Thrashers Lock up Big Buff, but Playoffs Far from Lock

Today was a fairly historic day for the Atlanta Thrashers hockey franchise as the team announced a 5-year, $26 million contract extension for cornerstone defenseman, Dustin Byfuglien, thereby removing one small shred of doubt concerning the ownership syndicate’s commitment to hockey in Atlanta, at least for the short-term future. Does this decision to lock up Big Buff for the next five years signal to Thrashers fans that more moves are on the way? Is this the impetus that fellow former Chicago Blackhawk, and multiple Cup winner, Andrew Ladd needs to put his name on the dotted line of a similar long-term deal? Will this long-term commitment to Byfuglien spell the end of Zach Bogosian‘s tenure in Atlanta? Is this simply a short-term ploy to improve the Thrashers’ balance sheet to make them more attractive to a new owner or investor? Will the Atlanta Spirit Group, LLC finally shell out more dough before the deadline to make a trade or two that adds both a scoring forward and some additional defensive depth? Only time will tell, but to echo the sentiments expressed by Thrashers’ radio play-by-play maestro, Dan Kamal, perhaps this day becomes the turning point for a beleaguered franchise whose disillusioned fans are staying away in droves:

@dankamal: “Here’s hoping we look back on this day as the day the turnaround really began in ATL. Good to have a difference maker here for the long term.”

Here, here Dan! We can only hope and trust that this is yet another step in the domino effect chain of events that were put in motion on April 14, 2010 when former Head Coach, John Anderson, was ousted and GM Rick Dudley was installed as the new Admiral-in-Chief of this tempest-battered vessel, which had sailed far adrift of its intended course since its one and only playoffs appearance in the spring of 2007. Thrashers fans have endured an awful lot since hockey returned to the Peachtree City in 1999, but the news of Byfuglien committing long-term gives some degree of reassurance to a fan-base that has been largely “mentally thrashed” for the better part of a decade. Besides Ilya Kovalchuk, who was extended as a restricted free-agent in the fall of 2005, and defensive All-Star, Toby Enstrom, who was locked up to a long-term deal prior to the start of the 2008-’09 season, there haven’t been many highly regarded RFA’s to make a long-term commitment to the Thrashers. To say that RFA’s haven’t exactly been enthralled with the idea of making Atlanta their home would be a large understatement indeed.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Thrashers are currently looking up at the Canes and a playoff slot from the 9th place position is a stark and sobering reminder that things are far from peachy here in the NHL’s forgotten orchard of unharvested promise. Most of the news coming out of Atlanta has centered on the struggles of a young team that lost its way after a scintillating 19 – 11 – 5 start to the season. Since the team ascended to its high-water mark on December 20, 2010, the team has faded badly in the standings. Once at the top of the Southeast Division, the Thrashers have won just 6 of their last 23 games — to go along with five gut-wrenching overtime losses — to fall out of the 8th spot, which they clung to desperately for the better part of a month. To make matters worse on Sunday, the Thrashers gave up the winning goal to Erik Cole of the Canes in the waning minutes of a crucial divisional battle to determine who would occupy the 8th slot in the standings as we pass the halfway point of February. Essentially, the game against their rivals from Raleigh serves as a microcosmic reflection of the Thrashers season to date, as a costly mental error once again spelled disaster for a team that has lost nine 1-goal games since mid-December.

Without a doubt the Thrashers needed a lift and this signing certainly helps. But it’s not enough for a team that has been sorely lacking in scoring punch over the past two months. Since their back to back 7 and 6-goal outbursts in December, the Thrashers have managed to muster only 50 non-shootout goals in 23 games for an average of just 2.17 goals per game. On top of that, the team defense has steadily eroded in its effectiveness as they have yielded 4 or more goals an alarming eleven times since their December 10th loss to the Colorado Avalanche, yet another 3 to 2 loss if not for a late-game empty netter. The trends are more than unsettling and the situation is beyond dire for a team whose playoff hopes are now on life support. But it’s not too late to make a move and breathe some life into this spunky bunch, who should still have plenty of energy and gusto for a late season charge. However, help is needed and it’s needed ASAP.

For lack of a better phrase, it’s time for Rick Dudley to “poop or get off the pot.” Either he makes the move to add a scoring winger, a gritty 3rd liner and/or a veteran depth defenseman, or he makes a declaration to Thrashers fans that the market is too pricey to obtain the sort of value the organization is seeking. Dudley tweeted The Sporting News’ Craig Custance that he is most certainly racking up the extra cell-phone minutes charges trying to make a trade for a scorer. But he prefaced his comments with a corollary about not doing something rash or desperate that could harm the long-term interests of the team he’s building. At any rate, time is running short and this week’s western road trip to Phoenix and Edmonton is pivotal to their playoff prospects. Earning four points, even if it means giving up overtime loser points to Western Conference foes, is critical right now to not only keep pace with the Canes, but to bolster the team’s prospects for a trade that can prove dividends in the here and now, and not just the long-term future of the franchise.

What will happen is anyone’s guess and the rumor mill has been churning up to the level of a high-octane Formula One race car engine. Several Atlanta veterans such as Ron Hainsey and Nik Antropov, both of whom are paid quite handsomely for their modest output levels, have been rumored to be on the block to the highest bidder as Dudley ostensibly tries to pry some tradable assets away from other deadline buyers before pulling a trigger on the pieces his team sorely lacks and needs. That’s a tall order as Hainsey is a no more than a #4 defenseman with some offensive upside and Antropov has experienced mostly anguish and frustration after a career year and post-season hip surgery. Not only has Nik struggled to return to 100% health, but he does not appear to be an ideal fit for Coach Ramsay‘s up-tempo, “safe is death“, grind it out, crash the net philosophy. And then there is the reputation-maligned, 20 year-old defenseman, Zach Bogosian, whose name keeps popping up in trade rumors because he is such a potentially valuable asset. Even Boston GM Pete Chiarelli has gone on record to say that there are only two assets – Bogosian and Stars’ UFA-to-be, Brad Richards — he’d even consider if  he were to give up the 1st round draft pick obtained from Toronto in the Phil Kessel deal. A deal involving Bogosian is unlikely, but when the market is loaded with buyers and short on sellers, “easy” deadline deals are harder to come by this year. So until February 28th comes and goes, it’s tough to rule out the possibility that something dramatic may happen. But unless something transpires before the Thrashers take on the Coyotes in Phoenix on Thursday nite, it’s probably unlikely that anything earth-shattering will happen should the Ice Birds drop their next two games. Thirty to 32 points are needed for the Thrashers to have a chance, and they better start locking up more than just RFA’s come Thursday; two points are a must for a team teetering on the edge of mediocrity.

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About the Author: Accountant / Analyst who has a nagging writing addiction when it comes to hockey. I've been a hockey fan since I was a wee tyke and now my allegiance to the Atlanta Thrashers has me "mentally thrashed". My other long-time passion is the game of golf so I'm a glutton for punishment! As a mid to late 30-something, I'm blessed to have a girlfriend who aids and abets my hockey / blogging obsession. Hockey heroes include: Gilbert Perreault, Adam Oates (Go RPI!), Pat LaFontaine and Marty Reasoner. Follow me on the twitter machine @j_barty_party

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  1. Krisabelle says:

    Scintillating read as always, JCB! Really enjoyed the orchard reference. So glad Big Buff signed on to a LT deal; it should certainly boost morale both in the locker room and in the city in general as the wary fans need something to cheer about indeed!