Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Let's Make this a Title Town

I think that the short term goal of the team ought to be winning the division title outright. (Of course I want us to win the Cup, but we are still in the regular season.) In fact, I've thrown down the a challenge over at the Southeast Shootout. The bloggers for Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay have agreed that the whichever team wins the division, the other bloggers have to write a post lavishing praise on the winner. This will be a bitter pill to swallow here at Thrashers Talons--so get to it guys!

As of today each of these teams have exactly the same number of games played (so no games in hand to worry about) Tampa has a two point lead by face a tough western road trip. Carolina is three point behind Atlanta, but they have experience and veteran leadership. To be honest, Carolina worries me more.

Besides sparing me from having say nice things about Carolina or Tampa, winning the division would have several important benefits in my view.

1) The Division winner gets the #3 seed within the conference. In theory the higher the seed the weaker the opponent you play in the first round. As competitive as the East is this you I'm not so sure how "weak" the #6 seed will be. At a minimum, a higher seed means that the Thrashers would get to avoid the #1 seed until the Eastern Conference finals and avoid the #2 seed until the second round.

2) But having a higher seed makes it likely that Atlanta will have more home playoff games. Those home dates will bring in more revenue and hopefully allow the team to spend some money in the off season.

3) The Division winner will have some bragging rights within Atlanta. This is a moment of opportunity for hockey. The Braves run ended this summer, the Falcons fell short and the Hawks don't look like they will make the post-season either. The Thrashers fans could lay claim to actually winning something and perhaps attract some attention and new fans with a bit of divisional hardware. Plus, it would mean that we will have at least one banner to raise on opening night next fall.

So what is the road ahead like?

Let's take a look at the schedule each team faces. I've divided each conference into thirds. There are 5 above average teams, 5 middle teams, and 5 below average teams. This is not perfect but it gives a rough sense of what each team faces in the coming weeks.

Atlanta Schedule
Good: BUF, OTT, TBL, PIT, SJS = 5
Average: MON, CAR (2), TOR =4
Bad: NYR, BOS, FLA (3), WAS (2), PHI = 8

Carolina Schedule
Good: NJD (2) , OTT, TBL (2), PIT SJS = 7
Average: ATL (2), TOR = 3
Bad: NYR, FLA (3), WAS (2), PHI = 7

Tampa Schedule
Good: BUF, NJ, OTT = 3
Average: ATL, NYI, TOR, CAR (2), VAN, CAL, EDM = 8
Bad: FLA (3), WAS (3) = 6

So if we compare Atlanta has the fewest remaining games against teams in the top 1/3 of their conference. Atlanta also has the most home games (although that has been a mixed blessing so far this season). Atlanta has the most games against teams in the bottom third of their conference. Tampa faces the fewest good teams, but the most middle tier teams. I'd say the schedule gives a slight edge to Atlanta.

There are not that many remaining head-to-head games left between ATL-CAR-TBL, but each team gets to play FLA three times and WAS at least twice. If one team sweeps five games against the bottom of the division that might just put them over the top.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fan Alert: New Players Not at Practice Wed.

Tkachuk and Zhitnik will not be at practice--I assume they are excused to get apartments etc. Thrashers media say Dupuis will be there for the media, but I don't know if he will be on the ice or not.

Thrashers Acquire Dupuis

Sorry readers but I don't have much more to say at the moment. Even the Falconer has to work sometimes.

edit: Back from work. I have to say I'm really underwhelmed by this last move.
1) I don't really see Dupuis as much of an impact player. If he takes Sim's place on the K-K line is that much of an improvement? I'll wait and see, but I don't have great expectations here.
2) It seems like we might have gotten more for a recent 1st round pick than that.
3) Do they keep track of which scouts advocate which players? Because I looks like it might be time to hand out a few pink slips to me. There should be accountability on the ice and off the ice.

Boston Game in Review

It was pretty obvious that the trades gave this team "great jump" as Curt Fraser used to say. The guys were excited and it was obvious that there is more talent on this team now. Perhaps some of the guys were a little too excited actually, I think Exelby was trying to do too much in the 1st period but seemed to settle down as the game went along.

The Thrashers defense pinched more in the offensive zone that they have all season and put great pressure on BOS at times. I remember three different defensemen skating all the way into the BOS corner at some point in the game.

The Tkachuk-Kovalchuk duo didn't quite click but you could see that they are not that far off. After the game Tkachuk said that Ilya needs to just shoot and he will drive the crease for the rebounds--music to my ears! He needs to tell Ilya it is crucial that he actually hit the net/goaltender and not shoot wide and clear the zone.

I thought Zhitnik looked solid, but Kari Lehtonen waxed enthusiastic in the AJC about how great his positioning was and what a difference he made. Kari was probably going wild just knowing that Sutton wouldn't be screening him 7-8 times a game when he is trying to make a save.

Havelid still looks like a guy struggling to regain his past form, but playing with Zhitnik should help. I also thought Kari looked average, he had one terrific save but otherwise I didn't think his body language exuded confidence.

The special teams were special. Perfect on the PK and BOS barely got a sniff around the net. Thrashers got 2 PP goalsPublish which is a welcome change. I like seeing two defensemen on the blueline. It was time to give the opposition a different look on the PP.

The top line with Belanger-Hossa and Kozlov had numerous scoring chances and they seem to be really clicking now after a few games together.

