Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Missing Marc Savard

I’ve been working on a model to predict individual player performance for the 2006-07 NHL season. I’m still working on the defense side of the model but the offensive side is nearly finished. I plan on posting divisional previews in the near future.

For the Thrashers one of the big problems is replacing the offense contributed by Savard, Bondra and Modry. Last year the Thrashers power play scored a nice round 100 goals, which was 5th best in the NHL. How will that power play fare in the absence of Savard and the other recently departed players?

Well I was thinking about the question of which player or players should receive the power play minutes. which went to Savard last year. The candidates in my mind include the two new centers Niko Kapanen and Steve Rucchin as well as 2nd year center Jim Slater. Other candidates might include veterans Holik and Scott Mellanby.

How big is the hole that needs to be filled? Here are the Thrashers that had at least 200 minutes of power play ice time over the course of the season last year and the average number of power play minutes per game listed below. As you can see Savard and Modry consumed a combined 11 and half minutes of power play ice time so Coach Hartley has a lot of minutes to distribute to other players in the coming season.

Average Power Play Time On Ice 2005-06
8:15 Kovalchuk
6:06 Hossa
6:22 Savard
5:10 Modry
4:12 Kozlov
4:06 Holik
4:01 Bondra
3:32 Mellanby
3:21 de Vries

But who should get those minutes? Ideally whoever is most effective in making the power play operate at a high level. So let’s take a look at how the new Thrashers and returning players did in scoring points on the power play given their ice time. I computed each player’s power play scoring rate per 60 minutes of ice time (think of it as something like a pitcher’s ERA in baseball, which is the number of earned runs by 9 innings). I have to say that some of the numbers surprised me.

Power Play Points per 60 minutes Played 2005-06
Departed players have () around them.
(5.74 Savard)
5.42 Rucchin (new player)
5.23 Kovalchuk
4.88 Kapanen (new player)
4.80 Hossa
(4.23 Bondra)
4.19 Kozlov
4.05 Havelid
(3.97 Modry)
3.88 Holik
3.27 de Vries
2.61 Slater
2.39 Mellanby
1.74 McCarthy (new player)
1.71 Sutton

Some interesting things pop out to me when I look at the list. The bad news is that Marc Savard was the most efficient player in terms of producing points on the power play. Also Modry and Bondra were more productive than I seem to remember them being so all three of them were important parts of the PP unit last year.

The good news is that our two new centers Niko Kapanen and Steve Rucchin were both surprisingly effective on the power play with their previous teams. In fact, the statistics suggest that Rucchin might be able to step in and fill Savard’s role to a surprising degree. Like wise Kapanen might be able to fill Bondra’s skates more readily than I would have expected. Both Kapanen and Rucchin are players who had modest scoring rates at even strength but they both seemed to thrive in extra man situations. Holik wouldn’t be a terrible choice to receive more minutes, but Mellanby and Slater don’t seem too promising as candidates for increased power play ice time.

What about the blueline? Who should line up opposite of Kovalchuk on the point? Before looking at the numbers, I would automatically said Steve McCarthy, who was torrid in his brief stint with the Thrashers. But his season-long power play numbers are actually quite bad—as in Andy Sutton bad. The numbers above suggest that Havelid was actually slightly more effective than Modry was on the PP and thus he would be a good choice. But I’m not sure Coach Hartley can give him much more ice time and he is badly needed to match up against the other team’s top lines at even strength. The next best choice going by last year’s numbers is Greg de Vries. I’m not sure what to say other than he has made some nice plays but is hardly a guy you picture as a PP point man. Then again Kovalchuk is the shooter form the point, all he need is a guy who can make a smart accurate pass.

OK, to sum up Savard, Modry and Bondra were important pieces of a great power play unit last year and their departure is a concern. On the other hand, the new Thrashers appear to have strong potential as important elements in the 2000-07 power play, while out on the blue line we may have to make due with Greg de Vries or hope McCarthy comes out red hot like he finished last season.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Welcome Jeff Odgers

As I noted in my previous posting I did not attend last night's preseason game because I was at the Sufjan Stevens show at the Fox, which was a mild letdown I have say. How can a musician put out an album that is so popular that he can release a 2nd album of leftover material and yet only bother to play 4 songs from said album and zero from the follow up record during a 2 hour plus concert. Attention Sufjan: there is a reason few bought your first few albums, they were not as good as your more recent stuff, play your best material!!!!

