What will the Thrashers' defensive pairings look like for this coming season, and will a youngster make the jump?
The Atlanta Thrashers lost an important piece of their defensive puzzle this off-season, with Pavel Kubina leaving in free agency to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kubina was a workhorse last season, finishing with 32 assists as part of a pairing with Tobias Enstrom that lasted most of the year. Christoph Schubert has not been re-signed and is currently still a UFA waiting for a home. Rick Dudley did bring in Brent Sopel, late of the Chicago Blackhawks, to fill in the gap left by presumably Kubina, but that still leaves a 3rd pairing hole. Also, it raises questions of who is paired with who, and if Sopel's the same quality of defenseman that Kubina was.
Taking a wild stab at pairings before the year even starts, one could assume that it will look like this:
Personally, I am hoping that the pairing of Enstrom-Bogosian makes a comeback, considering how well it worked together at the beginning of last season, but coach Craig Ramsay might want to ease Bogosian back in after the disappointing and injury plagued season he had. My money is on it initially looking like this, with Bogosian and Sopel flipping places after about a month. Regardless of who plays with whom, there are two openings on the squad.
Technically speaking, there is one opening, but defenseman Boris Valabik only played 23 games last season due to a torn ACL that took all season and part of the off-season to rehab from. He might not be in top form when the year starts. There is also the concern of how he will fit into Ramsay's system. One can assume that Boris' game would be better with Ramsay than with the offense first system that John Anderson employed. There were many games at the start of the year last season where Valabik look lost. Of course, as luck usually has it, he was finally fitting in well with the system when he was injured. Valabik isn't the only enforcer we have (some might argue he's not really one considering how cautious he has to be to avoid penalties), but he is a big body that can clear the crease of the opposition. The questions surrounding big Boris might not necessarily be of the "will he play" variety, but "will he be recovered enough to play?"
The real spot that's open, that of the 3rd pairing, is Arturs Kulda's to lose. The former 7th round draft pick impressed both in pre-season last year as well as the regular season. He was called up for two games beforeChris Chelios was and two games after, and during those four games played with his Peterborough Pete's partnerZach Bogosian. In those games he had two assists and finished a +2 He had a high TOI of 16:31 during the April 9th game against the Capitals, finishing even in a game that saw five goals scored on the Thrashers' goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Kulda has the NHL experience as well as proven chemistry with Bogosian. Chances are very strong that he'll be up with the club next season, but one prospect could give him a run for his money - Paul Postma, another 7th round pick (2007) who absolutely tore up the WHL in 2008-2009, scoring 23 goals and 61 assists for the Calgary Hitmen. His offensive flash would be welcome on a blueline that lacks that (Enstrom's assist ability and Bogosian's slap shot notwithstanding). He played 63 games with the Chicago Wolves last season, and while his numbers dropped a bit due to the increase in difficulty, he still managed 15 goals and 14 assists while finishing a plus five.
Honestly, it boils down to what Ramsay and associate head coach John Torchetti want - offense or puck advancement? Whichever they choose, Kulda or Postma, the youth movement in Atlanta will be well served, and the defensive corps'll be solid down through all three pairings.