Bottom line: Huge win to break the losing streak and get the guys some confidence. If the team lost that game they would have had 4 more days to stew over it, but now they head to practice with a bounce in their step and the expectation that better days are ahead. Confidence is so important in hockey. When you have it, you just react on the ice instead of pausing to think about what to do out there. Now they get a couple of days to get to know each other on the ice.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Live Blogging: Atlanta versus Boston

This is the most jazzed I've been about a regular season game since perhaps the Ottawa game where Hossa and Heatley faced their old teams. I know that not all of you get Versus games so I'll summarize the key plays as the game goes along.

The two new guys start. Zhitnik begins with Exelby. Tkachuk misses a pass.

1-0 Boston. Holik lost the faceoff cleanly. Leads to a point shot and rebound goes into the slot. Donovan eludes Exelby gets to the puck, backs up into the slot and fires it past Lehtonen.

Exelby jumps up on offense, Boston transitions well putting pressure on de Vries and Boulton who takes a penalty trying to come back into Exelby's spot on the blueline. Good PK, Larsen uses a hand pass to get a clear. Boston not allowed to set up at all on the PP. Vigier with a clear too.

Havelid clear nearly picked off inside the defensive zone.

Exelby pinches again to dish out a hit. Maybe he's just really jacked up and playing with a lot of emotion. I worry about him getting caught out of positon.

Off line pass ruins rush by Kovalchuk. Zhitnik makes a great defensive block to stop 2-on-1 after Havelid caught pinching up.

Big hit by Tkachuk, some confusion on the breakout. You can tell they haven't had much practice time together. Point blank SOG by Boston save Kari.

Great pressure by the Hossa line leads to a decent SOG by Tkachuk who came on for Belanger.
Tkachuk wins face off cleanly, De Vries hit the post.
Exelby with another bad turnover. Rough 1st period for the X-man, he needs to settle down.

X and de Vries pinch to create pressure, BOS takes a penalty, Atlanta PP coming up...
Tkachuk carries into corner and makes a sweet feed to the slot that is just tipped away.
Goal!!! 1-1 Point shot by Havelid deflects and goes into the net.

2-1 Boston. 3-0n-3 play, Kovalchuk's man shots and Havelid blocks it. The puck goes to the top of the circle but Ilya doesn't stay with him. He's high along the boards and shoots--goal. It may have been defected in front, hard to tell on the replay.
End of 1st.

2-2 Atlanta PP Goal. de Vries in the corner centers the puck to Belanger with Mellanby screening in front. (not really sure why de Vries went in so deep, all the D seem to be pinching much more aggressively this game. Is that emotion or a coaching strategy?)

Terrific pressure by Hossa line. Exelby pinched on his side, this de Vries on the other, de Vries centered to Hossa who had all day to shoot. He tried to backhand side but didn't convert.

Exelby may have just saved a goal by pushing a puck sliding toward the line back into Lehtonen's pads.

Kari just robbed Axelsson on a point blank chance. Holik misread the play leaving Axelsson wide open.

Kovy tried to skate away from Marc Savard but he matched him stride for stride.
Sim drove low and centered but no one was home in the slot.
PP: Great pressure but Mellanby fails to covert too good opportunities.

Savard clears over the ice with 2 seconds left. ATL will start 3rd on the PP.
End of 2nd.
PP never really gets going. Larsen takes a marginal call, PP for Boston. Solid PK, Hossa and Kozlov very close to getting a prime scoring chance.

Boston's Ference hits the post. Sim with a hit.

3-2 Atlanta. Belanger drops the chalupa to Hossa and then screens the goalie. Hossa fires and I'm not sure if Thomas ever saw it until it was behind him.

Tkachuk drop pass to Kovalchuk, but he waits too long and his shot is blocked.

Kovalchuk with a great SOG but Holik goalie interference, so BOS PP.
Our PK looks sooooo much better in this game. Kari still looks shaky to me.

Mara shoots it over the glass PP ATL. (See, this happens to other teams too!) Kovalchuk drives right down the slot. ATL on the PP for almost all of the remaining time in regulation.

The Thrashers failed to clear several times in the final 30 seconds but it didn't hurt and they escape with 3-2 win. Woohoo! Right behind.

Good night everyone. I should have a breakdown of the Tkachuk trade up Tuesday.

Did Don Waddell Give Away the Farm?

In the two big trades this weekend the Atlanta Thrashers dealt away Glen Metropolit, a top prospect and former 1st round pick (Coburn) and a 1st and 3rd in 2007 and a 2008 2nd rounder. (Also there is a conditional 1st rounder if Tkachuk is resigned--which means that he will not be resigned.)

Was this giving away the future for today? With respect to the 2007 draft picks I feel very confident in saying "no" to that question. The 2007 Draft is fairly weak. This late in the year there is still little agreement as who should be taken in which order at the top of the draft. If 2007 ends up looking like the 1999 draft those picks are nearly worthless.

Let's look back at 1999. Nearly 300 players were selected by NHL teams. Out of all of those players I only count 5 1st line forwards (Havlat, Zetterberg, D. Sedin, H. Sedin, Tim Connolly) and 4 2nd line guys (Martin Erat, Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Mike Comrie). There were 12 third line forwards (Chris Kelly, Zigomanis, M. Tjarnqvist, Hagman, Pyattt, Adam Hall, Saprykin, K. Koltsov, Radivojevic, Lundmark, Stefan, Beech) for a total of 22 useful forwards. (Note: I don't care about 4th line guys, you can find them on waivers or via free agency so they are fungible talent.) On the defensive side of things I see one star goalie (R. Miller) and 1 first pair defenseman (Nic Havelid) and 6 2nd pair defensemen (B. Jackman, Commodore, Martinek, Leopold, F. Kaberle, Exelby).

