Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sizing up the NHL after October

The first month of the NHL season is nearly complete and since there are almost no games on Sunday I figured this would be a good time to take a quick glance around the league. But rather than simply give you the normal standings that everyone else can read for themselves on ESPN or I had decided to post the Pythagorean standings by conference using team scoring in regulation.

OK, what am I talking about? If you look at NHL history if you simply look at how many goals a team scores and compare that to how many goals a team gives up the ratio of those two numbers is an extremely efficient predictor of the number of points that team will have in the standings. So looking at the ratio of goals for and goals against may give us a slightly different picture of the NHL than simply looking at the standings.

Now I need to address the problem of three point games. As you know since the adoption of the extra point for overtime losses this creates some problems in terms of calculating the Pythagorean standings because some games are worth more than others (3 point games versus 2 points games) in the standings. Therefore for this particular post I have chosen to simply exclude goals scored for or against in the overtime period or the shootout.

Why? Well for today's post I'm most interested in assessing the strength of each team in terms of their ability during regulation play, so the table below has two columns one for regulation goals for and the other for regulation goals against. And the final column shows each team's Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Let's take a look at the Eastern Conference first.

BUF 50 27 .77
ATL 42 28 .69
OTT 32 23 .66
PIT 32 24 .64
TBL 30 27 .55
MON 33 30 .55
WAS 31 32 .48
NYR 37 39 .47
CAR 39 43 .45
NJD 27 31 .43
TOR 37 44 .41
NYI 23 30 .37
BOS 19 32 .26
PHI 19 42 .17

At the top of the list we find two teams that are also high in the official standings, Buffalo and Atlanta, but the other two elite teams using this approach are Ottawa and Pittsburgh which may surprise some. Ottawa still has the ability to score in bunches and they have been a bit unluckly so far such as their recent 2-1 loss to Boston. Over the course of a long season they should climb back up to the top of the conference. Pittsburgh is a more of surprise and I anticipate that both they and Atlanta will fall a bit with time. But clearly the addition of Malkin has increased their offensive skill level (3rd in the NHL in regulation offense) and they are getting better goal prevention from their net minders than they did much of last year (11th in goal prevention). As much as I love the Thrashers hot start I don't expect them of finish the season ranked 4th in the league in offense and 6th in defense--those ranking will likely slip as they face better teams in November.

In the middle we have the great mass of teams who will sort themselves out from one another as we move into November and play more games. But right now these teams are all fighting for playoff positions.

At the bottom we find Philadephia, Boston, and NY Islanders. The NYI don't surprise me at all because I think that team has many problems. I expected Boston to be better than this, so far the major additions of Chara and Savard have not generated major changes in the offense and defense, but it may be that the team hasn't had enough time to integrate fully. The Flyers are really a shocker. When I look at this roster I see some very talented players and yet this team ranks dead last in regulation offense and 2nd to last in regulation defense--wow. I've seen a lot of fingers pointed at Hatcher but he was on the team last year and they were not that bad, I find it hard to believe he slipped that much over the summer. Perhaps the defense misses Kim Johnsson more than they expected.

ANA 34 19 .76
DAL 33 21 .71
SJS 35 26 .64
EDM 33 28 .58
VAN 28 25 .56
DET 29 26 .55
NAS 33 30 .55
COL 33 31 .53
CAL 23 24 .48
CHI 32 37 .43
CBJ 19 25 .37
STL 21 28 .34
LAK 25 35 .34
PHO 28 53 .22

Out in the west we find three teams rising to the top: ANA, SJS, DAL and MIN. My favorite in the west is the Sharks they have two great goalies, two awesome scoring lines and some talented (but young) defensemen. The Ducks, Wild and Stars are at the top because of their strengths in the goal prevention department (they rank 2, 1, 3 in regulation defense). I wonder if Anaheim will have enough scoring, but then again Calgary has shown that if your defense is outstanding you don't need a lot of scoring to finish high.

