So, now that the dust has settled from the Thrashers season and I have my laptop back, it's time to look at the 2010-2011 season. I will be doing a three part series, featuring the good, the bad, and the ugly. We start today with the good things, despite the fact I had to think way back to December to come up with some. Cynicism aside, the good from the 2010-2011 Atlanta Thrashers season.
While the team's impressive start turned out to be a tease, in hindsight you have to look at the positives here. The team proved that, when playing at what GM Rick Dudley termed an "optimal level", this team can be something special. The start included a stretch of six straight wins over the Islanders, Bruins, Red Wings, Canadiens, Capitals, and Avalanche when they outscored their opponents 22-5. We'll talk about consistency in the next part of this series, but the Thrashers proved that when healthy and playing a committed game they can be a legitimate threat in the NHL.
Andrew Ladd came into the 2010-2011 season as a role player for most of his career despite being drafted 4th overall in 2004. With two Stanley Cups under his belt, Ladd has been a winner wherever he's gone and was named the 8th captain in Thrashers history on November 18th. Ladd took the duties to heart, posting a career and team high 59 points (29 G, 30 A), eclipsing his previous career high in goals by a dozen. Ladd is a restricted free agent this summer and contracts with the team are on-going. Locking up Ladd is a priority, as he emerged this season as a legitimate goal scoring threat with leadership the Thrashers haven't had in a long, long time.
Big Buff's Big Breakout.
Many questioned the team's decision to move Dustin Byfuglien back to defense after his dominating performance in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. The move paid big dividends, with Byfuglien doubling the Thrashers franchise record for goals by a defenseman (with 20, including 6 game-winners), earning an assistant captain position, and being named an NHL All-Star. Byfuglien's production tailed off a little in the second half and there are still questions about whether or not he should be a forward, but overall Byfuglien had a solid season and brought a winning attitude and flair to a team in desperate need of it.
With much uncertainty in Atlanta about the future of the team, Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Stuart both signing long-term deals were a huge stepping stone for the future of the team on the ice. Byfuglien was locked up for five seasons, tied with Ilya Kovalchuk for the longest contract in the franchise's existence. Mark Stuart extended his contract just 10 days after he was acquired from Boston. Locking up Stuart and Byfuglien solidifies a defense that already has Toby Enstrom and Ron Hainsey locked up through 2013. The fact that two significant pieces were willing to commit to Atlanta long-term is a huge positive for the team moving forward.
There were some other positives to note this season. Most notably were the play of Evander Kane, who proved he can be a dominant player. Bryan Little had a fine season, playing great two-way hockey. Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn both had career seasons, including Boulton's first career hat trick. Alex Burmistrov started and finished the season extremely well, despite an expected lull in the middle as he adjusted to the NHL level of play. Burmistrov has legitimate top-line talent and hockey sense. Blake Wheeler showed that he can be a legitimate scoring threat after coming over from a flat-lining stint in Boston.
Going forward the Thrashers are in a very good piece. They are yet again a piece or two away from not only being a playoff contender. The difference between being a piece away this time and in years past is having a competent GM. We'll see how this summer plays out, but the Thrashers definitely put a lot of building blocks in place in the 2010-2011 season.