Byfuglien, Ladd show off talent in Atlanta
The future of the Atlanta Thrashers appeared in doubt after the team dealt away superstar wingr Ilya Kovalchuk last February to the New Jersey Devils.
Attendance had been down significantly, and while the Thrashers had some promising young talent, expectations were low heading into this season. Not even the offseason acquisitions of forwards Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd were expected to do much to improve the Thrashers.
But entering this week, the Thrashers had a 12-9-3 record, were seventh in the Eastern Conference and rode a five-game winning streak that included convincing victories over Washington, Detroit, Montreal and Boston.
A number of players — Tobias Enstrom, Ondrej Pavelec, Niclas Bergfors, Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart — have performed well but none better than Byfuglien and Ladd. Role players with the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, Byfuglien and Ladd have been thrust into leadership roles with the Thrashers and are thriving as a result.
The numbers speak for themselves. Ladd is Atlanta’s highest-scoring forward and on pace for a 27-goal, 81-point season, which would shatter his previous career-best of 15 goals and 49 points set in 2008-09. Byfuglien, the Thrashers' leading scorer with 25 points, could reach 30 goals and 84 points, well above his previous bests of 19 goals and 36 points back in 2007-08.
Their respective improvement since joining the Thrashers has been amazing.
Ladd, a member of Stanley Cup teams in Chicago and Carolina, was a former first-round pick (fourth overall in 2004) projected to become a power forward, but his struggles early in his career led the Hurricanes to trade Ladd to the Blackhawks midway through 2007-08.
He settled in well with the Blackhawks as a two-way winger, but salary-cap constraints forced the ‘Hawks to move him and Byfuglien to Atlanta this summer. The overall assessment of Ladd was that he had the potential to be a 25-goal, two-way wing but had yet to achieve that goal.
Now 24 and playing for his third team in six NHL seasons, Ladd is reaching those expectations.
The Thrashers' decision to move Byfuglien from forward to defense was greeted with derision from some observers. He had played defense earlier in his career but appeared more effective as a checking-line wing with a decent offensive touch who could also play first-line minutes when required.
It has since become apparent the Thrashers management and coaching staff knew what they were doing. Byfuglien’s size (6-feet-3, 265 pounds) makes him a physical presence in his own end, while his offensive skills as a puck-moving blueliner are in large part why Atlanta currently ranks among the league leaders in goals and power-play percentage.
Despite their better-than-expected start, the Thrashers still have room for improvement, particularly their defensive game.
Their goaltending entered this week ranked 20th overall (a combined 2.75) and 24th in goals-against per game (3.00), the penalty-kill was 24th overall and they had given up the second-most shots, averaging nearly 35 per game.
More troubling, their improvement in the standings hasn’t bolstered attendance. The Thrashers currently rank 28th overall, averaging less than 12,000 fans per game, down considerably from their average of 13, 607 last season.
While the Thrashers still have work to do, their current overall performance, led by Byfuglien and Ladd, is reason for optimism. If the Thrashers can improve their overall defensive game, they could be challenging for a playoff berth next spring.