So out of nearly 300 players taken in 1999, that weak draft year only produced 9 top 6 forwards, 1 starting goalie and 7 top four defensemen. That's a total of 17 impact players, which is less than one per NHL team! In a weak year like 1999 you could save all of your picks and still have 1/3 chance of ending up with zero impact NHL players. This is why I am untroubled about losing the 2007 picks. It is very likely none of those picks would have resulted in impact NHL players even if we had kept them all. The 2008 2nd rounder could be worth more if that draft year is stronger.

The other critical question is how valuable was Braydon Coburn. If he becomes a top pairing guy this trade hurt a lot. Personally I think he is more likely to become a solid defensemen, but one without any offense or hitting. If I'm right than he is not a defensive cornerstone.

The final thing to consider is that Coburn is the only prospect that was dealt despite requests from other teams. We still have talent that will help the NHL club in the near future in Sterling, Valabik, Little and Pavalec. The team is still loaded with young defense who show promise.

So my view is that while these trades were costly, they did not wipe out the team's prospects nor ruin the future.

Atlanta Thrashers: News Makers

With two big name trades in two days the Thrashers are receiving a fair amount of attention with the world of NHL media. Here are some stories I've come across that you might want to read. If anone knows of a story/blog I missed feel free to leave it in the comments. These are things I've come across myself.

The Blueland Blog has a lengthy write up at
Craig Custance at
Eric Duhatschek of the Toronto Globe and Mail
Scott Burnside at
Pierre Lebrun of Canadian Press
Allan Muir of
Mike Zeisberger of Slam Sports
Wes Goldstein of CBS
Associated Press

Apparently I'm not the only one who wants to swap the "k" for a "h" in "Tkachuk". Just for fun do a Google search on "Thachuk Thrashers Trade" and see how many news organizations have his name wrong in their stories.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saturday and Sunday the Atlanta Thrashers added two NHL veterans to their team as the team battles to make and the playoffs and possibly win the Southeast Division. In this post a take a look at the Zhitnik trade.

Zhitnik for Coburn

Pros: Zhitnik has played tough minutes against in multiple situations for playoff caliber teams in the past. He has good speed and a good shot. He has experience playing on the power play for good teams. He likes to hit people.

Zhitnik has been one of the top defensemen on his team over the last several years. If we look at total ice time per game he was the #1 defensemen on his squad until this year. His total minutes have been in a modest decline. The decline is mostly even strength minutes (which are the most easy to replace), he still receives a good deal of high-leverage special teams ice time. Even with his decline in total minutes from 26 a game to 23 a game he still ranks 32nd overall in the NHL this season.

Season Average TOI Rank Among Team Defensemen Rank Among NHL Defensemen
2006-07 23:35 2nd/3rd 32
2005-06 24:30 1st 17
2003-04 25:01 1st 11
2002-03 26:32 1st 6

Note: 06-07 Team Rank is NYI/PHI

If we look at his PP minutes we see that again he has been either the #1 guy or the #2 PP guy on his team over the last several years. In Philadelphia he as behind the very talented Pitkanen and in Tom Poti was the #1 guy for the Islanders. In Atlanta he will clearly be on the top unit and see plenty of PP minutes.

One nice advantage of acquiring Zhitnik over a more one-dimensional player like Sopel is that he can also help kill penalties. In recent days, GM DW has added Belanger and Zhitnik as potential PK unit members. Prior to this current season Zhitnik was the top PK defensemen on his own team and he among all NHL defensmen he was in the top 35. His PK minutes with Islanders were still significant, but in Philadelphia the team has used Rathje, Hatcher and Pitkanen more than Zhitnik.

Season Average SH TOI Rank Among Team Defensemen Rank Among NHL Defensemen
2006-07 3:37 2nd/4th 60
2005-06 4:22 1st 34
2003-04 3:33 1st 24
2002-03 3:49 1st 31

Note: 06-07 Team Rank is NYI/PHI

The ice time data indicates to me that Zhitnik has earned the trust of coaches in previous years and previous teams. He may not be able to play 26 minutes a game anymore but he should still bring something to the table. From the glass-is-half-perspective it is pretty clear that he has not been riden as hard this season as in previous years. Hopefully, that means he has a full tank. He is supposed to be in very good physical condition.

From the glass-is-half-empty perspective the team probably could have acquired him for less months ago or signed him as free agent after the lockout (instead of Holik perhaps). The ice time data indicates that Zhitnik at 34 is not quite the horse he was at 30. At 34 Zhitnik is certainly in the decline phase of his career, as long as the decline remains modest he will still be worth his salary at the end of this contract ($3.5).

The Thrashers gave up a significant prospect in Coburn. Opinions about Coburn vary quite a bit. Personally, I thought Coburn looked unimpressive at NHL camp. In NHL preseason and in the AHL I though that Coburn's decision making left a lot to be desired. During his NHL stint this season he looked better to me. Even the improved Coburn didn't show me much offensive flair. The loss of Coburn is somewhat ameliorated be the fact that the team is so stacked with defensive prospects that they will be hard pressed to all get ice time in Chicago next year. Two Europeans may sign and come over and Grant Lewis will turn pro.

