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Team Preview: Atlanta Thrashers

Key additions: Marian Hossa RW (T - OTT); Bobby Holik, C (FA - NYR); Eric Boulton, LW (FA - BUF); Greg de Vries, D (T - OTT); Jaroslav Modry, D (FA - LA); Niclas Havelid, D (FA - ANA); Shane Hnidy, D (T - NSH); Scott Mellanby, RW (FA - STL); Mike Dunham, G (FA - NYR); Braydon Coburn, D (D - 2003, 1/8)

Key losses: Dany Heatley, RW (T - OTT); Shawn McEachern, LW/RW (FA - BOS); Frantisek Kaberle, D (FA - CAR); Ivan Majesky, D (FA - WSH); Yannick Tremblay, D (FA - Europe); Ben Simon, C (FA - CBJ); Daniel Tjarnqvist, D (FA- MIN); Pasi Nurminen, G (Retired)

Key player unsigned: Ilya Kovalchuk, LW

Forwards: Everyone knows the Thrashers have two of the great young forwards in hockey in Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley. Obviously, signing this terrific tandem is the top priority in Atlanta. Holik gives them a physical presence and a good defensive pivot. Center Marc Savard had a great year for the Thrash in '03-'04, frequently centering Kovalchuk, but health has always been an issue with him. Former #1 overall Patrik Stefan had his best season in the NHL in 2003-04 and built on that with a solid year in Finland (though when Steve Kariya leads your team in scoring, I guess numbers should be taken with a grain of salt). Veterans Slava Kozlov, Ronald Petrovicky, Serge Aubin and the way-over-the-hill Mellanby will likely fill out the rest of the top three lines. With Kovalchuk, Heatley and Stefan all two years older and Holik in the fold, an offense that was in the middle of the pack in '03-'04 should move up a notch or two.

Defensemen: There's no way to sugar-coat this: Atlanta's defense is pretty horrible. Havelid, Modry, Andy Sutton and Garnet Exelby will all get big minutes. Of that group, Sutton probably has the most upside, with a combination of size and power that can, at times, dominate. Modry will rack up powerplay points. Former first round pick Coburn may still be a year away, having played in juniors last year. The Thrashers should spend a significant portion of their remaining funds under the salary cap shoring up that blue line or they could be in for a lot of 5-4 games. On the plus side, Bob Hartley is a good coach who will not let it get to that... they hope.

Goaltenders: Franchise goaltender Kari Lehtonen, 22 in November, spent last year posting impressive numbers (2.27 GAA, .929 SV%) in the AHL. He appears ready to take a bulk of the minutes in goal, with fellow Fins Pasi Nurminen and Jani Hurme playing the rest of the time. Lehtonen was exceptional in his brief NHL stint in 2003-04.

Bottom line: For the first time since the 1979-80 season, there will be playoff hockey in Hotlanta and, if Tampa Bay stumbles significantly, Atlanta could even win a weak Southeast Division. More likely, the Thrashers will be jockeying for position towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, with a bright future beyond 2005-06.

Update (8/23): The Thrashers have traded Heatley to Ottawa for Hossa and de Vries. The trade is touched upon here. In the short term, de Vries, though overpaid, helps Atlanta's defense and Hossa is actually an improvement over Heatley. In the short-term, this move likely solidifies the Thrashers as a playoff team in 2005-06. Long-term, however, Hossa's salary could hamper the team, and everyone in the hockey world is still waiting to see how Atlanta manages to re-sign Kovalchuk. Stay tuned.

Update (8/24): Nurminen suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury while preparing for the coming season. He had just signed a two-year, $2 million contract with the Thrashers two weeks ago.

Update (9/2): The Thrashers have signed Mike Dunham to serve as Lehtonen's primary backup.