Bringing up the rear in the west we find Phoenix, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Columbus. St. Louis was bad last year and they are extremely old this year which makes breakout seasons unlikely. Legace has kept them in some games early on. The Kings are rebuilding and have a strong long term outlook and a decent offense (13th in regulation), but that contract they gave Cloutier isn't really doing much to make them more competitive (29th in regulation defense). Columbus, Columbus, Columbus! If this season doesn't get Doug McLean fired I don't know what will. I expected the offense to at least make this team interesting to watch but so far they are tied for dead last in regulation goals scored and rank 28th in regulation goal for per game. They got Zherdev signed and Fedorov returns soon but they appear headed for another race for a lottery pick. Finally, we have Phoenix which has had poor goaltending (30th in regulation defense) with a weak offense (25th in regulation offense). Too bad the spent all that cash on Jovo in the off season. This team looks like it is closer to a major makeover than moving into contending anytime soon.

Game 12: Hunting Buffalo

Last night's Thrashers Sabres game was easily the best game so far this season if you were a Thrashers fan. I took in the game with some friends (including one Sabres fan) at Twain's a fine establishment in downtown Decatur that is very hockey friendly.

One key different element of this match up was the fact that the eyes of the NHL were focused on this particular contest because of Buffalo's winning streak to start the season. Both teams came out and played with a playoff-like intensity and like so many playoff games many of the goals scored in the game came off of broken plays or odd bounces of the puck.

ATL Goal 1: Hossa carries the puck in along the right-wing boards and dumps it down where Slater centers the puck to an open Holik who puts it past Ryan Miller for the first marker of the contest. Slater had the key play here as he managed to get the pass away despite being targeted by two different Buffalo players (who I might add interfered with Slater more than Hnidy did when he was called for a penalty early in the game).

BUF Goal 1: This goal was the produce to sustained offensive pressure by Buffalo aided by several Atlanta mistakes. First, Kovalchuk had flubbed the breakout pass creating a turnover that allowed Buffalo to keep the puck in the zone. Then Jon Sim had a brief opportunity to clear the zone but fails to do so. The puck comes behind the net and Hecht makes a pass across to wide open Briere who a backdoor goal. On the replay you can just see Sutton coming into the picture as his man scores the goal. Sutton and Briere had both been the in corner but Andy trails behind badly when Briere makes his cut to the net.

ATL Goal 2: The Thrashers third line of Slater, Mellanby and Holik answer right back after the Sabres tied it with a quick goal. Off the rush, Holik carries toward the boards which pulls the defender towards him and then lays out a fine pass to Mellanby who filled the open lane and fires a shot past Miller (who probably should have been able to stop one from that far). Afinogenov turned over the puck that gave the Thrashers the scoring chance.

Hossa misses yet another breakaway--I'm amazed that he doesn't finish these off more.
Numminen hits iron with a slapper from the point.
Hossa tried one of his patented moves from the corner to the front of the net and is denied.
Buffalo's Hecht is having a good game--short handed chance.

BUF Goal 2: Power Play goal by Buffalo, a Vishnevski hooking gives them the man advantage. The Thrashers PK box looks fine and Lehtonen makes the first save but the rebound squibs to his left and Vanek gets an easy tap-in goal. Havelid reacts too late to prevent Vanek from scoring.

ATL Goal 3: Clean face-off win by Kapanen leads to Sutton point shot that is wide on the left side but produces a rebound directly to the right door step where Kapanen scores the back door goal for his first of the season.

BUF Goal 3: Thrashers win the face off in their own end cleanly but Andy Sutton does one of his head-down "I'll just dump it blindly up the boards" specials which the Sabres defenseman easily holds and shoots toward the net. Lehtonen makes the original save but the rebound goes right to Pominville who chips it into the net.

ATL Goal 4: Kovalchuk answers right back, playing with Holik and Mellanby. Kovalchuk finds a hole in the high slot and his line mates find him there and he lazers one by Miller. That makes five straight games with a goal for Kovalchuk.

BUF Goal 4: Pominville shot and rebound comes out to Hecht in the slot and he puts it away. Sutton's man scores. Not a good night for Sutton. Not a really good night for Kari in terms of rebound control.