Big Picture

The reconstruction of the Atlanta defense corps has begun. I’ve stated repeatedly that the Thrashers have a below average collection of defensemen. Year after year this team ranks low in shots on goal against. If this franchise is going to win a Stanley Cup they absolutely must upgrade the blueline. One of the structural problems for the Thrashers is that they have so much of their salary tied up in forwards. To a certain extent you get what you pay for in a salary cap world—and the Thrashers have been spending their money on offense and the defense lacks quality and depth as a result.

Zhitnik will replace some of our more ineffective defensemen and perhaps make the ones that we retain more effective. Last year Havelid was extremely effective but he looks tired from all the minute he has received this season. I am hopeful that Zhitnik's arrival will lead to fewer minutes and therefore a more effective Havelid. This summer Sutton and de Vries will be unrestricted free agents. Much of their current salary ($4.6 million) will be used to pay Zhitnik’s salary ($3.5 million), and provide modest pay increases for restricted free agents Exelby and McCarthy. For roughly the same amount of money that the Thrashers are spending right now they could go from a defense that where Sutton and de Vries play large roles to a defense where Zhitnik and Popovic replace them on the roster. In my opinion this is a significantly better defense in terms of preventing scoring chances.

The Consequences

There may not be enough money to retain Slava Kozlov after this trade unless the ownership situation is settled and the winner is willing to spend (i.e. lose) more money by increasing payroll for the 2006-07 season. Zhitnik and Kozlov are friends from way back and he might have a desire to stay in Atlanta, but it might require him to give the Thrashers a home team discount for him to stay.

Tkachuk Trade

The Atlanta Thrashers have traded for Keith Tkachuk in exchange for Glen Metropolit, Atlanta's 2007 1st round pick, 3rd round pick, a 2nd rounder in 2008. There is also a conditional pick based upon whether Tkachuk resigns in Atlanta or not, but I don't know which pick is the conditional one at this point.

Two Deals are Better than One.

Well the trade price has come down a bit. Last night the team made one deal for Zhitnik (which I will break down in another post) and another deal is extremely likely to happen very soon. If I were a Thrasher fan I would keep one eye on hockey news outlets on Sunday.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Is the Defense Better or Worse than Last Season?

There was some talk over on the blog about our defensemen. I certainly was one of those people who figured the team's defense would be better after Modry was replaced by Vishnevsky and McCarthy. But let's take a quick look to see if that is supported by the numbers.

First, how is ATL doing at preventing goals? This season ATL ranks just 23rd in GAA, but the previous season we were 24th, so there is essentially no change in our ranking. (I look at the rankings because it is an easy way to control for the fact that league offense varies from year to year. Ranking allow us to see how ATL stacks up to the competition in each category.)

What is going on with the goaltending and defense?

If we look at shots on goal against (SOGA) it gives us an indication of how well the skaters (especially the defense) are doing in terms of either preventing shots or blocking them. Last year ATL ranked 18th out of 30 teams and this season they rank just 23rd out of 30 teams so there has been a decline relative to the rest of the NHL in terms of allowing shots against.

On the other hand if we look at team's goaltenders we see that the team save percentage (SV%) has jumped up from 24th last season to 17th this season. So there has been an improvement in keeping those SOG out of the net.

Summary: The goaltending has improved over last season (how could it not) but all of the gains in netminding have been lost by a decline in shot prevention by the skaters. The net effect is a wash and the team is still among the worst in the NHL in terms of team defense.

This confirms my impression that the talent level on this club is such that while I consider ATL a playoff team, they are not a Stanley Cup contender baring divine intervention. The defensemen are simply below average and I can't imagine them making it through multiple rounds of the playoffs without making critical mental errors that will cost the team games.

Friday, February 23, 2007

"The Price is Wrong--Bob!"

I know that a lot of people are airing their frustrations over on the Atlanta Thrashers message boards about the fact that the Thrashers has not landed a big name player so far in trade talks. My guess is that Atlanta GM Don Waddell wanted to make a move prior to the big intra-divisional games.

But let's read between the lines shall we? All 30 GMs were together in Tampa Florida this last week. There are roughly 10 teams selling players and roughly 20 teams looking to add players. And how many trades did we see after they spend a couple days in non-stop trade chatter? Zero. That tells me that DW isn't the only GM out there who thinks the prices are way too high.

Recently it was reported over on that STL was asking for two 1st rounders for Guerin or Tkachuk. That's an absolutely huge price to pay for a rental player. Right now the sellers and the buyers are involved in a very large game of chicken to see who will blink first. Will prices finally come down in the final 48 hours or will some GM meet the asking price for a big name player.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Southeast Shootout

Folks I posted a little victory dance over at the Southeast Shootout after the big win over Carolina last night. You really should click over just to see the Moose graphic. If you have never visited SESO, this is your week as the team plays three key divisional games and ther is much opportunity for good natured smack talking abounds, so head over there and flap your wings.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


A very welcome win versus the HurriWhalers. Despite the carping about low shot totals in the first I like what I saw out of the Thrashers from the get-go. I saw Ilya trying to cut into the slot area instead of taking the perimeter route the defense was giving him. I didn't work in the 1st period but his aggressiveness was key on the game winner in the 3rd.

I also really liked all the speed on the Kovalchuk-Slater-Metropolit line. They were absolutely blazing. Our team really looked fast against Carolina which surprised me. If they skate like that the last 20 games they will be just fine.