But I do have some hockey-related thoughts to share. While driving to the concert I listened to the Thrashers radio play-by-play. The radio color guy Billy Jaffe is leaving Atlanta to go become the TV color guy for MSG on Islander broadcasts this coming season. So last night they were breaking in former Thrasher Jeff Odgers as a new radio color guy. In the middle of the 2nd period Dan Kamal (the radio announcer) said something like "well look who swung by the booth, the guy who is leaving us" and Billy Jaffe said "hello". At which point Jeff Odgers interjected, "Gee, this is awkward, I feel like the new girlfriend when you run into the ex-girlfriend." Which I have to say was hilarious at the time he said it. Kamal retorted something to the effect that "well, I'm not sure our relationship was quite like that." and Odgers said, "I'm glad to hear that!"

Odgers sounded like a rookie but there is potential there. Most teams employ retired players as the color man, but of course as an expansion team the Thrashers had none (although they could hired a few Atlanta Flames veterans but choose not to do so.) Now that the team is a couple of years along they actually have a pool of retired veterans to mine for color talent.

By the way, my spy at the game reported that all 5 goals scored by the Thrashers in the first period were soft in the spy's opinion and thus we shouldn't get too high on the team's offense just yet, but we should look forward to those 8 games against Florida Panthers now that Roberto Luongo is out of Miami.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

NHL Camping

I’ve been to camp twice now and here is what I saw.

First round selection Little looked much better to my eyes in NHL camp than he did at Prospect Camp this summer. I saw some nice passes in top spots, good vision and the ability to handle the puck at top speed. I remain bullish on Riley Holzapfel who looked solid while skating with the mostly prospect “B” Group. Both players have been sent back to their junior clubs.

Alex Bourret returned to the ice this Tuesday--which is a good sign. I expected Bourret to win a wing spot on this team in camp but the concussion has caused him to miss an opportunity to impress and I’m guessing he will start in Chicago.

Braydon Coburn continues to look good in drills but then mess up in game type situations. Coburn has the foundation of a terrific hockey player--big frame, nice stride--but he sure seems to lack hockey sense. In one simulated game situation he over-reacted while covering his man on the boards and got out of position and then when he moved to the net he just flat out failed to cover his man who was able to get a free shot away. Hartley game him some personal attention after that particular drill. It is the same thing that I noticed when he started the season in the NHL last year, he just seems to lack an ability to read the play and know where to be on the ice. By all accounts the kid is book smart and he is in great shape so I’m not sure why he continues to make these mental mistakes. I really hate to say this but it looks to me that the team ought to trade him before everyone in the league realizes he lacks hockey sense.

Hartley was being a stickler for doing the drills right and would blow the play dead if someone screwed up. Krog managed to make two mistakes on one drill, not the sort of attention you want when trying to make the team.

Two Colorado College alums Joey Crabb and Brett Sterling skated with the A group and didn’t look terribly out of place. I watched both players in a game against Alaska Fairbanks last year while out in Denver. I wasn’t sure if Sterling would be quick enough to play at the NHL level but he does not look out of place—at least in practice. He has the potential to be a sniper but I worry that his release is not quite quick enough at this level.

Niko Kapanen has a reputation as a NHL skater with AHL hands, but he certainly looked good today finishing off several nice plays. Then again in the immortal words of Allen Iverson “it’s just practice” so let’s see if he can do in games.

Kovalchuk was moving around with great energy and even busted back to clear a loose puck in his defensive end. A bit more attention to defense by Ilya could save the Thrashers 5-6 goals against this season, not a trivial thing when you consider they missed the playoffs last year by 2 points. The great thing about Kovy is that he EXPECTS to score every time he shoots. At one point in practice he had an open top corner and missed wide, he skated out of the zone shaking his head and grimacing in frustration.

At the very end of practice Kovalchuk did one of his nifty moves in tight and he and Kari Lehtonen went down in a pile. They both sat there for a moment and we all were holding our breath until we saw that they were laughing. Unfortunately, everyone is going to be holding their breath with Kari until he puts in a healthy season and demonstrates that he is past the groin problems that hurt him last year and in the minors.

Scott Lehman skated with the A Group and I assume that the will be in the lineup for the Wednesday night preseason game in Atlanta.

I’m concerned about Rucchin’s age, but I have to say that he seems to fit in very well between Kozlov and Hossa. Then again, he did center Kariya and Selanne at one point in his career so I suppose he knows a thing or two about skating with the stars.

At the very end of practice, Havelid picked up a blonde haired little kid from the stands and skated him out onto the ice and took over to say to the Zamboni driver. We were debating if this was his own child or not and then he gave him a kiss on the forehead, so I figure it was either his child or Havelid is planning to run for office soon in Georgia. (A cute moment but not as endearing as when little Kozlov came on the ice and Kovalchuk was playing hockey with him.)

