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Atlanta Thrashers' Annual Conundrum: Top Five Draft Pick Or Winning

This seems to be the question every single season - should the team play with dignity and still try for a decent finish, or do they look to the future of the franchise with another top pick?

This seems to happen every season since the Southeast Division championship was won in 2007. The Thrashers are in a position out of the playoffs. Fans are wanting new blood, and expect the perpetual rebuild to continue forward. At the same time, they're unhappy with the way that the play on the ice has regressed throughout the months of January and February and wish that the team would at least play with some spirit. Draft pick or play like you're getting paid for it? You can't have both.

The Thrashers are as close this time this season to the playoffs as they were last season, and in basically the same spot - win now, win as many as you can (AKA 80% of your remaining games - no pressure), and you make the playoffs. Perhaps there is more pressure this season to actually succeed than there was last year, considering that the Thrashers were in first place in the division in December before their annus horribilus  seemed to spring itself on the team in January. Fans have realized what the team can bring to the table when healthy and focused, and it is some outstanding hockey. There's nothing stopping this team from going on the same style tear they did in November and December right now other than themselves. Stop overthinking, stop gripping the stick so tight, and they'll play better. The only player left from that run who is still out with injury is Jim Slater, so injuries can't be an excuse for anything. 

And anyway, wouldn't an exciting, focused last month of hockey be more fun to watch? Is it rewarding if they make it to the playoffs - or even fall short again this year - if they just show some heart? Yes, it makes the first two months of this calendar year that much more frustrating and the man games lost to injury that much more obvious, but with the unfair reputation the Thrashers seem to have of being a sorry excuse for a hockey club, isn't it better for the team's reputation for them to at least play like they care?

The years that the Thrashers finished at the bottom of the standings, they didn't do so on purpose. 2007-2008 was a lost cause almost from the beginning, with the team starting 0-6. The ownership group too cheap to pay fired coach Bob Hartley and a new coach's salary at the same time, so they tossed Don Waddell on the bench to moonlight as head coach, while keeping Hartley's assistants. The Marian Hossa saga, which began to come to a head in January and culminated with his trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins, was a massive distraction. The team finished strong that year, but  still wound up second to last in the conference and third to last in the entire league. Of course, that awful season got the team Zach Bogosian at the draft. The next year? 2008-2009? Another losing season (35-41-6), another top five draft pick in Evander Kane.

You can see with the trend how some fans will be firmly in the "tank" column, and will laugh at the first few paragraphs of this post. Hey! Why not fail and get awesome players! Well, because turnstiles don't spin at the thought of draft picks.

Last season, the Thrashers wound up with the 8th overall pick, and did pretty well in choosing Alex Burmistrov, who will get better with age. This season's draft is not forecast to be as deep. There's not the Taylor Hall-style hype building up to the first overall pick. Here, check out the top ten prospects for the draft at the mid-year, from The Hockey News. Try to find one that stands out to you as "wow! Atlanta really needs to have one of those!" 

Now imagine if we wound up choosing 14th overall instead of 5th or 6th. It continues from lukewarm prospect to lukewarm prospect in the first round. If the Thrashers tank and give up any hope for the playoffs while the team is just five points out of a playoff spot and get a less than stellar draft pick, fans won't be happy. Players won't be happy. And next season will be more of the same in Atlanta.

Just play out the stretch, give it some heart, and see where it goes. Hey, stranger things have happened.

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