For all of you fans who complain about the team never catching any breaks, go back and watch this game. Hedberg had a rebound just slip wide of the net and Hossa caught a friendly bounce to tie the game at 1-1. I'm not saying the Thrashers were lucky--far from it--but they did get some favorable pucks.

Hedberg looked really strong for someone who rarely sees game action. Boulton buried the third goal like he was a top goal scorer.

Black Hole Problems Strike!

By the way the team website and boards have been down most of the day. I heard that all the negativity on the official boards finally collapsed in on itself creating a black hole in the internet and destroying the rest of the team site.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Playing the Expectations Game

Yesterday in his blog Craig Custance the AJC beat reporter relayed this quote from head coach Bob Hartley regarding the Thrashers current situation.

Before the game, Hartley tried to keep the recent slide in perspective: “If someone would have come to me on day one of training camp, and said ‘Stop everything. Were taking you to 22 games left, [first place is] where we slot you, do you accept this? Deal or no deal?’ I would POW - Deal. You know? Not that I wouldn’t want to go open another suitcase, but I would have taken this deal. That’s where we’re at today.

Technically Coach Hartley is correct, but he is correct in an overly clever way that reminds me of an untrustworthy used car salesman trying to sell me a Yugo by telling me "you said you wanted a car that runs didn't you?" Well--yes--but....

I also can't help but think of former President Bill Clinton saying "it depends on what the meaning of the word is is" because this team is in first place depending upon what the meaning of "first place" is. First, of all the Thrashers are only tied for 1st in points. The other club (Tampa) has a game in hand, so using points-per-game we are already in 2nd place. The team is also just three points away from being out of the playoffs. The amount of verbal slight-of-hand in Coach Hartley's statement would do a criminal defense attorney proud.

Now for the grain of truth in Hartley's comment. Everyone is in an uproar because expectations where raised when this team sat in 2nd place in the East for much of the first half. As I noted in my previous post about the schedule, the Thrashers took advantage of a soft first half schedule and now they are getting their butts kicked by a much tougher Jan-Feb schedule.

So what should we as fans expect from our 2006-07 Thrashers? To get to the answer I'm going to first look at the team from the previous season and lay out my case for what I think we ought to expect from this team.

How Good Was Last Season's Team?

Last season the Thrashers scored 281 goals and gave up 275 (+6 goal differential) and finished with 90 points--and in a tie for 9th place. As we all know that team was hurt by goaltending in the first half, so I went and looked at their stats for the last 41 games. My thinking is that since Kari played almost all of the final 41 games so that would give us a better measure for what the 2005-06 squad was capable of doing when they were healthy.

If you project the final 41 games of the 2005-06 Thrashers to a full season you get a club that would have outscored the opposition 272-260 (+12) and finished up with 94 points putting them in 7th place just ahead of Tampa and Montreal. I'm actually surprised that the numbers were not stronger than this, but as I look back I realize I had forgotten just how ice cold they were back in January of 2006. They through a 6 game stretch where they didn't score more than 2 goals a game.

How Good is This Year's Team?

OK so if the 2005-06 team was a 7th place team--when the talent was healthy--what should we expect from the 2006-07 squad? Well what changed? Up front the team did a major swap of centers seeing Savard, Stefan and Aubin depart and Metropolit, Rucchin and Kapanen arrive. At wing the team lost Bondra and gained Sim. On defense Vishnevsky replaced Modry.

Even casual fans knew that losing Bondra and Savard would hurt the offense. Last year the four departed forwards produced 184 points combined and right now the four players replacing them are on pace to produce just 124. To put that very simply the Thrashers replaced a center who scored 97 points (Savard) with a player who will score 37. In effect there was no effective replacement for Savard. If you want to put Savard's loss in goal terms simply divide the 60 lost points by 2.7 (the average number of points produced by each NHL goal) and you see that his missing point production translates into roughly 22 fewer goals scored by the Thrashers. Ouch!

So if the loss of Savard resulted in a significant blow to the team's offense what about the defense. Certainly having Kari Lehtonen and Hedberg in net for a full year should help to lower the Thrashers goals against average significantly. What should we reasonably expect? Without Kari in net during the first half, the Thrashers were on pace to give up 290 goals against over a full 82 schedule. In the 2nd half when Kari was starting most of the games, the Thrashers were on pace to give up just 260 goals against over a full season. So I think a reasonable expectation is that the Thrashers would look a lot more like that 2nd half number than the first half number.

OK let's summarize what we have learned. The 2005-06 team scored 281 goals but the loss of Savard would reduce offense by roughly 22 goals, so I would expect the 2006-07 team to score 259 over a full season. On defense I would expect that the Thrashers would have competent goaltending all year and that they would allow goals at the same rate they did during the 2nd half of the 2005-06 or roughly 260 over a full season.

So what is a reasonable expectation for this 2006-07 team?
259 Goals For
260 Goals Against

What are the 2006-07 Atlanta Thrashers on pace for at the moment?
252 Goals For
263 Goal Against

So they are under performing a bit on both offense and defense (hello special teams!) but otherwise they are very close to producing what I think they should produce based on their talent level. This is a club that should have to scrap and claw their way into the playoffs and that is exactly where they are at the moment.

When the season started I thought this team could finish as high as 6-7-8 in the East if the stars stayed healthy. Anything higher than that would require Lehtonen to start playing like Ryan Miller and that hasn't happened yet. If injuries struck key players this team would miss the playoffs. This team has been VERY healthy at key positions and right now they look a lot like the 6-7-8 team I expected.

