5. Ilya Kovalchuk heading off to the New Jersey Devils
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanied Ilya Kovalchuk's trade to the New Jersey Devils. No! Close the fan club! Board up Philips Arena - we're moving to Winnipeg! No one we'll ever get in return will compare to Kovalchuk!
Wait - the Thrashers got two draft picks that helped bring some Cup champions to the team, a top prospect in Patrice Cormier (a former captain of the Canadian WJC team), top rookie Niclas Bergfors, and a solid defenseman in Johnny Odyua? Hm. And Bergfors scored 8 goals after the trade - a whopping two fewer than Kovalchuk? Ok.
Cap all of that off with the fact that Kovy managed to win just one playoff game with the Devils, had a protracted free agency melodrama that didn't end until September, and to date has just eight goals and ten assists so far this season while the Devils languish in last place. Where're the Thrashers? In a playoff spot.
Well, at least one franchise did all right in the deal.
4. Promotion of Don Waddell and Rick Dudley
Say what you want to about Don Waddell - he never maliciously tried to kill the Thrashers. Everything he did either looked good on paper, or made some sort of weird sense in some way. It's just that 99% of what he did had the appearance of blowing up in the franchise's face. One thing that never did, though, was the respect that he has in the hockey world and his business sense. Add that to the fact that he actually understands the market down here in Atlanta and he's a pretty good fit for the role of team president.
Waddell's hiring of former Blackhawks assistant general manager Rick Dudley might have saved the franchise. Dudley and his wide reaching arc of influence across the league helped bring top talent to the team and a coaching staff that's helping the Thrashers' young players thrive.
3. Thrashers Fighting For First Place In The Southeast Division
Definitely something that was unexpected this season was that the dominance of the Washington Capitals wasn't an assured thing in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay and the Atlanta Thrashers have also held on to the first position in the division, and all three teams have been in a playoff spot for most of the season. It's anyone's division this season at the halfway mark. Southleast Division? Not anymore.
2. Ondrej Pavelec's Vezina Trophy-Contending Season
Who would have thought that when Pavelec collapsed during the first game of the season that he'd be solidly number two in the league in save percentage (.934) and third in goals against average (2.13)? His positioning and rebound control has been outstanding, leading some to wonder if the tumble didn't give him X-ray vision and some Superman level speed.
Chris Mason was assumed to be a reliable go-to guy when Pavs faltered this year. It doesn't look like Pavelec will falter, so that just gives Masonry more time to grow his epic beard.
1. Acquisition of Dustin Byfuglien (and Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager, and Andrew Ladd) from the Chicago Blackhawks
All right, the game on December 26th against the Tampa Bay Lightning was not Big Buff's best effort, but so far this year Byfuglien's leading the team in goals (14), assists (24), and points (38). Buff has already set career marks in assists and points, owns the Thrashers' record of goals by a defenseman in a season, and is six goals off his career high.
Brent Sopel's a shot blocking maniac, and the Thrashers' new captain Andrew Ladd sparked the team to a consistent level of excellent play that the previous captain didn't seem to. Ladd is on pace to eclipse his career highs for goals, assists, and points as well.
Honorable Mention: Eric Boulton's hat trick; 7-1 stomping of the New Jersey Devils at Home; firing of John Anderson and his coaching staff; hiring of Craig Ramsay, Craig Stothers, and John Torchetti; Drafting Alexander Burmistrov; the development of Evander Kane; the six game winning streak; Tobias Enstrom's consistently excellent play; Anthony Stewart's breakout season