First they amazed us, then they settled, then they sank.
It’s not the way any team wants a season to unfold, let alone one encumbered by knucklehead ownership, economic realities and 37 rumors a week about being picked up in Atlanta one day and dropped in Quebec, Winnipeg or maybe some lovely prairie just outside of Swift Current the next.
The Thrashers have 26 games left to try to secure a playoff berth. That begins with the Friday night game against, ironically, the New York Rangers, their only postseason opponent in history (which didn’t turn out so well).
Since the early wonder of a 10-2 stretch and a 19-11-5 start, they’ve descended. Two wins in the last 13 (2-7-4). Five wins in the last 21 (5-11-5). They currently sit out of a playoff position for the first time since Nov. 20.
There are too many nights when they look lost, overmatched and overwhelmed. Atlanta Spirit owners have responded as they do in most circumstances. They’ve shifted all of their passion and resources into filing another lawsuit.
It’s enough to make a recent Stanley Cup winner wonder what went wrong – and the Thrashers have three of those. A year ago at this time, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel were flying through a 52-win regular season with Chicago. They went on to win the Cup.
Ladd (the Thrashers’ captain) and Byfuglien (alternate) are two of the team leaders. Their frustration recently spilled over to the point that they met with coach Craig Ramsay over what they perceived as a falloff in effort and commitment by some teammates. The team’s play in the last couple of games has improved. But this season generally has been an alternate universe to what they experienced a year ago.
“Obviously we don’t have a lot of All Stars,” Byfuglien said. “We’re only going when the whole team is going. But that chemistry doesn’t happen overnight. We’re a very young team, and when times get tough we can’t just run around. Right now we’re fighting things a little bit.”
He wasn’t deluded. He knew the Thrashers’ talent wasn’t at Chicago’s level. As he put it in hockeyspeak, “If the team wants to get into a shinny game, we don’t have the players to win like that.” (Shinny: Think street ball.)
That’s really what this is all about. The Thrashers’ roster leaves no margin for error. It was fine in the first 35 games when everybody was performing at max level, but maintaining that over a full season isn’t realistic. Byfuglien is a perfect example: He had 16 goals in 42 games as a defenseman, then went 13 without one.
If this team doesn’t make a significant move for a goal scorer before the Feb. 28 trade deadline, postseason hockey becomes an afterthought. Again.
Playoff teams can win games on off nights in part because of some individuals. As Ladd said, “In Chicago we could get away with maybe not playing our best game because Patrick Kane would have a great individual move and score a goal, or our power play would score a couple of goals. Here, the goals we’re going to get are usually second chances and rebounds. That’s fine. But you have to work for those chances.”
When things started to turn, Ladd didn’t need to look at the scoreboard for confirmation. He sensed a comfort level had settled in. Players were “losing battles,” which is half the game.
“We just sat back and thought we were better than we were,” he said.
Asked if, as a captain, he has been frustrated by the inconsistent effort, Ladd responded: “Sometimes the best way to push guys in a certain direction is just to have them watch how you work, busting your butt. You have to make sure when you tell somebody something that you’re accountable to it, too.”
Sopel, who at 34 is one of the team’s oldest players, said he thinks about winning the Cup last year “every day. … It was fun going to the rink last year, but we were winning. When you’re losing, it’s frustrating and you take things personally.”
Last season in Chicago ended with a parade. Fans here would settle for something less. Hope, maybe.
By Jeff Schultz