GM Don Waddell spoke to a group up in the Breakaway Grill. After he was finished he came downstairs and headed toward the team offices, pausing to survey the crowd of mid-day camp watchers he cracked “Doesn’t anyone here have a job?”

I’d love to give you all my views of the preseason game on 9-20 but I am going to miss it because I’m seeing Sujfan Stevens play at the Fox that night.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Is Atlanta a Hockey Town?

In a recent article Terry Frei came up with a list of criteria for a good hockeytown, so I thought it would be interesting to see how Atlanta fared. (You can read the full article here:

"At least one radio sports talk show host in town can discuss who should play the point on the power play. "

Check. But just barely since I only count one guy in town who meets that criteria, John Kincaid. The sad thing for Atlanta hockey fans is that he is paired with a moron who usually tries to move the conversation back to college football.

"The NHL, whether for 80 years or eight, has spurred rink construction and participation in the sport, for players barely old enough to stay upright and for accountants dropping in at lunch. "

Has not happened so far. Since the Thrashers arrived the one new rink on the south side of town had to close. I hear that youth hockey enrollment is up but I haven’t seen any numbers about USA Hockey membership for the Atlanta area.

"The fan next to you who knows the life story of every player, can give you the rundown of the organizational prospects in the AHL and in college, and perhaps can excoriate the opposing winger in a voice that can peel paint, is just as likely to be female as male. Or maybe more likely."

Check. The woman next to me knows prospects, but her voice can’t peel paint.

"The hats are thrown on the ice before the puck is fished out of the net."

Check. Philips Arena has a display box which holds hats collected from the ice after a hat trick.

"Fans have come to understand the differences between Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And when a writer or broadcaster is stupid enough to call a Slovak a Czech, the e-mails pile up."

I think they mostly know the difference, but are unlikely to waste their time correcting the piss-poor media.

"Nobody boos when the whistle blows because the winger was about 12 feet offside."

Check. Of course, half the fans boo whenever somebody on our teams gets called for anything.

"Fans spot the too-many-men-on-the-ice infractions, even the non-obvious ones, and are pointing and yelling before the calls are made."

Check, but only from the upper decks. The club seat fans are too busy calling people on their cell phones during the action.

"No one is surprised when the anthem singer first breaks into "O Canada" before the game against Edmonton."

Check. The last time Edmonton was in town they should have just played the “lets get ready to rumble” guy because that game featured the famous/infamous Kovalchuk versus Mike Comrie battle that included hair pulling. (Another reason why the current schedule is a crock—Kovy and Comrie should get renew their acquaintances every single season.)

"Fans care not only because they're in fantasy leagues and/or otherwise gamble on the games."

Check. Not that many fantasy hockey players down here unfortunately.

"Kate Smith is best remembered for "God Bless America."

Other than a smattering of Atlanta Flames fans, I doubt anyone in Atlanta understands the Kate Smith reference.

"A bar with a current or former hockey player's name on the sign can be a popular hangout, rather than a one-way ticket to failure."

Check. T.J.’s, owned and operated by T.J. Ecclestone former Atlanta Flame. Tim has been extremely nice to use NHL fans who want to reserve his room for playoff games, the All Star game, etc.

"Shut-ins" who haven't been to a game for years, if ever, circle the games in red on the TV schedule, watch every darned one and come to feel as if they know the fourth-line winger because he's always willing to talk between periods with a towel around his neck."

Hard to know this, but the team has probably not been around long enough to have developed shut-ins.

"The goalie can't go to the mall … or if he does, he signs autographs before heading into the Sharper Edge."

No. Hossa said he likes going to the mall and no one recognizing him here. A couple of seasons ago I spotted an injured Pasi Nurminen on the concourse with his family and no one was talking to him (so I did).

"If a disc jockey says "Five for Fighting" or "Barenaked Ladies" is next up, hockey fans get excited, and not because two enforcers brawling or a soundtrack from the Folies Bergere is on tap. They're about to hear from some of their own."

Maybe. It helps that the new arena answer is also a DJ on a local radio station. He definitely gives some hockey shout outs. A few seasons ago the DJ, who stands about 6’5” on skates, fell on top of a young guy who is maybe 5’6”. You could just see one random body part sticking out from underneath him. (Picture the witch that gets crushed under the Dorothy’s house at the start of the Wizard of Oz.) The next day Steve gave him an on-air apology for burying him.

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