25 October 2006

Atlanta hockey - from Flames to Thrashers


Atlanta Hockey, Then and Now

In the fall of 1978, the city of Atlanta had seen six seasons of NHL hockey at the Omni – home of the Flames. Although they had made the playoffs in four of their first six years, including the previous three, the fan base was becoming restless and support was waning – a strong start to the season was needed. Led by Guy Chouinard (uncle of Vancouver Canucks center Marc Chouinard) and his 50 goals, Bob MacMillan’s 108 points, and future analyst Bill Clement’s savvy two-way play they got off to a torrid start, winning 12 of their first 15 games en route to a 41 win season. The Flames’ offense was a powerhouse that year, scoring 327 goals, which averaged out to just over four per game and good for third in the league. The team had an astounding nine players with 21 goals or more. Alas, those were the days of the brutal best-of-three preliminary round and in two quick playoff games they were bounced by the Toronto Maple Leafs and done for the year.

This could be the year that many – or all – old Atlanta NHL records are either beaten or put to rest. While to this date the Buffalo Sabres seem to be the elite team in the NHL, there are a number of teams right on their heels, and to me none are more surprising than the Atlanta Thrashers. With 15 points and at 7-1-1, the Thrashers sit comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference. The question begs to be asked: how exactly are they doing it?

Clearly the discussion begins with Marian Hossa - on the short list of best players to date this season one would have to put Hossa near or at the top; Buffalo can make the case for at least three or four players, but on a less-talented team Hossa sticks out. In last summer’s huge Hossa for Dany Heatley deal, Hossa became a bit of an afterthought – mostly due to Ottawa being the far better team last season – but how does that trade stack up right now? Marian Hossa is – to me – playing with clearly less talent than Heatley but is lighting it up this year. With ten goals and fifteen points already, leading the league in both categories, he has a great shot at besting his career highs in both (45 goals, 92 points) and besting those 108 points Bob MacMillan put up for the 1979 Atlanta Flames.

Ilya Kovalchuk is an established superstar and got untracked with a hat trick on Monday night against the Panthers, and is now up to five goals and 12 points – he will be near the top of the scoring charts by the end of the season. Hossa’s linemate Slava Kozlov is off to a great start with 12 points as well. Scott Mellanby – who has been around so long he was a teammate of Chico Resch’s – is off to a surprising start with four goals, and Jonathan Sim has been another big contributor in chipping in five goals.

The power play and penalty killing units are both third in the league, but the true bedrock of the team lies in the crease, where Kari Lehtonen is becoming the superstar goaltender the franchise hoped he would be. The second overall pick in 2002 behind Columbus’ Rick Nash, Lehtonen has played all nine games so far and Atlanta will ride him to as many games as possible this year. Last year’s injury-filled rookie campaign limited him to only 38 games and may have been the difference between the team making the playoffs for the first time. Barring another disaster, former Atlanta Flames goalie Dan Bouchard can kiss goodbye his Atlanta-NHL record of 32 wins (recorded in the same 1978-79 season). Lehtonen owes a great deal of credit to his no-name defence in keeping the shots down - Lehtonen has only seen 28 shots per game, good for fifth-fewest in the league. None of the six defenseman is a negative, with Niclas Havelid and Andy Sutton both at +4.

Atlanta fans have never seen their NHL teams win a playoff round, with the Flames losing in the first round each of the six times they qualified for the playoffs from 1974-1980, and the Thrashers yet to qualify in six seasons. I will fully admit that I did not see this hot start coming – in my season preview article, I had the Thrashers finishing behind Florida, Carolina, and Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division. As I wrote, I did not see where the goals would come from after the obvious snipers. And to be honest, the evidence thus far does not counter that too much; sure, the team is third in the league in goals per game, but aside from Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Kozlov, I am still concerned about the offensive depth. For now I am discounting Mellanby and Sim - considering that it’s been over a decade since Mellanby was anywhere near a point per game pace, it’s safe to assume he will level off a bit, and Sim is the owner of merely 40 career goals in 239 games.

Finally, some quotes from a preview of those long-forgotten 1978-79 Atlanta Flames, courtesy of The Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey:

“…have seemed to be close to making a[n]…improvement for a few seasons…they are still only close”

“…they have several good wings…but the depth begins to thin out with a third and fourth line”

“…the defense will not provide much scoring depth”

Virtually what I have been saying about this year’s Thrashers club. Interesting to think that had that 1979 Flames team defeated the inferior Leafs in the playoffs and advanced to the final eight, it’s possible the entire history of hockey in Atlanta could be different – more fan interest leading to more ticket sales, and perhaps giving the owners more reason to stick it out in Atlanta. As it turned out, the next season was to be the Flames’ last in Atlanta, which ended in yet another first round defeat – the Flames moved to Calgary the following year where the team blossomed and made the semifinals in their first year.
That’s now ancient history - based on this year’s fantastic start, Thrashers fans are not only expecting a playoff birth, but may have reason to hope for something not yet seen in 14 years of NHL hockey in Atlanta: the second round.

ICE Experts League Update

In the interest of full disclosure (because you can be sure I’d be writing about it if I were in first place), this week finds me firmly in 12th place in the experts’ league – yes, that’s last place. I called myself the Dave Stapleton (only man in baseball history who’s batting average went down in seven consecutive seasons) of fantasy hockey as my points have gone down for at least five straight days. Call me crazy but I still like my squad – I’m having trouble trying to strike the balance between patience and not waiting too long to make a move. Getting Maxim Afinogenov for Anze Kopitar is already paying big dividends and, even though I am relatively low in offensive categories, it is all so tight that a hot day or two would vault me right back into the mix (example: I am eleventh in assists, but five more and I would be in fifth). Evgeni Malkin is making me look less and less ridiculous for taking him first, with a goal in each of his first four games. What’s killing me is goaltending – last in wins and goals-against, tenth in save percentage. Martin Gerber should have far more than one measly win and Alex Auld has been wildly inconsistent. I am debating whether to put Dan Cloutier in the lineup this week. The problem with a deep league like this is that you are pretty much stuck with the goaltending you drafted. I’m hoping to make some minor free agent pickups this week (Wednesday morning) but I don’t want to give anything away just yet.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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