Shootout: How many standing points will Kozlov and Kari earn this team over the course of the season? Kozlov is just money and he doesn't rely on just one move either. Lehtonen looked very unsure of where the puck ended up on two of his saves but the referee signaled save to the relief of the Thrasher bench. I noticed that Kozlov renewed the tradition of rally helmets after scoring to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the shootout.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Game 11: Why goalies are not like relief pitchers

The big story from Thursday's Atlanta-Philadelphia game is that the two teams played to a shootout and Coach Hartley pulled Johan Hedberg and put Kari Lehtonen in for the shootout portion, which he lost giving up 2 goals.

Was this a good idea? Heartley compared Lehtonen to having a great relief pitcher but I just don't buy it. Kari isn't a relief goalie he is a starter and you're asking him to do something he has never really prepared for over his career so far.

But the biggest drawback in my book is the potential risks to your star goalie. The Thrashers season hinges on getting great play between the pipes and reducing the number of goals they give up compared to last season. Hartley had already played Lehtonen in 10 consecutive starts and he had played a full game the night before in Carolina. It is the franchise's best interest that Kari stay reasonable fresh and healthy and putting him in that situation raised the risk unnecessarily in my opinion.

Furthermore, it gives the impression that you don't trust your backup keeper. Hedberg played a very strong game for someone who hasn't seen game action since the preseason. And he was 4-0 in shootouts last year. I just don't think it was a good idea.

Well, if nothing else it did generate some attention around the league. I was watching the Canucks Capitals contest Friday night. That game went to a shootout and the broadcasters brought up the Hartley move and discussed if it had any merits (of course Kolzig and Luongo had started so why make a change?).

Stepping back from the immediate controversy the Thrashers have played 11 games to start the season and managed to get another point in every contest except the last second disaster game versus the Hurricanes. I very solid start indeed. But the big test will come tonight when the take on the super red-hot Buffalo Sabres.

Goals, Goals, Goals!
PHI Goal 1: De Vries is the goat here, he fell behind his man in the neutral zone and scrambled to cut off the passing lane but failed to intercept the pass to from Knuble to Robitaille who scored.

ATL Goal 1: Kovalchuk made a nice defensive play in his own end and curled out to the neutral zone where he received a great pass from Jon Sim and then shot right down the slot and buried it like the Kovalchuk of old. Perhaps, this will get his confidence back in the shootout?

PHI Goal 2: I can't put any blame on any skaters for this one. It was a penalty kill situation and the Thrashers coverage looked good to me. There was a loose puck that came to Forsberg who was below the goal line and he just banked in off of Hedberg. Hedberg had been facing the other side and was caught by the quick bounce of the puck. Really, a bad bounce goal more than anything else.

ATL Goal 2: Vishnevshi fired from the blueline and it looks like Holik just barely tipped the shot.

Shootout: Kozlov scored on a sensational move but Gagne and Forsberg put their shots by Kari and the won the extra point.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Game 10: A Real Southeast Shootout

Wow, these hockey games are coming along fast and furious. Four games in six nights, plus the World Series (go Tigers!), my work and other social is hard for a blogger to stay on top of things. Anyway, here's my Carolina comments and I should have the Philly game review up this evening. Last night I saw Elf Power play at the Criminal Records Birthday party--what does this have to do with a hockey blog? Nothing, really other than the fact that they has so many people (seven) on stage for that I started thinking they could challenge the band Sound Team (six members) to a hockey game if they wanted.

OK, on to the Carolina game. Well it featured a real mix of goals in a wild 5-4 OT loss. There were your fluky goals, old fashioned hard work tallies, awesome redirections, nice odd man breaks and defensemen pinching all the way to the crease. Despite all the goals scored the game also featured some fantastic saves by both net-minders.

In the bad old days the Thrashers would have given up 5 goals because of mind numbing defensive gaffs or not-ready-for-primetime goaltending. But after reviewing each and every scoring play it is clear to me that much of the scoring resulted from the great speed and skill both teams bring to the table.

OK, let's get on to the goals.