What Hasn't Lived up to Expectations?

OK, I've made my case that we got carried away with the Thrashers hot start and we need to be realistic about how much talent is on our squad. But let's come back to the Hartley expectation question. Yes, the team sits about where I expected them to sit in the standings, but there have been some key failures on the special teams.

I don't expect a power play featuring three star players (Kozlov, Kovalchuk and Hossa) to rank 22nd in the NHL. The failure of the power play reflects an inability of the coaching staff to correctly identify who should be on the ice. The coaching staff has continued to display a near total lack of imagination in terms of trying new things after the rest of the NHL has figured them out. I'm not in the locker room and I don't hear what it is said, but from my outsider perspective it sure looks to me like this power play unit is being to told to "work harder" rather than try something different. How many times does the power play have to fail before it becomes clear that changes must be made?

The penalty killing is even worse ranking dead last in the NHL. You don't have to be uber-talented to kill penalties. Lehtonen's PK SV% is below average so that hasn't helped. It absolutely kills me that this team is paying Bobby Holik $4.25 million a year as a defensive specialist and team leader and yet our PK is dead last in the league. Something tells me that a $450,000 checking center could have produced the same results as Holik and left us some cash for a real Center or offensive defenseman, but that's another post.

Sorry to be so long winded today but I wanted to lay out my entire case in one post rather than break it up over several days. Please note that the 2006-07 numbers for both individuals and teams have been adjusted upwards by 3% to make them comparable to the 2005-06 season. (So far in the East scoring is down 3% over last year, it is down even more in the West but we play 72 of our 82 games versus the East so the change in the West doesn't matter that much for our purposes here.)

Fearless predictions: Thrashers outplayed Ottawa (except in goal) and I think they will take 2 of the next three to right the ship. I also expect them to make the playoffs in the 7th or 8th slot.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ottawa Game

Right now (post-Ottawa loss) I'm very ticked off. Watching the Nashville-Minnesota game I hear their broadcasters joke about renaming the street after David Poile for bringing them Peter Forsberg. This is making me feel ill. My 2006 Stanley Cup playoff tickets sit on my shelf mocking me. I'm really tired of hearing excuses from this franchise "It's not our fault that ___ happened". At some point it is your fault. Sports is a bottom line business and this organization is not getting it done from top to bottom.

But you can read a million threads on the various boards to the same effect. So rather than just vent like everyone else, I'm going to go see The Selmanaires tonight at Star Bar. Hopefully, after I calm down a bit I'll have something insightful to write.

Edit: The show was a good tonic for my post-loss blues. The Selmanairs were great as always and the opener Moresight was a welcome surprise. I enjoyed their set and look forward to hearing them again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

January Penalties Drawn

Here are the January penalties drawn that I promised to post. Holik was your leader with a strong 18 minutes and he has now taken the team lead ahead of Slater by just one minute. Vigier had a fantastic month drawing 12 minutes in limited ice time (and with limited footspeed I might add). After a great December Kovalchuk wnt back to drawing almost no power play minutes despite being one of the fastest players on the club.

Forward PP Minutes Drawn (Jan) PP Minutes Drawn (Season)
Holik 18 54
Slater 8 53
Hossa 8 52
Sim 4 48
Kozlov 10 47
Kovalchuk 8 38
Vigier 12 34
Metropolit 6 26
Rucchin 8 26
Larsen 2 20
Kapanen 0 16
Mellanby 0 14
Boulton 2 10
Krog 0 4

And you defensemen.

Defense PP Minutes Drawn (Jan) PP Minutes Drawn (Season)
de Vries 4 22
Hnidy 2 20
Havelid 4 20
Vishnevski 0 14
Exelby 2 10
Sutton 0 8
McCarthy 0 4
Popovic 0 2

While Holik leads the team in drawing penalties, he also takes a bunch and as you can see below he is only slightly positive on the season. Kozlov and Hossa are your leaders. Virtually tied headning into Feb.
Forwards PIM Drawn PIM Taken Net Difference
Kozlov 47 18 +29
Hossa 52 24 +28
Sim 48 30 +18
Vigier 34 20 +14
Rucchin 26 14 +12
Slater 53 44 +9
Metropolit 26 18 +8
Holik 54 48 +6
Larsen 20 26 +6
Boulton 10 8 +2
Krog 4 6 -2
Kapanen 16 22 -6
Kovalchuk 38 44 -6
Mellanby 14 26 -12

Not a whole lot of difference between the defensemen. I'm surprised Havelid isn't more minus considering the massive amount of minutes he plays.

Defense PIM Drawn PIM Taken Net Difference
Coburn 2 16 -14
Vishnevski 14 28 -14
de Vries 22 38 -16
Havelid 20 38 -18
Hnidy 20 40 -20
McCarthy 4 24 -20
Exelby 10 34 -24
Sutton 8 37 -29

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.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Declining Ticket Revenues in Atlanta?

A reporter for the Canadian National Post has been able to get his hands on the gate revenue data for all NHL teams as of New Year's Day. According to this story Atlanta is one of the eight US NHL teams where gate revenues were down in the first half of the season.

What is noteworthy about this story is that across the league (and in Atlanta) ticket prices were raised an average of 6% and yet receipts rose just 5%. How could revenues lag behind, even when ticket prices went up? That suggests that a significant number of tickets are being sold at a discount of even being given away. The published attendance figures for the NHL amount to "tickets distributed" not "tickets sold" or even "fans in the building". Right here in Atlanta there are numerous ways to obtain discounted deals or even free seats for Thrasher games. I myself took advantage of the Toys-for-Tots promotion to get free tickets (which I gave to people who had never attended a NHL game before).

