Remember December? First place in the South East Division, second place in the Eastern Conference? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
The easiest response to the question of "what happened" is that the Thrashers' standing was artificially inflated by having played far more games than most other teams in the league and have since been hit hard by injuries.
There is truth to both assertions. Look at the Thrashers' roster in early December:
Kane, Antropov, Ladd, Peverley, Stewart, Little, Burmistrov, Modin, Slater, Boulton, Thorburn, Eager, and Bergfors on offense; and an on-fire Pavelec in net.
Defense has stayed steady with the exception of some juggling due to injuries wherein Freddy Meyer played a number of games.
The March 3 lineup against the Senators was missing the injured Burmistrov and Slater as well as the now departed Peverley, Eager, Bergfors, and Modin. Pavelec's play had fallen off before he left with an injury as well. In place of those seven contributors were proven NHL talents Radek Dvorak, and Blake Wheeler as well as still unproven Ben Maxwell, Rob Schremp, and Tim Stapleton.
As much as I loved the guy, there's no doubt that Blake Wheeler is an upgrade over Rich Peverley. Ditto for Mark Stuart replacing Brent Sopel on defense, so those changes aren't to blame. However, replacing Bergfors, Burmistrov, Slater, and Modin with Dvorak, Schremp, Maxwell, and Stapleton is a big step back.
All that being said, I would point out that there is reason to be optimistic about the roster Rick Dudley has built here. Even if the roster were to remain untouched between now and next October, the Thrashers would be able to ice a solid competitive team when everyone is healthy.
Forwards: Kane, Ladd, Wheeler, Antropov, Little, Burmistrov, Dvorak, Cormier, Boulton, Slater, Thorburn, and Stewart. Reserves: Schremp, Maxwell, Machacek, Stapleton, and Klinberg.
I would like to see an upgrade on the right side. Neither Dvorak nor Stewart should be a second line winger in the NHL at this point in their careers. Either would be a respectable third liner.
The checking line, when Slater is healthy, is still one of the best in the business. A third line of Burmistrov, Cormier, and either Stewart or Dvorak is serviceable.
Ladd, Little, Kane, Wheeler, and Antropov are all bonafide top six talent. They need one more to keep up with them and round out a solid forward corps.
I would not touch the defense if I were in Dudley's well-shined shoes. The addition of Stuart really strengthened the blue line. They just have to play up to their potential, which has not happened lately.
In net, Mason has been a disappointment this year, but he is a solid backup to Pavelec if we can keep the younger netminder healthy.
It has been hard to find a silver lining over the past couple of months of Thrashers' hockey. A potential new owner and a solid core group of young players do make the horizon look brighter than the ground on where we currently stand.