List of Heroes
ATL GF 1: Put this one down to hard work and a LOTS of good luck as the checking line puts one in on their first shift of the game. Larsen attempts a shot on goal from the right side that misses wide but the puck goes over to Boulton of the left wing side who barely makes contact but the puck slides past Ward who had come way out of the net to face Larsen's shot.

ATL GF 2: Sim buries one from the slot between the hash marks as the defense moves to take away Kovalchuk. He should keep getting great chances like this as long he plays on Ilya's line. Not sure why I keep seeing Sim getting bashed on some of the boards, the man has played better than I ever expected so far this season.

ATL GF 3: The line of Holik, Slater and Mellanby applied tremendous pressure in the Carolina zone and finally got a favorable bounce that Mellanby put home. De Vries also deserves some praise for a key hold at the blueline. But credit this one to plain old hard work.

ATL GF 4: Kovalchuk makes a terrific deflection of a Rucchin shot to tie the game and earn the Thrashers a point in a contest that they trailed 3-1 after 1st period.

List of Goats
CAR GF 1: This was a goal scored because of Carolina's skill at executing a two-on-one, but the replay on my DVR shows Mr. Andy Sutton turning the puck over at the offensive blueline which created this odd man rush.

CAR GF 2: Holik took a penalty and on the power play Scott Walker has a nice deflection of a Hutchinson shot from the point. Honestly, I find it hard to fault the PK unit on this one, it was a well executed power play, but if you must know it was Vishnevski's man that had the redirect. I'm inclined to blame Holik for taking the penalty in the first place.

CAR GF 3: Another late Carolina goal at the end of a period that really hurt the Thrashers. This time it was a Hutchinson slapper as he pinched in from the blueline. The Atlanta broadcasters were saying that Vishnevski got trapped by Carolina rotating in the zone but when I look at the tape I don't think that is the big problem, a Thrasher forward rotated to the front of the net and their coverage down low was fine. The problem was that the left wing let the Carolina player to give him the slip and create the odd man situation. Who was the left wing? Well I replayed this one several time because all you can see is his stick trailing behind Hutchinson most of the time, but I was finally able to determine that it was Kovalchuk.

CAR GF 4: Belanger gets off a clean shot as Kapanen turns his head and loses sight of his man, the rebound comes right to Bayda who puts it away. It was Vishnevski's man, but frankly Kari probably should take most of the blame on this one.

CAR GF 5: Your OT game winner is very similar to Hutchinson's goal as the puck goes up along the right-wing boards and then is quickly moved across to a pinching defensemen (this time Babchuk) who buries it. Guess which left-winger allowed his man to go to the net? Ilya again. Twice in one game he gets burned.

Well, I posted earlier praising Kovalchuk's new interest in playing better defense this season, but tonight it was more like the bad old Kovy defense of old. I said it before and I'll say it again that Ilya gets so much ice time and he plays in so many critical situations that if the coaches can get him to play average defense it will really help this team be more successful in the long run.

So far both games versus Carolina have featured furious comebacks after Atlanta fell behind but the Hurricanes have come out on top in both contests. So far, Carolina hasn't seen Lehtonen at his best yet as he gave up a questionable goal in each affair. Here's hoping that he shuts them down in one of the six remaining games between these two clubs.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

After the first nine games of the season the Thrashers sit in 2nd place in the East and 1st in the SE Division. Yet, I'm not doing handstands or clearing my spring schedule for playoff tickets just yet. Why? The schedule has been very favorable so far and it will get much tougher in the future.

For example, I took the Thrashers schedule by month and looked at which months the Thrashers face teams that made the playoffs last season. You can see that October is tied with December for the month with the fewest 05/06 playoff teams faced. In fact, January and February looks down right brutal, especially FEB with 75% playoff qualifiers.

OCT 46%
NOV 57%
DEC 46%
JAN 61%
FEB 75%
MAR 53%

I took a second look at the strength of schedule in which I classify all Thrashers opponents into three groups: 1 (finished in the top 5 in the conference), 2 (finished in the middle third of the conference), 3 (finished in the bottom third in the conference). Then I averaged them for each month. A score of 2.0 means a month with an average strength of schedule, a number below 2.0 indicates a more difficult schedule and a score above 2.0 and easier than normal schedule.

