I made my first Thrashers game of the year on Saturday night and here are my observations:
1. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the gulf between watching hockey on TV and seeing it in person cannot be overstated. Watching the pattern of play is totally mesmerizing, regardless of whether your seats are close. The speed and motion of hockey is unlike any other sport, which makes sense since it's on ice and all.
2. The Thrashers were a little like Barcelona against Liverpool last night: they had a great ten-minute spell early in the game and then they couldn't get out of their own way for long stretches. The second half of the first period highlighted a whole lot of flaws with the team, starting with the fact that the defensemen just aren't very good. The Hurricanes scored twice, once on a wrap-around that Lehtonen stopped and the defense couldn't clear the rebound or the player, and the second on a tap-in from an uncovered player on the weakside doorstep. Later in the period, the Hurricanes spent whole minutes in the Thrashers' zone because Atlanta's defensemen could not control the puck and get it out.
The second period was a system-wide meltdown. The Thrashers couldn't string passes together properly, so they spent the whole period seeing their attacks broken up easily. In a must-win game, down by two goals, they got a whopping three shots in the second period. The period also highlighted the little things that Lehtonen hasn't mastered yet, namely rebound control (the gulf between him and John Grahame in that area was obvious) and puck-handling (there were several near-disasters when Kari handled the puck outside the crease).
The Thrashers, to their credit, played better in the third, drawing to within 2-1 on a nice shorthanded shot from Garnet Exelby (who is mostly exempt from the criticism of the defensemen) and creating a couple good chances to tie, but their flaccid powerplay not only flubbed a chance to tie, but also allowed the Canes to salt the game away when a Kovalchuk shot from the point deflected right to a Carolina player coming out of the box. Overall, the game highlighted all of the Thrashers' weaknesses: below-average blue-liners, a mystifyingly bad powerplay, and minimal scoring depth behind Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Kozlov.
3. Don Waddell, who surely knows that a failure to make the post-season in year eight will make his post rather uncomfortable, has rolled the dice by acquiring Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik. ESPN.com's take is here and the AJC's take is here. Tkachuk will certainly improve the team's scoring depth, although he's not exactly the smallish, passing center that I had in mind for an acquisition. Zhitnik gives the Thrashers a quarterback for the powerplay, which they desperately need. The problem is that these trades are only necessary in the first place because the Thrashers haven't developed the depth necessary to complement their stars. I don't claim to be an expert on the NHL, but if it's like the NFL or MLB, then the key to success when working within economic restraints is to have 3-4 stars who are worth what you pay them and then a bunch of good, young, cheap players to surround them. Depth cannot come from free agency or trades unless you constantly find diamonds in the rough that are undervalued by the rest of the market. The Thrashers have several excellent players, but they had to mortgage their future because Waddell's drafts haven't produced good complementary pieces to play with Ilya, Marian, and Slava. That's an indictment of Waddell, but it's also a sign that the steep price that the Thrashers paid in terms of draft picks is not the end of the world.