Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Taking a Step Back From Edge

Reading the various Thrasher message boards I see that a lot of fans are not just hitting the panic button right now, they've nearly broken it off with their frenzy. The team has played poorly and I am as frustrated as the next fan, but I'm not going crazy just yet. Why? Because I never thought that this team was the 2nd or 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference.

At the beginning of the year I thought that this club would have to fight all year, but that eventually they would make the playoffs. The team got off to a very hot start and many people mistook a hot Thrashers club for an elite Thrashers club. This team has 4-5 elite players (Hossa, Kozlov, Kovalchuk, Lehtonen, Havelid) who will put them into the playoffs. But this squad also has significant flaws at center and below average defensemen which prevent it from being a great team. The hard truth is that this is not an elite team. Elite teams play with more consistency and don't have a PK that is dead last in the league.

So what exactly is going on here? If we step back a bit the answer emerges: the schedule. This is a middle of the pack hockey club and our winning percentage is directly affected by the quality of our opposition. Way back at the beginning of the season I wrote a post titled "Making Hay While the Sun Shines" in which I noted that the first half of the season was very friendly to our Atlanta Thrashers. In particular October and December were two of the easiest months in our six month season (note: I lump the few April games into March). If you look at the percentage of Thrasher opponents who made the playoffs the year before, Oct. and Dec. were the easy months and Jan. and Feb. the hard ones.

Percentage of Thrasher Opponents who Made the Playoffs in 2005-06
Oct. 46%
Nov. 57%
Dec. 46%
Jan. 61%
Feb. 75%
Mar. 53%

Then I came up with another measure of strength of schedule in which I divided the Thrashers opposition into teams which finished in the top 1/3, middle 1/3 and bottom 1/3 of their conference. Again the same pattern is evident, we see that October and December are the easiest two months for Atlanta, while Jan. and Feb. were going to be much more challenging.

Strength of Schedule (smaller numbers = more difficult opponents)

Oct. 2.23
Nov. 2.00
Dec.. 2.31
Jan. 1.85
Feb. 1.66
Mar. 2.00

Before this team left on the current road trip I predicted that they would go 2-4 or 1-5 on this trip precisely because the quality of the opposition. All season long the Thrashers winning percentage has basically been the mirror image of their opposition's quality. If you don't believe me just take a look at the table below which includes both of my strength of schedule measures and Atlanta's points-per-game for that month.

Month Playoff % Opponent Quality Thrasher Point Percentage
Oct. 46% 2.23 1.46
Nov. 57% 2.00 1.21
Dec. 46% 2.31 1.23
Jan. 61% 1.85 1.08
Feb. 75% 1.66 0.43
Mar/Apr. 53% 2.00 ???

You don't need to be a math major to see that Thrashers did very well in Oct. and Dec. against weaker teams and have really struggled in Jan. and Feb. against better teams. Just how strongly are these things are related? Well I put these numbers in my handy STATA stats package and found that Thrashers points-per-game is correlated with the % of playoff teams at a the level of .933 which is an extraordinarily high level of correlation (strength of correlation can range from an absolute high of 1.000 to an absolute low of .000). To put this in layman's terms the stats reveal that the Thrashers monthly winning percentage is almost the exact opposite of their strength of schedule.

So what does this mean going forward? Well the bad news is that four out of five of their remaining Feb. games are against playoff teams from last year (OTT, CAR, TBL, CAR). Atlanta simply must beat some of these teams to salvage something from the month. The good news is that the team's March/April opponents are an average mix of good and bad teams. According to Jamie Mirtle's playoff math, if we assume that the final playoff team in the Eastern Conference needs 95 points the Thrashers need to go just 13-9 the rest of the way to get into the playoffs (Thank goodness for those five games versus Florida and Boston!).

So from my perspective I don't think this team is suffering from a collapse so much as it is a middle of the pack team that has been exposed. I still say this is a playoff team but they will have to fight for it that last month of the season.

PS: For those of you who like the penalties drawn data I hope to post an update in the next couple of days.

1 Comments:

  • "Do they have what? I don't understand a word you just said."

    Actually I do understand and agree with most of it. I have been one of the fans on various boards freaking out over the recent play. The cause of it, however, is not the threat of losing top spot in the SE. I agree, we are not an elite team, and my sights were never set on 1st place. My fear stems from the fact that we are in real danger of falling completely out of the playoff race. I have read posts from various fans who say "we are too far ahead, that won't happen." One glance at the standings will eliminate that argument. That's absurd. Especially when you look at the way we have played since the new year. I made the comment on another thread this morning that I don't mind losing to a good team if we show up and play hard, but when was the last time this team showed up and played hard, at least on a consistent basis? We have been TERRIBLE. There is no way to paint it in a better light. We all are well aware of some of the ugly stats - the GA, PK%, PP%, but it seems to me that all of these bad numbers stem from the same problem - a lack of hard work. We simply haven't shown up, night-in, night-out, shift-to-shift. Our less-than-stellar defensive corp has proven that they are capable of good play that, when all are healthy, Kari is solid and we are putting the puck in the net, is adequate enough to compete with anyone. I think this team, as it is today, IS good enough to go deep in the playoffs, but unless there is a serious and drastic turnaround starting right now, we will find our beloved Thrashers on the golf course come April 9. Forget 1st place in the division, just bring hockey to Atlanta in April and May (June would be great too).

    By Anonymous silverpork, at 3:11 PM  

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