Strength of Schedule for the Thrashers (based on 05-06 opposition records)
OCT 2.23 Easier
NOV 2.00 Average
DEC 2.31 Easier
JAN 1.85 Harder
FEB 1.66 Harder
MAR 2.00 Average

Again the data demonstrate that the Thrashers face a favorable schedule in the first half of the season and a very tough schedule after New Years Day. It is very important that the Thrashers continue to rack up the points early on because a swoon in early 2007 seems to be extremely likely based on the quality of opposition.

The Southeast Shootout

I'm happy to annouce that I am participating in a new blog called the Southeast Shootout (or SESO) that began this last week.

The SE Division has produced the last two Stanley Cup Champions but still gets disrespected by others around the NHL from time-to-time. Often the division doesn't get much attention in the national media or even local media in many of our markets, so creating a place for divisional news and chatter seemed like a good idea.

A special Thrasher's Talons thanks to the Web Guy at for mentioning this blog and the new SESO this week as we try and spread word of the new site.

I encourage fellow Thrasher fans to head over to SESO on game nights and post in the open threads as we take on divisional foes. Since the team is at the top of the division at the moment a small amount of gloating might be in order.

Game 9: Putting the Power back into Power Play

The Atlanta Thrashers put on one of the more impressive power play performances I've ever seen scoring 5 power plays goals in a 6-3 last night. The Panthers outscored the Atlanta 2-1 at even strength but that simply didn't matter as the Thrashers won the battle of the special teams 5-0.

This is the same Panthers PK unit that had frustrated the Thrashers in Atlanta just a few days earlier making them look ineffective. What was the difference? Well, for one thing the Florida is very aggressive in terms of attacking the puck while they are killing. They are gambling that the puck carrier will turn over the puck or make a poor pass. Often it works, but just like the trap in basketball you can break it with effective passing and that was the key last night.

I've commented before that when teams overload (usually on Kovalchuk's side) it is critical that the Thrashers move the puck quickly to the other side and get a scoring opportunity. Last night the Panthers were trying to pressure the puck along the boards and Atlanta was able to swing it across for Kovalchuk one-timers for goals. One time it was McCarthy making the pass and the other time it was Kozlov. A similar thing happened down low on Hossa's goal where Mellanby made a terrific pass across the goalmouth to a wide-open Marian Hossa who buried it.

Anyone remember this team blowing a five-goal lead to Pittsburgh last year? Doesn't seem to likely this year with Lehtonen in the net and a stronger commitment to defense by both the forwards and blueliners. Having solid goaltending is so huge--just ask Panthers fans!

Kari Lehtonen at one point tried to make a kick save/pass to his defensemen. It didn't work as planned, but I can't remember the last time I even saw a goaltender attempt this. Most of them just worry about covering the puck or putting the rebound in a safe area of the ice. My guess is few net minders would even try something like a combo kick save/pass move.

I've mentioned before that I have doubts J.P. Vigier as a NHL player in the new version of the game, but a tip of the hat to JPVJ for his nice wrap around play which looked like it just might work.

Parade of Heroes
ATL GF 1: Kovalchuk one-time on a good pass from McCarthy mentioned above.
ATL GF 2: Hossa goal on sweet Mellanby pass across the crease.
ATL GF 3: Kovalchuk slap shot from the high slot where he picked the top corner.
ATL GF 4: Mellanby exists the penalty box and collects blind clear up the boards for a breakaway that Auld probably shouldn't have allowed.
ATL GF 5: Kovalchuk completes the hat off a nice set up by Kozlov
ATL GF 6: Rucchin corrals a loose puck, after first dishing to Kovalchuk whose shot was saved producing the rebound opportunity.