The article had the following quote "The Maple Leafs still have the priciest ticket in hockey at $80.31 and bring in the most gate receipts per game at just over $1.5-million per game. By the New Year, the Leafs had rung in nearly $31.8-million in gate receipts, roughly equal to the combined total of Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and Carolina."

If this is true it would suggest that the Thrashers bring in less than $20 million per season in gate revenue which is hardly the way to sustain a payroll of $35 million. I would be very interested to hear Thrashers club officials respond to this story and specifically the accuracy of this quote. Right now I'm taking with a grain of salt given the chest beating tendencies on the part of the Canadian Press ("It's OUR game and those Americans are ruining it...etc").

If the statement is true it would mean that the Thrashers are probably continuing to lose money. If the club cannot generate revenues to cover expenses when right now, what will happen when the salary cap rises to around $44 million next year? Even if the NHL cap rises next season, the Thrashers may find it necessary to operate with an internal budget cap that is significantly lower than the NHL ceiling .

Already we have seen that the club is going to raise ticket prices. We also have seen our GM let good players walk away rather than overpay for their services in the past (Brunette, Savard). The current ownership group might be willing to sustain yearly losses for a while, but at some point they are businessmen and they will want to see the team break even.

Stomach Turning

No, not a referece to the Thrashers-Oilers game (althougth that was not a pretty sight) but rather what I was doing all night after eating some bad seafood. While lying on the couch trying to ignore the rumblings in my midsection I decided this was not the time to watch the 4-1 loss to the Oilers (I didnt' watch it live because I had a game myself). Instead I pulled out my Red Wings boxed set of DVDs and watched the highlights of the 1997 and 1998 Detroit championship teams. (Yes, there was another hockey love prior to the Thrashers!)

Anyway, what does this have to do with today? Well for one thing I was reminded again just how many crucial playoff goals our own Slava Kozlov scored during those two playoff seasons. Those Detroit squads were absolutely loaded with offensive talent but in the 1997 playoffs he finish with 8 goals tied for 2nd on the team with Sergei Fedorov and just one behind team leader Brendan Shanahan. In 1998 Kozlov finished the playoffs thrid on the team in a three way tie with Yzerman and Lidstrom among Detroit goal scorers. Slava was among some elite company those two springs. Let's hope he still has some huge momentum shifting tallies left in that body of his this April.

I also noticed that Kozlov seemed to shoot a bit more at that point in his career and pass a bit less. I'd like to see him be a bit more selfish in terms of shooting for the Thrashers--especially on the power play. But then again when your center is Igor Larionov it makes sense to be the shooter. I have to say that despite my physical discomfort watching those highlights really got me jazzed about watching playoff hockey in Atlanta. That near miss last spring was just a taste of the energy and excitement that is the chase for the Stanley Cup.

Another observation I made is that approximately half of the highlight reel hits would be penalties in today's NHL. There is simply a ton of late hits and general after-the-whistle nastiness that isn't allowed. You see guys like Konstantinov, Aaron Ward, Martin Lapoite and Shanahan deliver some huge hits in these games. I was thinking about the current Thrashers lineup and we do have players like Exelby and Holik who can bring that to the table. But one problem is that new non-obstruction rules make a big hit more costly if you miss. Now we see guys being told to tone it down so they don't take themselves out of the play and give up a scoring chance against. While I am a big fan on the free flowing game of today, the decline of the big hit is truely a loss for fans.

Yet another thing is just how many playoff goals are scored off of broken plays. Yes, there were plenty of highlight reel tic-tac-toe passing plays, but there were also a large number of situations where guys simply put the puck on net and crashed the crease for rebound chances. This is something that Atlanta simply must improve on if they want to advance very far in the playoffs. We need more chaos around the net where the team can catch the other team's goalie out of position.

Lastly, I couldn't help but reflect on the lost career of Vladimir Konstantinov. The guy was simply a monster defensive defensemen his last year with Detroit (1996-97). I recall reading that he didn't even know what team they were playing on certain nights, he just wanted to go out there and bang bodies. He also had a nice passing touch that was important on that puck-possession team. The NHL really should add another trophy for the Best Defensive Defensemen (we already have the Selke for the best defensive forward) and perhaps they ought to name after Konstantinov in memory of this great player cut down far too early in his career.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Reason #582 Why I am not a Sutton Fan

I watched the ATL-VAN game at Twain's Saturday night with some friends-of-the-blogger. Needless to say I had a good time and missed some of the action so I sit down with handy DVR.

Low and behold what do I see on the replay of the 1st goal against. The Canuks do a hard dump into the right side of the Thrashers defensive zone. The puck rims around behind the net and up the left side boards. And lo and behold there is Sutton coasting towards the puck, I back it up and watch again and he never takes a stride. The puck goes past a coasting Sutton to Trevor Linden. Sutton doesn't put his stick out and try and prevent a pass. Linden makes a short dish to the Morrison who snaps it high for a goal.

Let's review:
1. Sutton didn't hustle to get a to a loose puck.
2. Sutton didn't cover Linden.
3. Sutton didn't take Morrison.
Sutton basically did nothing and the Canuks scored.

