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Should Atlanta Thrashers Fans Re-Focus Their Expectations?

The Thrashers are playing some of the best hockey in their brief history right now - should fans be expecting more out of them?

Yesterday in a column, my good friend Joe Barker of SB Nation St. Louis brought up the St. Louis Blues' expectations from the beginning of the season. Perhaps, he said, after the team's 9-1-2 start and descent into sudden mediocrity (their record is now 12-9-3) following massive injuries to their team, that Blues fans need to re-evaluate what they think that the team is able to do. Maybe, just maybe, they won't be bringing the Cup to the Riverfront any time soon, and that maybe the Blues are on par with the rest of the Western Conference in fighting for a playoff spot. Just three points separate the fourth from the twelfth spot, and it will be another season where 90 points won't get the playoffs. The Blues would have handily made the playoffs in the weaker Eastern Conference last season, but missed in the West. It's hard to make it, and to think that a team could waltz into the postseason is unrealistic.

Thrashers fans going into this season had the opposite problem. We've been conditioned to expect failure. Why not? The year before the team made the playoffs, they had the best offense in team history and would have made it if not for a rotating goaltender situation and a loss on the final night of the regular season that kept them just two points out of the playoffs. They had the franchise's best record (until that point) of 41-33-8, and still managed to miss. The following season, the Thrashers built on that optimism and wound up being the Southeast Division champions, making the playoffs with a 43-28-11 record and 97 points. They then promptly got swept in four games by the Rangers, started the next season on a six game losing streak, and finished the 2007-2008 season in 14th place. The Thrashers themselves have taught the fans to not get their hopes up, because there's always some new and creative way to kick you.

But that's slowly changing - it's just a shame that people haven't noticed. The 2008-2009 season ended with Atlanta in 13th place instead of 14th even though they had the same point total. But that wasn't what should have gotten the people's attention. It was the improved play as the season progressed, especially when they assembled a 6 game winning streak in March and finished the season more strongly than they people felt that they should have. This positivity and gelling of the team was met with a collective "Ugh - we suck!" from media and fans alike. Looking at the points and the standings, yes, the Thrashers had a bad season - but that totally misses the point.

Fast forward a year to the end of the 2009-2010 season. The Thrashers stayed in playoff contention until the bitter end, and perhaps without unnecessary drama from a certain individual they could have squeaked in at the end. Evander Kane was having a solid rookie season, and while the team could have been coached better they still played well. Massive losing streaks shook the fans' and the team's confidence, and the trade of Ilya Kovalchuk had many saying that he left because this franchise was doomed to failure. This was a stupid move by Don Waddell, they said, and the team would never be the same. The team promptly started to play better, and Waddell acquired young talent Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier in the deal, along with defenseman Johnny Oduya and some draft picks that would eventually be part of the deal that brought Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager to Atlanta. Still, at the end of the year when Waddell was promoted and coach John Anderson (along with his staff) were fired, fans said that this was the end of another awful season, and there was little reason to expect different the following year.

Then Rick Dudley brought us the best summer vacation ever. Bringing Stanley Cup winners Byfuglien, Sopel, Eager, and Andrew Ladd aboard gave the team some credibility in hockey circles. Adding Chris Mason gave the team reasonably priced stability in net.  Drafting Alexander Burmistrov at 8th overall surprised some fans, but that has turned out to have been an outstanding call by the general manager and scouts. The team hired an expert coaching staff led by Craig Ramsay that seemed dedicated to teaching the youth instead of just watching them. There was hope!

That lasted until the signings of Fredrik Modin and Nigel Dawes, which fans greeted with "oh, great, so we're going after old people again. Same old same old." There was little consideration to any benefits these players could bring. Automatic jumps to conclusions followed of the staff not being able to make good decisions, especially regarding the players that stayed at the NHL level, and those who were sent to the Thrashers' AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. The season started, and after a convincing win against the Washington Capitals came a flat game versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then came a solid West Coast road trip, followed by a homecoming implosion to the Buffalo Sabres.

The team was see-saw until the five game homestand began, and it has been hard to peg down exactly what the team's identity was... until they won six straight. I will give people that, plus the fact that the team has trained fans to expect a meltdown, as a reason for people to grumble after the losses. What fans need to realize, though, is that there's good in this team - there was last season and some year before that. By focusing only on the bad, not only does it discount the improvements the Thrashers have made over the past two and a half seasons, it also makes it really really hard to enjoy the fun stuff. Raise your hand if you were expecting an implosion of huge proportions at some point during the win streak?

I thought so.

If you really want to enjoy this team, you're going to have to learn to stop being tuned to the failures. You have to take them with the learning process that this team is going through. You can't freak out when the Thrashers lose by one goal to the hottest team in the league whose best player is having a grand old time with the puck. There is no need to post comments like this in newspaper blogs:

another heartless debacle from the trashers, what a surprise!! Craig Petrino and gang had everything to play for ( franchise record win streak, getting pumeled by pitt every single time we play them, malkins hat trick.. etc..) and what do they do?? Stick job, mail in!! 

Put down the brown paper bag. Stop having a panic attack. Relax, and let things happen. And for God's sake, stop expecting only the bad. By this point in the season, isn't there far more reason to hope for the good?

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.