List of Shame
ATL GA 1: Slater failed to clear the puck up the left boards, De Vries fronts Florida player who redirects shot past Lehtonen.
ATL GA 2: Not sure who really should take the blame here. Sutton pinched all the way towards the Florida net but Atlanta didn't get the puck in deep leading to an odd man rush for the Panthers. Hossa hustled back to fill one of the D spots but that still left it a 3-on-2 for FLA. The high man scored with Kozlov trailing behind him. I guess I'd put this one Sutton for a costly pinch.
ATL GA 3: De Vries was outnumbered down low because Jokinen blew past a dead-in-the-water Jon Sim creating an odd man advantage at the net for Florida.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Game 6 Flashback Recap

I was out of town this weekend when the Thrashers took on the Capitals. I finally have had time to sit down and watch my recording of the game. A few observations from that game follow.

* Slater continues to take dumb penalties, every single game. This could put him in Hartley's doghouse, which is hard to escape. A number of other veterans also took unnecessary penalties this game including Holik, Mellanby, and Havelid.

* McCarthy's defensive play has been surprisingly good this season, but he did get into trouble this game. He had trouble clearing the zone which led to a tough save by Lehtonen and he shot the puck over the glass taking a penalty in the process.

* Capitals Captain Chris Clark has a bad game with two penalties and his man scored the first Thrashers goal.

GA 1: Holik penalty creates PP for WAS. Slater is on the PK unit and he fails to see his defenseman pinch down and give him the slip and scores. It was a nice play by Washington, but if Slater is going to front his man he needs to disrupt that pass.

GA 2: Capitals point shot is wide by rebounds to the other side of the net where an open Chris Clark gets off a one-timer and scores. Vishnevsky was the closest guy, but I don't have a problem with his positioning, this was mostly a bad bounce and a nice play by Clark.

GA 3: Hard shot from the left side by Zubrus leads to a big rebound to the right which Ovechkin scores with a laser shot just under the crossbar. De Vries could have played it better, but it was more of a bad rebound/bad bounce than anything else.

GF 1: Atlanta Power Play Goal. Teams are really trying to take away Kovalchuk's shot from the point and this time the Thrashers were able to make them pay by moving the puck efficiently across the zone for a Hossa one-timer that went in off of Mellanby. McCarthy made the key pass.

GF 2 : Sim scores on a backhander while coming out from behind the net. This is just a soft goal by Kolzig, should have been stopped.

GF 3: While falling down, Mellanby scores a goal off a rebound right in front of the crease.

GF 4: My recording ran out since this went to OT but my spies report that Kovalchuk danced around like a little kid after getting his first of the season for the OT game winner.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Game 5: The Agony of Defeat

I'm just old enough to remember the old ABC Sports video intro that showed a horrific skiing crash with an accompanying voiceover of "the agony of defeat". That phrase certainly captures the depth of shock and disappointment following last night's 4-3 loss.

On the drive to the game I expressed my concerns that Atlanta would be too overconfident after a nice hot start and Carolina would be very hungry after a winless beginning to their season. Sure enough the Thrashers started off in a mental funk. The passes were just a little off, players were just too slow reading the play. Lehtonen also was not on his A game and he struggled with rebounds early.

What went wrong? The List of Shame
Goal Against #1 Kapanen's man gives him the slip and scores a rebound goal.
Goal Against #2 Lehtonen gives up juicy rebound and seemed not to get his get pad all the way against the post. But shame also goes to the D pairing of De Vries and Vishnevshi who allowed the Carolina player to slip in behind both of them leaving him wide open to score the rebound.
Goal Against #3 After Kovalchuk fails to convert a breakaway the Hurricanes Eric Staal gets a breakaway the other direction as the D pair of De Vries and Vishnevski allow him to get in behind them (sound familiar?).

The key to the game though was a span of less than 5 seconds, the final seconds of the 1st and 3rd periods. The Hurricanes scored two last second goals to come away with the win. They managed to squeeze in a goal at the end of the 1st period with less than 2 seconds left to go the 1st intermission up 3-0. Then the game concluded with Carolina scoring a shocker with just .5 seconds left on the clock.

The last gasp opportunity came when the Thrashers iced the puck with just 8.9 seconds left. The guy sitting next to me said "looks like we are getting some free hockey" and I thought--this thing is far from over, 9 seconds is plenty of time to give up a goal.

