New players, new coaching staff, new GM… the changes that went on around Thrasherville this summer have certainly created quite a buzz among the Atlanta hockey fan base. And who better to discuss this buzz in the air than the on-air personalities of the team…TV play-by-play man Matt McConnell, analyst Darren Eliot, radio voice of the Thrashers Dan Kamal and John Kincade who will join the TV team to provide reports from rink-side and the locker room.
The four are excited to get this season underway and they’re eager to see how the offseason modifications will play out over the course of the coming months.
“I just think there’s a real hockey feel around the organization these days and that’s been brought about through the changes we have seen in the off-season”, McConnell told me. “I’m interested in seeing how all of the new pieces fit together as we open up the season. This is going to be a roster with a lot of interchangeable parts. The team has at least a half dozen players that can play more than one position”.
Overall team depth is also a plus for the Thrashers as Matt points out.
“Defensively, I think this is as deep as we’ve seen in 11 seasons”, he continued. “I’m also excited about the goaltending. Chris Mason has won 57 games over the past two seasons and Ondrej Pavelec should only get better and better. I also think the team will have a strong core of players at AHL Chicago, thus providing depth for down the road”.
As for McConnell’s partner on TV Darren Eliot, he’ll be looking to see how the players assembled will fit into the schemes of the new coaching staff.
“I’m enthused about the players brought in and witnessing the process of the team coming together as they fit the vision and plan of the new coaching staff”.
John Kincade says he’s not only pumped about getting another hockey campaign underway, he’s also hyped about working with McConnell and Eliot. That, plus he’s happy to see this organization making steps toward creating some type of identity…something that he thinks is long overdue.
“Other than rejoining one of the best NHL broadcast teams in the NHL, I am excited about the Thrashers finally making an attempt to establish an identity. For years the focus has been on stars and the team never had a definitive style. I think this team will take some time to round into shape, but it will be easy to see what they are attempting to be”.
This is a sentiment shared by the man who has been a part of the Thrashers since day one back in 1999, the Grand Kamalian himself, radio voice of the Thrashers Dan Kamal.
“What has me most excited is the evolving identity of this team, as well as the style of play coach Ramsay and his staff are implementing”, Kamalian explains. “The Thrashers are a bigger, faster team, and I believe they’re going to be a tough team for opponents to handle. And I’m anxious to call the games of a team that wants to go, go, go”.
Obviously the new coaching staff will have a major impact on what this team can accomplish this winter. Ramsay and Co. are just as big a part of what has Thrasherville talking as do the new players.
“Ramsay is one heck of a teacher and his knowledge of the game and strategies should go a long way in the development of a roster that’s likely to be one of the younger ones in the league”, says McConnell. “I have yet to read any comments from a player who’s had him as a coach that hasn’t been anything but positive. Ramsay and John Torchetti understand what it takes to win the Stanley Cup and Mike Stothers is a guy that has NHL experience from his days in Philadelphia. So I think each of them will leave their marks on this roster”.
“Sure, the roster has been greatly upgraded, but it remains young”, McConnell continues. “So I think it was a great move to bring in a teacher like Ramsay. It should be a fun story to watch throughout the season”.
Kamal agrees and is happy to see Ramsay, Torch and Stothers behind the Thrashers bench as well.
“I’ve always thought Craig Ramsay was one of the best teachers in the NHL”, Kamal says. “I’ve known Mike Stothers since he was a young Flyers prospect and have always thought of him as an excellent student of the game. And John Torchetti is one of the rising stars in the NHL coaching ranks, as his role with the Stanley Cup champions can attest”.
The question is, however, can these guys take all these new players and get them to perform as a team quickly? Kamal believes they can.
“I think the biggest hurdle for this staff is going to be getting so many new players to implement new systems quickly enough and effectively enough that the team can get off to a good start and grow from there. I believe this staff is up to the challenge”.
McConnell also feels Ramsay is the right man for this job adding, “The key to this team and their hopes for a playoff spot will be how quickly they can pull everything together. I’m confident Craig Ramsay and the coaches will be able to do that”.
But it isn’t the sole responsibly of the coaching staff to provide a quick adhesive to this unit. The players will need to do their part.
“It takes everyone to have success, but in the end it is always about the players”, Eliot explains. “I think this staff truly believes and understands that sport truism”.
