When I caught up with Dan last week during the Thrashers prospect camp, he was keeping an eye one particular player of interest…his son Chris Kamal, a goalie. I asked him how Chris was playing and how his recovery was coming along. “I’m very proud of the way that he has reacted to the adversity”, said Kamal. “He had come off a very strong year in his first season in junior hockey…and was looking forward to his second year when he had a freak off-ice injury and suffered a complicated break of his tibia and fibula…and it cost him the whole ‘08-’09 season”.
But, according to the senior Kamal, he’s been up to playing speed since February and is in “the best shape of his life and playing the best hockey of his life…but now he needs to catch a break” in trying to land a position on a junior hockey team.
And as would be expected, as we discussed his son and the other prospects out on the ice, the topic turned toward the Thrashers’ future. Like Chris, the Thrashers have had to go through some adversities of their own over the past couple of years, escpecially since that single foray into the postseason.
And again, Kamal has seen it go from the highs of those two playoff games in Atlanta…to the lows of the way things went in the following season and the beginning of last year…..to the improved play of last spring. He believes the team can get back to where it was just a few short seasons ago.
“Those two games here for the playoffs were beyond my expectations…and it can get back to that. I look at this as a fabulous hockey town. I really think Atlanta is a great hockey town just waiting to erupt when this team…which I believe has turned a major corner… starts to become a perennial playoff contender”.
“But I think what people don’t remember is that it’s hard to win in pro sports. I mean, Buffalo Sabres…no Stanley Cup. Vancouver Canucks…no Stanley Cup. They’ve been around for decades. So, I think the thing you want to do as a franchise is build a foundation…which is not so easy in a salary cap era…build a foundation for you to be a perennial playoff contender. And then you have to hope for health…for your best players to be your best players…maybe get lucky with a guy who you don’t expect to have a career year to do so and maybe make a few tweaks along the way and go from there”.
And about the two disappointing seasons since then?
“For me to see a franchise that’s this young to have had some setbacks…I don’t think that’s abnormal”.
OK, but what of certain self-induced set backs…like, say, the Zhitnik/Coburn deal?
“There was the playoff run, and then the lull in January, and then the trade of Coburn for Zhitnik…and I know a lot of people say ‘Oh you traded Coburn for Zhitnik’, but he played very well [after the trade]. Zhitnik helped the team get back on course for that playoff run. Had the Thrashers been able to win a round or win some games against the Rangers, certainly that trade would have been looked upon more favorably”.
Fair enough, Dan…but what about where the team is now?
“To me what’s very encouraging is the direction the team is going now. It’s a young team… a young foundation, and I think it’s moving forward. It’s clear there is some talent in this franchise and [they are] going to become real impact players. When you’re adding guys like Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, when you have young guys like Bryan Little and the way he impacted the way he did in his first full year …and Colby Armstrong with his leadership skills …and Toby Enstrom…your starting to get good young ‘faces’ to this franchise that are going to be instrumental in getting this team where it needs to go”.
We then began discussing some of the “faces” that make up today’s Thrashers organization…players such as Bryan Little who he decribed as, “Quiet…tough…surprisingly productive. Gives you that versatility to play either on the wing or center…learned how to score goals in tough areas”.
And what do you think of Zach Bogosian’s potential? ”How high is the ceiling [as far as his potential]…you may not be able to see the ceiling…that good. And to think he just turned 19″.
Of Rich Peverley, Kamal said, ”What a find. Just another example of when some guys get a chance to showcase their skills in an area where they’re given the opportunity and the coach shows confidence in them. It’s much like life…timing and opportunity”.
Now, could the same be said about the newly acquired Anthony Stewart? “Yes, could be…big guy, former first rounder…ya know what comes first, the minutes or the production”?
Kari Lehtonen… “When he’s on his game, I think he’s one of the top-five talents in the NHL…down low, as good as there is. When he develops consistency both in terms of health and his game. I think he’s gonna be one of the best”.
Of course, the position of goaltending will always be one that draws a lot of criticism from fans…he’s the guy that “let in” the goal. Is that harsh?
“Goalies ya know…yeah rebound control is a big thing but they’re human beings. They can’t control every rebound every time. You don’t notice it when they don’t control a rebound and a defender comes in and conveniently sweeps it away”.
“When I was growing up in this sport, the old adage was ‘well, goalies don’t really get it until they’re 25, 26 or 27′…well, Kari’s 25. So it’s a younger man’s game now so everyone kinda expects goalies to ‘get it’ when they’re 21, 22, 23…[but] I think having shown patience with Kari will prove to have been a good thing”.
Now we add to that mix a couple of, what I believe to be, very good pick ups. One being Pavel Kubina. ”I did a demo tape for the Thrashers back in 1998 down in Tampa…Tampa versus Florida…Pavel Kubina was playing for Tampa. I’ve like him since that day. His big, he’s got enough snarle to him…mobile…he’s got a great shot, gives you flexibility on the power play…he’s only 32-years old…big pickup”.
And Nik Antropov? “All I need to know about him…other then he’s 6-6, 240-ish…is that he and Kovalchuk played real well together in the World Championship. I’m very much looking forward to that continuing here”.
Of course, no discussion of Atlanta’s lineup would be complete if Ilya Kovalchuk wasn’t included… ”I think he’s as dynamic a player that there is in the NHL. Certainly Alex Ovechkin getting more attention, and deservedly so…but when Kovy has the puck I lean forward… and I have an inkling that 17,000 others are following suit. If he make you pay more attention or makes you move physically when he has the puck, and Kovalchuk does that for me, to me that’s the biggest complement you can pay a guy”.
And of John Anderson’s first season as an NHL head coach, Kamal said, ”I think John Anderson stayed true to what he wanted to do with this team. It was a learning curve, I’m sure, for him and the players. It maybe took a little bit longer than players and coach would have liked. But man, when it kicked in this team was tough to play against, exciting…I just wish the season had not ended in April. I’m looking for that to carry over on October 3″.
Ok, so there are some good players on the roster…what does the radio voice of Thrasherville make of the team’s chances going into the season?
“I think the team defense will be better…maybe a little less pressure on the goaltending. If Kari Lehtonen, if he’s the guy, or Pavelec or Moose Hedberg…if they come in and play there games and play them extremely well and you give this team reasonably good health and solid goaltending, I think a a playoff push in my mind would be an expectation”.
During summertime, outside of certain broadcast “housekeeping” chores, Kamal fills his offseason time by “doing as many public appearances as the team needs”. Whether it’s a social appearance or charitable event, he’s more than happy to assist. Living here year-round he thinks is very important to talk hockey. “Not only to the folks who are not yet fans…certainly you want to earn their business…but also to people who are fans. To just maintain that connection and maintain that passion”.
“It’s kind of a two fold thing…the fans give me passion for the game and I try to give it back”.