Here we are, coming to you live from McMurdo Station…uh, Washington, DC, where the Caps will host the Atlanta Thrashers… the Ilya Kovalchuk-less Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers parted ways with the elite left wing last night, sending Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for a quartet of assets whose names are likely to be lost to history before too long. For the record, the price that Atlanta extracted from the Devils for perhaps the second most electrifying player in the game (plus Anssi Salmela) is:
John Oduya, a competent defenseman
Niclas Bergfors, a former first-round draft pick who started the year rather well (5-9-14 in his first 18 games), but who does not have a goal in 2010 and has only one assist in 16 games.
Patrice Cormier, currently serving a season-ending suspension for flinging an elbow at the head of Mikael Tam in a QMJHL game.
A first round draft pick, which would seem to be no better than perhaps 25th in the entry draft, given where the Devils are likely to finish in the standings.
Needless to say, the cousins have opinions on the matter. Fearless, what’s your take?
“Not an impact player in the bunch. Yes, they got a couple of guys who might – and the operative word there is ‘might’ – be top-six forwards in a few years in Bergfors and Cormier, but they couldn’t pry Mattias Tedenby or Jacob Josefsen from the Devils, who might have better upsides.”
Uh, OK then…Fearless, what does this tell Atlanta fans?
“That Don Waddell isn’t much of a horse trader…”
Cheerless, would you agree?
Uh, yeah… What about Oduya?
“He’s not a bad defenseman, but he’s probably a third pair even on that team, behind Enstrom, Kubina, Bogosian, and Hainsey. If Kubina is moved, he moves up the depth chart.”
Cheerless, what do you think of getting the first rounder?
“I think cuz is going to pop a blood vessel…”
“hoo-hoo…I was just readin’ the Thrasher message boards… they thought they were getting Zubrus or Ralston. And those folks are geniuses compared to the ‘experts.’ One of those ESPN guys had Kovalchuk going for Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, and Andy Greene. Yeah… that works.”
Not a good day for the pundits…
“And that goober who names himself after a former Flyer?...He had the Thrashers wanting two of Hartnell, van Riemsdyk, and Giroux from Philadelphia… geez, why not ask for a lifetime supply of cheese steaks, too? "
Yeah… Eklund… often, well… always wrong, but never in doubt. But that leaves the Thrashers gasping for offense as they take the Verizon Center ice – we think – for tonight’s sled dog race…uh, hockey game at Verizon Center.
The Thrashers were already something of an offense-challenged team, given that Kovalchuk had 31 goals (of the 162 the Thrashers have) and that Atlanta had only 41 goals in 16 games since the start of the new year (2.56/game). The overall numbers look like this…
The top scorer for Atlanta is now Maxim Afinogenov. Ironic, isn’t it, that a player that was given up for dead, unwanted by a lot of teams in the off-season has found his scoring touch and will be the Thrashers’ big offensive weapon heading into this game. The difficulty, though, is that since putting up a 2-2-4 effort against the Islanders on January 2nd, he is 2-3-5 in his last 14 games.
With Kovalchuk’s departure, Rich Peverley now takes over the top spot in goal scoring, tied with Afinogenov (17). He has had a decent start to the new year with five goals in his last 15 games. He doesn’t have a goal against the Caps this year and is a minus-4 in three games (he does have three assists).
Nik Antropov looks to have been a pretty good off-season signing by the Thrashers. He is third on the club in goals (13), tied for second in points (42), and has the best plus-minus on the club by a wide margin (plus-17). He has had only two minus games in his last 18 contests. He has 20 points in 27 career games against the Caps (7-13-20), including three assists in two games this year.
The Thrashers get a significant amount of scoring out of their blueliners – four of them are in double-digit points. But they also have a couple of defensemen who are on the far side of minus-10 (Ron Hainsey and Zach Bogosian). For Hainsey, he has a grand total of only three points in 2010 (all assists), and he has been a plus player in only four times in 16 games. Bogosian is 1-3-4 in 2010 (but without a point in his last six games) and has been a plus player only three times in 16 games. Oduya might be expected to shore up the defensive end of the ice, but with only four points this year (2-2-4) the Thrashers are not going to be getting a lot of offensive production there (whether he plays in this game is iffy, given travel and that sort of thing).
In goal Atlanta has a difficult mix to sort out. Johan Hedberg is 36 years old and provides stability and, occasionally, some fine efforts. He recently had a three game run in which he allowed only a single goal in each game. But that is sandwiched by a four game streak to start the year in which he allowed 14 goals (1-1-2, .857 SV) and his last two appearances, in which he allowed three and four goals (61 saves on 68 shots -- .897 SV) in splitting two decisions.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ondrej Pavelec is only 22 years old, and he’s had the struggles 22-year old goaltenders often have. He is 3-3-1 in eight appearances since January 1st (3.16, .902), and he has lost his last two decisions, a 5-2 loss to Carolina on January 21st and a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay last Tuesday. You would have to think Hedberg would get the call in this one, if only because Pavelec is 0-1-1, 5.73, .836 in two appearances against the Caps this season. Hedberg isn’t a lot better – 0-1-0, 4.73, .826.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Atlanta: Evander Kane
With Kovalchuk gone, Kane might now get to jump start his development a little more. He is now the “franchise player” in waiting. A lot to ask of a youngster who is still only 18. Kane has 11 goals in this, his rookie season, but he has only three in his last 32 games, one since New Year’s Day. He has yet to register a point against the Caps (0-0-0 in three games).
Washington: Braden Holtby
Does the kid get his NHL debut? If so, one could do worse than have it come against the Thrashers, who might be expected to still be sorting out the Kovalchuk deal and that all of a sudden has become a very offense-challenged team. You would have to say Holtby has exceeded expectations so far this year. He started in South Carolina and is 7-2-3, 2.95, .911 with the Stingrays. He has spent a lot of time in Hershey, where his numbers are even better – 16-2-1, 2.04, .928. If he gets the nod and manages a win, you would have to say his season went from “exceeding expectations” to perhaps “meteoric.”
(edit: Michal Neuvirth was called up, so that meteor apparently doesn't get to flash across the sky tonight).
1. Focus, focus, focus. This will be an odd game. The Thrashers are playing their first game without Ilya Kovalchuk in their organization, the Caps are coming home after a hard-fought, come-from-behind win, and there is the weather that could play havoc with team travel and keep the crowd down. Being able to maintain focus will be a chore.
2. Play Fehr. Eric Fehr has five goals in 12 career games against the Thrashers, including one in two games this season. He has five goals in 16 games since the start of the new year. It doesn’t sound like a lot until you see that he is stuck around 12 minutes of playing time a night. Fehr does not have a goal in his last six games.
3. All for one and one for all. If Holtby gets the start, giving the kid a helping hand – playing responsibly and not leaving him out to dry, not taking bad penalties – will be important to getting the kid off on the right foot.
In the end, the Caps are rolling, while the Thrashers are spinning their wheels (6-6-4 since the start of the year). The Caps could get caught looking ahead to Pittsburgh on Sunday, but they’ve been good at tending to the business at hand during this streak, even if their level of play seems to have slipped a notch in the last three games. Still, the Caps should keep the fun run going…
Caps 5 – Thrashers 3