroit Red Wings.

With their previous Cup Final season fresh in the minds of Carolina fans, attendance starts out strong for the 2002-03 year. Unfortunately, the team craters HARD, finishing dead last in the entire league. Because of early-season enthusiasm, the average attendance actually goes up despite the results, as Carolina brings in 15,682 fans per game.

The true effect on yearly attendance comes the following year, in 2003-04. With the team coming off a horrible campaign, the fan enthusiasm that was present for the start of last year is gone. Once again, Carolina is bad, but not quite as bad as 02-03, finishing 11th in the East with 76 points. Despite the overall improvement, the attendance nosedives to 12,330/game, a drop of over 3,000.

So, what does this say for the Thrashers? Well, it says that the effects of a bad season are not truly felt at the gate until the following year. 16,000 as it stands is okay, but much of that is built on a fantastic season the year before. Even if the Thrashers were to have a year on par with 10-11, the fan enthusiasm left over from their Conference Final run will disappear, and the effects on attendance could be enough to turn the tide against the team for good. A loss of 3,000 fans like what happened to Carolina would bring Atlanta to around 13,000 fans a game, much the same as where they were when the team actually was moved in our timeline.

So, while the team would not be moved in the 2011 off-season, all it would take is one year for the process of moving the team to begin. If True North sit back and let the Thrashers suck for another season, it could provide them with enough evidence to claim that hockey was beginning to fail in Atlanta, and allow them to ship the team off to Winnipeg. Sure, there would be much more of a fuss from Atlanta, considering the team had been pretty competitive, but it just wouldn’t matter to True North. (And why would it? Winnipeg has been a constant sell-out ever since the team returned, and doesn’t look like it will have the same problems that Atlanta had in getting people to the arena, even in years where the team is poor.)

THE THRASHERS v. THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS: So, how do the Thrashers fare in their first year compared to the Golden Knights? Simply put, the Knights win, and it’s no contest.

Atlanta starts out with a very respectable blue line, and definitely keeps games close. Vegas, however, managed to get more out of D-men who had never really gotten a chance to shine in their old locations. As just one example, Colin Miller, who had never managed more than 16 points in a season prior to joining the Golden Knights, broke out with 41 points this year thanks to his increased power play time. Atlanta does get defensemen who play well, either as shut-down guys or two-way players, but never seems to hold on to them. In their first season alone, the Thrashers let go of Darryl Shannon, who was rated as their top blue-liner going into the year, and Sheldon Souray, who would remain serviceable for a few years before becoming a superb offensive defenseman in the mid-2000s.

The true extent of the gulf between Atlanta and Vegas is first seen in the forward ranks. Atlanta certainly got some great role players, but as far as creative forces went, they were a little bit short. Andrew Cassels would do quite well to lead the team with 62 points, but he was well off the pace. The Thrashers did at least have a few goal scorers, with Andrew Brunette, Freddy Modin, Pat Verbeek, and a shockingly prolific Chris Simon all breaking the 20-goal mark. None of those players, however, would compare to the offensive onslaught that the Knights managed. They had one extra 20-goal scorer, but of the five that reached that mark, William Karlsson went above and beyond. Karlsson’s 43 goals would rank third in the league, an astounding total of 34 more than his previous career high. In addition, four Vegas players eclipsed the 60-point mark, compared to Cassels alone for the Thrashers. Offensively, the Golden Knights were better in every way.

So, how did Vegas get access to all of the forward talent that Atlanta never could? Simply put, it is due to the fact that several teams elected to protect eight skaters rather than going the 7-3-1 route. In total, seven clubs decided to protect extra blue-liners, with the New York Islanders electing to protect five defensemen. Nashville would end up using the eight-skater option, and lost former 40-goal scorer James Neal. Florida, too, used the eight-skater option, and not only lost 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, but gave up Reilly Smith in the deal that saw Marchessault get selected. Having players like Neal, Marchessault, Smith, and David Perron round helped elevate the other players around them, allowing the likes of William Karlsson to boost their own scoring totals exponentially.

Finally, one need look no further than the area between the pipes for another way to separate the Thrashers from the Knights. Atlanta had the benefit of choosing from some good goaltending talent, and only really misses out on two future top netminders; both of those, Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, would make their true impact after the 1999-00 season. Vegas, however, had the fortune of being able to pick off one of Pittsburgh’s goalies, whether it be Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray had just proven himself twice in the post-season, and Fleury had an extensive history of being a sure-fire starter in the NHL. Not only did Fleury recapture his form in Vegas, but he set a new career high with a .927 save percentage. Nobody Atlanta fields in this timeline, whether it be Mike Vernon, Ron Tugnutt, or late-season acquisition Tom Barrasso, could compare to Fleury.

Looking at the Vegas Golden Knights, it is becoming clear that even with an easier expansion draft, the Thrashers would never be as great as Vegas was in their first season. They simply didn’t have the talent to get as far as the Knights did in their maiden year. Sure, Atlanta would be somewhat competitive, but Vegas is something special, even by the standards of a regular NHL team. For an expansion side, they are a bar that likely no expansion team following them will ever clear. They have the scoring depth, they have good defenders, and they have a truly elite goalie. Combined which a coach that has adapted to the league like few others, and you have a team that can not only be great now, but possibly for many years to come.


 

Now, to address something that I covered in the article earlier. You may have noticed my note at the time of the 2002 Entry Draft, in which the Thrashers select Jay Bouwmeester. Normally, my policy with 1st-Round Picks is that the team I am covering selects whoever was taken at that pick in real life. (e.g., if a team finished last in the league in 2001, they would take Ilya Kovalchuk.) But there is a set of circumstances that, during the writing of this article, I failed to take into account.

In the 2002 Entry Draft, the Florida Panthers had the 1st Overall Pick, and would trade down to the #3 spot, allowing the Blue Jackets to move up to the first pick. They not only made that deal, but also made a deal with Atlanta to give them two future picks if the Thrashers did not take Bouwmeester. In this new timeline, the Thrashers move up a spot in the NHL standings, giving them the 3rd Pick, but the Panthers are still last, and still hold the top pick. Since their intent was clearly to take Jay Bouwmeester, they could have simply traded down a single spot with Columbus, and taken Bouwmeester at #2. This would mean that the OTL case of Atlanta taking Kari Lehtonen would still happen, but at the #3 spot instead.

As I go on with these articles, I will still have to tweak them a bit in order to occasionally fit the logic regarding 1st-Rounders.

P.P.S: Yes, Chris Simon really did score 29 goals in 1999-2000. And Anson Carter was really traded for Jagr 1-for-1.


 

Next month, I honour the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest trades in hockey (and possibly even sports) history, by asking a simple question: What if Wayne Gretzky was never traded to Los Angeles?

And as always, if you have an idea that you’d like me to examine down the road, comment to let me know!

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