With the Thrashers sitting seven points out of a playoff berth heading into Friday's tilt with the league-leading Vancouver Canucks, the odds of heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2006-2007 are highly unlikely. An 8-1-0 or 7-0-2 clip are likely required for the Thrashers to make it, which frankly doesn't happen to frequently in the NHL, especially for a team as inconsistent as the Thrashers.
In hindsight it's hard to see where things fell apart for the Thrashers, a team that seemed destined for the post-season in mid-December. But when all is said and done the 2010-2011 campaign is marked with positives as the Thrashers move forward.
Most importantly has been the "big game" experience for several of the Thrashers most important building blocks. Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Alexander Burmistrov and Ondrej Pavelec have all played huge roles for the Thrashers this season. As the team progresses forward, these kids will be the building blocks for the Thrashers. In the same way the Chicago Blackhawks did, it is important to rely on your kids and let them grow as a unit. Looking to the future the Thrashers will have most of their team back for next season. That kind of continuity is crucial in building a legitimate contender.
Kane has emerged as a legitimate power forward in the NHL. He has game-breaking ability as seen in a huge comeback win over Philadelphia and a pivotal win over the Rangers back on February 11th. As the team moves forward, Kane will be counted on to carry the team the same way Jonathan Toews is in Chicago. Kane has the complete package, with grit and skill and leadership capabilities that the team will need going forward.
Zach Bogosian has seen a one-eighty in his play as of late. Bogosian seems to understand that when he uses his skating to his advantage he is a much better player. Bogosian still has a ceiling as an elite defenseman. He can shoot, skate and has a physical edge to his game. Bogosian is already logging top-line minutes and will be counted on even more next season as the Thrashers will again push for their second playoff berth in franchise history.
Ondrej Pavelec has shown signs of brilliance this season. He has legitimate number one goalie written all over him. His next step is to put it together for a complete season. With Chris Mason's encouraging play lately, the two have the ability to complete a very formidable tandem moving forward.
The emergence of Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien have been crucial for the Thrashers as well. Ladd has already potted a career-high 27 goals with increased ice time and has shown tremendous leadership as well. Having a legitimate captain in place will only bode well for the Thrashers down the road. Ladd is flourishing in a scoring role, something he's never had throughout his career. He has seized the opportunity, as has Byfuglien, and the team will look to it's two big guns as it progresses.
Alex Burmistrov has added a little physical edge to his game and has an incredible amount of raw talent. While it may have been best to send Burmistrov back to juniors this season, the NHL experience will undoubtedly prove worthy. Having better adjusted to the NHL game, Burmistrov will be counted on more next season to win big face-offs and contribute more offensively. I look for Burmistrov to add to his goal total, perhaps optimistically finishing around 15 in his sophomore campaign.
One of the most important things for a team in the cap era is to keep it's core of young players together. With Bogosian, Pavelec, Little, Kane, Burmistrov, Ladd, Wheeler, and Schremp all at RFA status and Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Stuart, Chris Thorburn and Toby Enstrom all locked up through next season, the team looks to have its top players in tact for years to come. This will only prove to be important for the Thrashers, with a new coaching staff and a management overhaul. The team will grow naturally; keeping them together is important in the bigger picture.
While the team will likely be golfing in April this year, the experience of a playoff battle and going through the ups-and-downs this season can be viewed as positives. If you look at Chicago's progression, they missed the playoffs in 2007-2008, made it in 2008-2009 and made a run and then won the Cup in 2010. While the Thrashers aren't quite as talented as the Blackhawks, the point is this: having a core and keeping it are invaluable in the post-lockout era. While this season may have ended in disappointment, the future is still brighter than ever in Atlanta.