For the first four seasons of their history, Matt McConnell brought Atlanta Thrashers hockey to us from the TV broadcast booth. Now after his third year of his second tour of duty here he says he’s as optimistic about the team’s future and that brighter days are just ahead for Atlanta hockey fans.
“I think if you talk to most hockey people around the league, they’d agree that the Thrashers are one of the up and coming teams with a bright future”, he told me recently.
McConnell explains that the reason for this positive outlook rests in what he observed from the defensive corps of the team.
“First, I thought the blueline did an excellent job and became the strength of the team. Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian gave the team three legitimate power play point men. The addition of Mark Stuart was a late season coup by general manager Rick Dudley and Ron Hainsey played some of his best hockey as a Thrasher.”
“The blueline has also become a position of depth when you factor in the likes of Arturs Kulda, Paul Postma and Andrey Zubarev.”
He also liked the way certain forwards performed, and he was very impressed with a line that was put together following the trade with Boston last February.
“I also thought the line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler gave the team a legitimate scoring threat every game. Some of the younger players did well too. Ladd added leadership and grit while Wheeler brought size and skill. I thought Evander Kane showed maturity and swagger in his second season and Alex Burmistrov show well in his rookie season.”
Given that he adds, “There’s plenty to be excited about.”
As for the play between the pipes, McConnell says that it “was a position of strength in the first half and sub-par during the second half. Ondrej Pavelec needs to return in the fall and be lights out.”
“Dudley told me at training camp last September that they need him to be great 75% of the time, not 50% of the time. Only time will tell.”
I asked Matt if there was one particular moment from the 2010-11 campaign that stuck out as a “high-point” in the season. Like so many others, he remembers back to how the team played in the first half of the season…and specifically, one game when the New Jersey Devils paid us a visit.
“Bolt’s [hat trick] against the Devils was the culmination of a great first half for the hockey team. And it’s the first 40 or games that I will remember as the high point simply because it seemed the team was figuring out ways to win every game. It was all set up with their successful trip out west with those wins in Anaheim and San Jose. Then there was Byfuglien’s overtime game-winner against Buffalo and the 5-0 shutout of Washington.”
“But what that success showed me was the team’s ability to get over the hump and string together wins, which has been rare for this franchise in the past.”
To McConnell, there isn’t one clear-cut reason or cause for what happened to the team in the second half of the season. But he points out that one contributing factor was the loss of a key role player.
“When Jim Slater got injured right after Christmas… they never seemed to regain their swagger.”
Much like radio voice of the Thrashers Dan Kamal and others within the organization I’ve spoken to, Matt McConnell also believes the second year of the Craig Ramsay era is bound to build upon what was established during this past one.
“Anytime a new coach assumes the reigns, there’s a certain amount of culture shock that takes place within a locker room”, he explains. “Coach Ramsay came to town with a clean slate for everyone and gave each of the players ample opportunities for success, which I think was appreciated inside the locker room.”
“The ‘buy in’ was facilitated by early season success for sure”, he contends. “I also liked the fact that if a player failed in a certain sequence or situation, Ramsay would put them right back out on the ice offering immediate redemption.”
And McConnell insists that coaching staff that is assembled here is among the hardest working group that you’ll ever find.
“All of the coaches, including assistants John Torchetti, Mike Stothers and Tony Borgford were tireless in their work ethic. There wasn’t a single flight home late at night where the four of them weren’t reviewing game tapes or planning for the next opponent. Their dedication was beyond reproach. Like the blueline, hockey operations is a strength of this team.”
As for what he has planned for this summer, Matt told me that there will be some work on his schedule as well as some ice-time at a local rink.
“First off, I have some lacrosse duties for the CBS Sports Network. After that, I plan on taking it easy with the family. We’ll do a couple of small trips including ones with our families and I’ll try and shed a few pounds from a season full of road food via afternoon pick-up hockey at The Ice in Cumming.”
There will also be some night’s spent at the ballpark with one very special young lady.
“We’ll plan dates down at Turner Field cheering on the Braves. My daughter Zoe has become a huge Chipper Jones fan and the ballpark has become our summer getaway spot, especially when my wife is working late at the office.”
Not a bad way to spend a summer, if you ask me.
But much like you and I, the TV voice of the Thrashers anxiously awaits the coming fall when the Thrashers once again take to the ice of Philips Arena. Until that time, however, he asked me to pass along a few things to you, the good people of Thrasherville.
“First, enjoy these great playoffs that are taking place. Second, keep the faith with the Thrashers as they continue to get better and deeper. Remember, the key is to build the roster to insure success for many season, not just one or two.”
“Finally, thanks to everyone for their kind words throughout the season. As always, it’s very much appreciated.”