Carolina won the faceoff and threw the puck towards the net. Kari deflected it into the corner and it seemed that time might just run out on regulation, but the puck was centered through the crease to a streaking Ray Whitney who slammed it as Hossa looked on helplessly from behind with virtually no time left on the clock. (Unfortunately my DVR cut off the end of the game so I can't watch this on replay.)

Dean's List
Goal 1 The puck goes sky high and lands in the crease which had been vacated by Cam Ward. Sim jumps in and rotates like a washing machine agitator and scores a goal.
Goal 2 Camped out in the crease, Sim redirects a nice Kozlov pass into the net past Ward.
Goal 3 Holik appears to try a pass to Slater that redirects off of Tanabe's skate back to Holik who tips it into the goal.

Jon Sim continues to amaze me as he potted two more goals this game. Of course, playing with Ilya Kovalchuk will tend to open up the ice for the other guys on his line, but to his credit Sim is taking full advantage of the opportunities that are coming his way.

Kovalchuk had 12 shots on goal and is still without a goal on the season. This is really just a function of bad luck because he is getting some terrrific scoring chances and he continues to play much better defense out there. So far he has not been rewarded for his hard work so I'm really hoping the floodgates will open soon.

(sorry for not posting about game 4 versus Boston but I missed most of the game because of work.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Game 3: Kari, Kari, Kari!

One player has been carrying this team on his back. Kari Lehtonen. Three games and just two goals allowed in 9 regulation periods plus one 5 minute overtime. Wow, that's the kind of goaltending this franchise needs to make a huge improvement in the goals against department.

It looks like the offense may not be very consistent this year, but the defense will keep the team in games and give them an opportunity to steal some points (when has anyone ever been able two write that about the Thrashers--never!). Kozlov was the other hero with a terrific individual effort to give them the meager 1-0 that ended up being the final margin of victory.

Early on the Thrashers appear to be a copy of the 2005-06 NY Rangers who rode a hot Lundqvist and a resurgent Jagr to a playoff berth.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Season Begins: Games 1 and 2

I held off posting after the 3-2 shootout loss in the home opener because I was afraid I’d say too many negative things I might regret later. After game 2 there are more reasons to be optimistic and still plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Game 1 of the season saw a team that looked very strong in the 1st period fade away in the 2nd and 3rd as they lost momentum and energy. The Thrashers came close to not registering a single shot in the 2nd period. Obviously, you are not going to win many games where a team only generates 11 shots on goal.

The team looked out of sync at times as Tampa clogged the neutral zone. When the Thrashers did dump the puck into the Tampa end, the Lightning were able to get to the puck and move it out very effectively. The Lightning also benefited from having Marc Denis in net—he should be an upgrade from their two-headed goaltending nightmare of last season.

The Thrashers added three centers in the off-season (Rucchin, N. Kapanen and Metropolit) and in the early going the role that each will play is still very much up in the air. Hartley had fairly stable lines much of last season but that may not hold true this season. Right now he has Metropolit centering Hossa and Kozlov, but I would rather see Kapanen in that spot. I would also like to see Holik and Slater get more ice time than they have thus far.

I’ve always admired J.P. Vigier for his hard work and tenacity, but he got tossed around like a rag doll in the home opener and I do wonder if he can keep a job in the NHL. I don’t understand why he is getting so many PK minutes that ought to be going to Slater in my opinion.

By far the most encouraging thing in games one and two has been the sharp decline in quality scoring chances by the opposition. With Kari Lehtonen and Hedberg in the net the Thrashers should be able to make big strides in limiting goals against if they can reduce the number of breakaways, point blank chances and wide open men in the slot. Last year the team gave up far too many of those type of scoring chances. Thus far this season they have allowed one clean cut breakaway (that I recall) in each game, but the overall the defensive coverage in their own end has been MUCH better than the 2005-06 season. The effect of that improved coverage shows up in a team Goals Against Average that is just under 1.00 after 125 minutes of NHL hockey. They will not be able to keep that up over a full season, of course, but it is a very positive sign.