Continuing his thoughts about the players that will be on the ice wearing Thrashers jerseys, Darren is curious to see how some will adapt to new roles.
“As with any season, there are plenty of story lines to follow. In general, player ‘slotting’ has been intriguing to me: Byfuglien on D, Little in the middle and Thorburn also at center. I’ve also noticed how much Bogosian and Kane have played in their pre-season games. Certainly a substantial move up, particularly for Kane”.
McConnell picks up on this issue adding, “I’ll be interested to see how Dustin Byfuglien does at his natural position as a defenseman. He’s got a cannon for a shot and should get plenty of chances to fire away”.
Kamal points out that success here also depends on the forwards getting along without Big Buff on the front lines. “Like the rest of the hockey world, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Dustin Byfuglien move back to D. If the Thrashers get adequate production from their forwards and Byfuglien can be the consistent force many believe he can be on the back line, it should be a heckuva season”.
However, Byfuglien is just one part of the whole defensive corps that he feels is much improved over the past years.
“I’m also looking for Zach Bogosian to rebound in a big way after battling injuries much of last season”, Kamal goes on to say. “And I think Johnny Oduya will be an even greater contributor on the blue line in his first full season with Atlanta”.
McConnell also looks for Bogosian to have a good year, “For the majority of last season, he played hurt”, he recalls. “If he can stay healthy, it’ll be fun to watch him from an offensive standpoint as one of those defensemen jumping into the play as a four-man unit Ramsay is looking to develop”.
Much of Kincade’s attention will be focused on the two men that will be between the pipes for Atlanta this season, Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec.
“I am most interested to see the goaltending tandem and how this is going to play out. Pavelec has shown glimpses of being a solid NHL goaltender but he will now fight for playing appearances behind Chris Mason. I want to see how Pavelec responds to that challenge and the stability that Mason has afforded teams in previous stops”.
McConnell feels Pavelec must find a consistency in his game, but having Mason to handle the bulk of the starts will help him towards that goal.
“Chris Mason has proven to be a consistent winner in the past while Pavelec has been brilliant at times, yet needs to be more consistent”, he said. “Dudley has said in the past that Pavelec is as good as any goaltender in the league 50% of the time and that they need him to be that way 75% of the time. All in all, the storylines will run deep to start the season”.
Focusing attention to the forward lines, there are several players and situations that have Dan Kamal jazzed about this season.
“I’m very intrigued to see how Bryan Little handles the adjustment back to center. I think with his speed, he’s going to adjust quickly and productively. I’m also interested to see the impact a young veteran like Nigel Dawes can have on the team. I think he’s a very underrated guy who does a lot of things well and can contribute offensively. In my opinion, Ben Eager and Chris Thorburn will play substantial roles on this team. They’re both big and fast, can chip in on the offensive side, and will make life miserable for opposing defenses”.
Continuing, Kamal says expects several players to build off of last year’s successes. “I’m expecting Andrew Ladd to tap into his offensive potential with increased ice time; I’m looking for a fabulous second season from Kane, and I’m confident Niclas Bergfors and Rich Peverley can build off very solid seasons”.
Dan Kamal also believes that there is a decent blend of veteran experience to go with the plethora of youthful talent on this team. “I’m very curious to see what impact young guys like Burmistrov and Pettersson can have, and I’m hoping Freddy Modin can bounce back to his usual 20+ goals now that he’s healthy”.
McConnell as well likes having the soon-to-be 36-year old Modin on this squad. “I’m also interested in watching the impact Modin will have on this roster”, he said adding, “Rick Dudley often gushes about Dave Andreychuk, whom he had on his 2004 cup winning team in Tampa. And all summer long, Dudley looked to add a veteran to the roster. Modin is that guy. He’s big, he’s a leader and as of today, he’s healthy, not to mention he’s a pretty good penalty killer”.
Lastly, one unknown factor that any team faces is player injuries. All feel it is important for Mason to remain healthy and give the Thrashers a stable presence in the net. But Dan Kamal also points to Nik Antropov, who performed so well in his first season as a Thrasher, to help lead the Thrashers offense…health permitting.
“To me, though, one of the biggest factors is the health of Nik Antropov. If he can get back to 100 percent very early in the year, I think he’ll be the offensive leader he was last year”.