After today the Atlanta Thrashers will be no more. Soon they will fade into history as nothing more than a pile of badly-designed jerseys and “the second time a hockey team left Atlanta for Canada.”
While it’s easy to be happy for the fans in Winnipeg, it’s also easy to feel bad for the hockey fans in Atlanta (yes, there are hockey fans in Atlanta) and think about the promise this team once had at a few points in its history.
The Atlanta Thrashers were never a successful hockey team, but every once in a while it seemed like they were about to get there. You have to think that if things went a little differently and if the team would have actually won a playoff game at any point in their its history, hockey may not be packing up in Atlanta today.
Yesterday Jonathan Willis clearly pointed the blame on Don Waddell, and it’s hard to argue with him. Waddell made a series of terrible decisions that eventually killed the Atlanta Thrashers franchise.
Today we take a look at what could have been in Atlanta. In many ways this is a “Greatest Players In Atlanta Thrashers History” post, but it’s also a post filled with disappointment and lost opportunity.
You simply cannot talk about disappointment in the Atlanta Thrashers organization without discussing Patrik Stefan. Stefan was the Thrashers first ever NHL draft pick and was generally considered a massive disappointment. It’s not that he was an awful player, but he was selected first overall in the 1999 NHL Draft and he never came close to performing at the level that was expected from him,
NHL.com listed Stefan as a “Disappointment” when discussing the best picks ever. He recorded 64 goals and 188 points in 455 NHL games. He played almost his entire NHL career with the Thrashers, except for 41 games with the Dallas Stars in 2006-2007.
It was in Dallas where he did this:
It looked like such a sure thing and then it all fell apart. That defines Stefan’s NHL career.
Stefan was traded to Dallas in 2006 for Jaroslav Modry, Niko Kapanen and a seventh-round draft pick in the 2006 draft (Will O’Neill.) None of those players are currently in the NHL and only O’Neill remains in the Thrashers organization.
So why is Stefan listed here with “what could have been?” Because he was chosen first overall and he never lived up to the hype. Sure, the 1999 draft didn’t produce very many superstars, but Stefan got the Thrashers off to a very bad start, which would eventually become the theme of their organization.
Players drafted behind him? Daniel & Henrik Sedin, Tim Connolly and Martin Havlat as well as several other players who, unlike Stefan, are still in the NHL.
Ilya Kovalchuk was the face of the Thrashers organization for the vast majority of its existence. He was drafted first overall by Atlanta in 2001 and he still leads the Thrashers in most all-time offensive categories.
Waddell and the Thrashers reportedly offered him a 12-year, $101 million contract to stay with the team in 2010. Kovalchuk turned the team down. He was then traded along with Anssi Salmela, to New Jersey for John Oduya, Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier and the Devils’ 2010 first round pick. The teams also swapped second round picks.
Atlanta later traded those picks to Chicago along with Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and Jeremy Morin for Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Akim Aliu.
Those were actually relatively decent moves for the Thrashers, considering the situation. However, it should be noted that the deal with Chicago was done by Rick Dudley, after Don Waddell was finally removed as general manager. Dudley finally managed to make something good happen in Atlanta, but it was too late.
Along with Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley was one of Atlanta’s top players. He was drafted second overall by the Thrashers in 2000 and he still ranks fifth overall in all-time points in Thrashers history, despite playing only parts of three seasons with the franchise.
His Thrashers career ended in tragedy after the 2003 car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder. He appeared in only 31 games for the Thrashers that season and he asked to be traded prior to the end of the NHL lockout.
He was sent to Ottawa in exchange for Greg de Vries and Marian Hossa.
Hossa sits third in career points among Atlanta Thrashers. He played in Atlanta for parts of three seasons, often alongside fellow star Ilya Kovalchuk. He was the first Thrashers player to score 100 points in a single season. However, as was the theme in Atlanta, Hossa could not agree on a contract extension and he was traded from the team.
The Thrashers sent Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a 2008 first round pick (Daultan Leveille). Armstrong and Christensen are no longer with the team while Esposito and Leveille have not yet played in the NHL.
It’s easy to forget, but Marc Savard actually spent several years in Atlanta before signing with the Boston Bruins. Savard spent most of his time in Atlanta playing alongside Kovalchuk and Heatley, which was quite the offensive line.
Of course, because it happened in Atlanta, that line didn’t last long.
He recorded a career-high 97 points with Atlanta in 2005-2006, but then left the team as a free agent in the following summer.
Yes, sometimes stars leave hockey teams. Sometimes general managers are unable to re-sign a talented player. Every general manager has made a poor draft decision or lost on a trade, but Don Waddell of the Atlanta Thrashers seems to have done so more often than most.
Look at it this way: Waddell turned Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa and Marc Savard into John Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, Greg de Vries, Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and Daultan Leveille.
Only Rick Dudley’s move with Chicago that brought Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Akim Aliu to Atlanta made the Thrashers close to respectable last season. Thanks to Dudley, it looks like the organization may actually be set up for some future success. Unfortunately, thanks to Waddell, that success will come in Winnipeg, not Atlanta.
Out of all the players Waddell acquired in those trades, only Johnny Oduya and Patrice Cormier played with the Thrashers last season. Kovalchuk, Heatley, Hossa and Savard (when healthy) are still among the NHL’s top players.
Esposito and Leveille have not cracked the NHL yet. Christensen was traded to Anaheim for prospect Eric O’Dell (who has not played in the NHL to date.) Armstrong left as a free agent in 2010 and de Vries walked in 2007. Rick Dudley traded Bergfors to Florida along with Patrick Rissmiller in exchange for Radek Dvorak and a fifth round pick in the 2011 draft.
The Thrashers are apparently always rebuilding. They’re shipping players for picks all over the place… but those picks rarely turn into stars and if they do, they soon leave Atlanta. Repeat ad nauseum.
Had the Thrashers been able to keep even one of their several potential franchise players and actually built a team around him, we may be having a different discussion right now and Winnipeg would still be waiting of Phoenix.
Instead, what we’re left with is a team that only qualified for the playoffs once in eleven seasons. To make matters worse, they were swept in that one appearance. The Thrashers lack of management and pretty terrible track record is a big reason why they’re no longer with us.