The 2nd most positive sign for this team is the improved defense play of star Ilya Kovalchuk. When he first arrived in the NHL Kovalchuk showed no desire to play defense and on those rare occasion when he did want to do something he was usually in the wrong spot or made the wrong play. Last season there were more moments where Kovalchuk looked like he wanted to help out but he still seemed fairly clueless about what exactly he was supposed to be doing. It is early, but what I’ve seen so far has me very encouraged. Not only does Ilya want to help in his own zone, but more often than not he is in the right spot and he is making the correct play. For example, in years past he would usually try to catch a clearing pass inside his own blueline even if he was being covered by a defensemen. This year he has is just tipping the puck out over the blueline when he is being covered and making sure that the opposition is forced to clear the Thrashers zone. Another play that shocked me was the sight of him diving to try and tip an errant pass in the neutral zone. There was no way Ilya was going to catch the pass, he was diving to try and tip it so that there would be no icing call—I was impressed.

After two games there are reasons to be concerned and reasons to be excited. Despite my model which predicts the Thrashers finishing out of the playoffs, I believe this team has a shot at making the postseason but it will take several things:
1) The three star caliber players (Hossa, Kovalchuk and Lehtonen) must be healthy.
2) There must be major improvements in team defense.
3) The offense much not bog down too much in the absence of Savard.

As far as the offense goes, the big wild card for this team is the play of defensemen Steve McCarthy. If you look at his stats in Chicago and Vancouver they are fairly unimpressive. However, in his brief stint with Atlanta last spring he was a revelation. The question is which is the real Steve McCarthy? Is he an offensive defensemen waiting to explode on the NHL scene or will he return to his previous level of performance? If the former is true, then the Thrashers got a major steal in the McCarthy trade and he might help the team fill in for the lost production provided by Modry, Savard and Bondra this coming season. In my opinion he has the best puck handling skills of Thrasher D corps.

Recently, I had a chance to ask Thrashers GM Don Waddell about McCarthy. He mentioned that he personally saw him play 5 times in his draft year. “In one game his team was on the road and they were clearly intimidated by the road crowd. McCarthy went out there and contributed to three goals for his team and was involved in several fights. I knew then that this was a guy I’d like to have on my team, unfortunately we didn’t have a pick when came up in the draft order.” (note: Chicago took McCarthy with a 1st round pick over in the 1999 draft, 23rd overall that year. The Thrashers had the 1st and 30th picks that year.)

The power play will be crucial for this team all year. My one grip right now is that teams are dedicating one PK to blocking Kovalchuk’s shot from the point. When that happens the team needs to move the puck down low to make them pay for committing on guy to Ilya, right now they are not moving the puck effectively to take advantage. My other complaint is the Ilya keeps cheating in closer to the net—this allows the opposition PK to collapse in and create a tigher box which effectively eliminates any chance of a pass through the box. In my opinion Kovalchuk needs to stay out more toward the blueline—if a defender comes out to take him away that should open some space for passes through the interior of the PK box.
Finally, I’d like to personally thank Ed Belfour for spotting the Thrashers a 2-0 lead in tonight’s game. Last year the Thrashers watched their minor league goaltenders give up brutal goals like those two shots from the wing that Eddie the Eagle let in tonight, so we know how it feels Florida fans.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Modeling the 2006-07 Season

I'm heading off to watch the Thrashers home opener but I wanted to post the season predictions based on my new model. I'll post later and explain how it works but I wanted to get these up before we get too far into the season.


OTT 313 229 +83
BUF 286 230 +56
PHI 286 250 +36
NYR 253 227 +26
BOS 265 260 +5
MON 243 242 +1
CAR 270 272 -1
TBL 230 251 -21
FLA 265 288 -22
NYI 233 259 -26
ATL 275 305 -31
TOR 265 304 -38
NJD 219 264 -45
WAS 213 273 -59

DET 278 217 +61
EDM 268 213 +55
DAL 228 204 +53
NAS 278 244 +34
MIN 251 218 +33
ANA 254 227 +27
SJS 250 229 +21
CAL 237 230 +6
COL 251 253 -2
VAN 222 236 -14
CBJ 257 277 -21
LAK 262 290 -28
STL 219 264 -45
PHO 235 291 -55
CHI 220 280 -60

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