In the two seasons following that trip to the postseason, the Thrashers have returned to their sub-80-point ways, toiling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Thanks to a couple of shrewd moves at the start of the offseason, and some returning young talent, this year's version of the Thrashers looks like it has a chance to make some noise.
On Wednesday, the Thrashers acquired defenseman Pavel Kubina from the Toronto Maple Leafs for the bargain basement price of Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart, solidifying a young defense that already contains the talents of Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey, as well as Anssi Salema, a deadline day acquisition from the New Jersey Devils.
General manager Don Waddell continued his re-tooling on Thursday by adding free agent forward Nik Antropov with a four-year, $16 million deal. Antropov, 29, can be somewhat of an enigma, but he's coming off back-to-back 25-plus goal seasons, and gives Atlanta a possible top-six containing Ilya Kovalchuk, Bryan Little, Todd White, Slava Kozlov, and Antropov. Throw in guys like Rich Peverley, who averaged nearly a point-per-game with the Thrashers after being picked up on waivers from Nashville, and Colby Armstrong, and there are certainly worse teams in the league.
Aside from what Antropov brings to the team in terms of size and offense, this also could have been a goodwill gesture toward Kovalchuk, as he's set to become an unrestricted free agent following this season. Especially since Andy Strickland reported, via Twitter, that the 25-year-old forward played a role in getting the deal done. Waddell had this to say on the Kovalchuk-Antropov relationship, via the team's official website: "He's played with Ilya (Kovalchuk) during the work stoppage, Ilya knows him well, and we think he'll be a tremendous addition to our hockey club. We were looking to get bigger up front and find somebody that could play on our No. 1 line with Ilya and this certainly serves our purpose."
The $4 million per year cap hit is somewhat reasonable, seeing as how Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported earlier this week that Antropov was seeking over $5 million per season from New York. Rangers general manager Glen Sather called such demands "ridiculous." The biggest gamble with the move, and this is similar to what New York and Minnesota are dealing with when it comes to Marian Gaborik and Martin Havlat respectively, is that Antropov has missed his fair share of games over the years. He's topped 70 games just three times in his nine-year career.
Havlat's contract puts Minnesota on the hook for a $5 million per year cap hit, and just to compare the two players, since the lockout, strictly in terms of goals per minute, there really isn't much of a difference statistically.
Is Atlanta a lock for the playoffs at this point? No, there's still work to do, and the Eastern Conference is coming off a season where 10 teams finished with 90 points (Atlanta finished with 76, and had a -23 goal differential). But, when you combine an impressive start to the offseason, with the way the team finished over the final two months (18-12-1 record since the end of February) and there should be some reasons for optimism heading into the season.