I almost laughed out loud hearing Darren Eliot remark about "how open the ice was" for the Canuks without mentioning Sutton's coverage erros since Eliot has defended Andy's play so many times on the post-game show.

Who is the Best Penalty Killer on the Thrashers?

The Atlanta penalty kill unit has been a major source of problems for the team so far this season. Through the Colorado game the Thrashers had allowed 63 power play goals against. The teams PK % is 78% which is dead last in the league, the Thrashers have PP goals against is also dead last in the NHL. There is no way to put a happy face on those numbers, our PK unit is really holding the team back this season. Yesterday GM Don Waddell sought to upgrade that unit by adding Eric Belanger.

So if our PK unit is a big problem, could the Thrashers improve their percentage by taking a hard look at how is effective and who is ineffective? In order to answer this question I needed to know which players are on the ice for PP goals against. I went through every single box score on and collected this for every PP goal against so far this season (through the COL game).

Which player has been on the ice for the most PP goals against? Nic Havelid who was on the ice for 38 PP goals against so far this year. In other words Havelid has been on the ice for 60% of the teams 63 PP goals allowed. But does this mean Havelid is our worst penalty killer? Not necessarily since Havelid also was far ahead of any other Thrasher in the number of short-handed minutes of ice time. His 252 SH minutes is way ahead of the next closest Thrasher (181 minutes, de Vries). Given that he sees more SH minutes than anyone else we shouldn't be surprised that he is on the ice for a lot of PP goals against.

So put this in context I took each player's SH ice time and divided it by the number of PP goals allowed when they were out on the PK. This gives us a nice measure of PK efficiency. A really good PK guy will have more minutes between PP goals, while a poor PK guy will have fewer minutes between goals (see the third numerical column in my tables below). The team average is a PP goal against every 6.98 minutes of SH ice time.

So who is above average? Well the runaway leader in Slava Kozlov. The opposition has needed nearly 13 minutes of power play ice time before they get a goal when he is out there killing penalties. That is almost twice as good as the average Thrasher PKer. I have to say that I was VERY surprised to see that Kozlov was this much better than everyone else. Slava is a smart player and very responsible but I had no idea he was so good on the PK this season.

Forwards SH TOI PP GA PK Efficiency Compared to Team Average
Kozlov 90 7 12.86 +85%
Slater 33 4 8.25 +19%
Hossa 123 16 7.69 +11%
Rucchin 119 16 7.44 +7%
Holik 175 25 7.00 +1%
Larsen 161 23 7.00 +1%
Vigier` 155 24 6.46 -7%

The next best PK guys this season are two defensemen, Exelby and Vishnevski. Of course, Vishnevski is now gone, so that leaves Exelby as the most effective PK defenseman so far this year. To put it in perspective Exelby has been 29% better at preventing PP goals against than the team average.

Defensemen SH TOI PP GA PK Efficiency Compared to Team Average
Vishnevski 158 17 9.29 +34%
Exelby 63 7 9.00 +29%
Hnidy 96 11 8.73 +26%
Sutton 144 21 6.86 -1%
Havelid 252 38 6.63 -7%
De Vries 181 31 5.84 -16%

Who ranks at the bottom? Greg de Vries is the worst penalty killer according to this measure. He is 16% worse than the team average and has been on the ice for 31 PP goals against in 181 SH minutes so far. The worst forward is JP Vigier who is 7% below the team average--which is only slightly worse than average.

What I find interesting about this little study is that there are more extreme values on the positive side than the negative side. What I mean is that I honestly expected that the study would show that one or two players have really been torched by the opposition. But that is not the case, de Vries came in last but he is "just" 16% worse than average. The really big disparities are on the positive side where see that Kozlov isn't just better than everyone, he is WAY better--85% better than average.

If I were advising Coach Hartley I'd tell him that the data show that there isn't any one particular member of the PK unit to avoid using--but there are certain players (Kozlov, Exelby, Hnidy, Slater) who should receive more SH ice time--these are guys who could improve the team's PK %.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Vishnevsky-Belanger Trade Analysis

As you probably already know, the Thrashers dealt defensemen Vishnevsky to Nashville for Belanger (who had played most of the season with Carolina until being dealt to exchange for Vasicek). My reaction? Well the team had too many defensemen and Vishnevsky wasn't going to help us in the press box so we turned an idle player into someone who may help us on the ice right now.

Is Eric Belanger the solution? In truth I don't know. I've only seen him play a few times and he didn't exactly jump out at me. (I may go watch an old Carolina game on the DVR to take a look at him.) Personally, I wish that Atlanta had ended up with Vasicek (the guy Nashville traded to get Belanger) or Mike Comrie who was traded weeks ago, but who knows maybe Don Waddell wanted a more defensive minded guy to help out the PK. We may still see a trade for an offensive center.

Belanger as a Scorer

Belanger's career numbers suggest he is NOT going to confused with Sidney Crosby. During his career he has averaged fewer than half a point per game. On the other hand, he will likely receive more minutes in Atlanta than he did in Carolina and if he takes Rucchin's spot he may be paired up with Kovalchuk and Sim. Who knows maybe he could have a scoring uptick. Is he better than Niko Kapanen? Probably. Is he much better than Slater? We will have to wait and see.

Someone else pointed out to me that it is surprising to see a trade between a top team in the West and a top ranked team in the East. We tend to assume that only the bottom teams are selling. This transaction points out why it is important for a GM to call ALL the teams to see who is available.

Belanger as a Penalty Killer

I quick look at the statistics for Belanger show that he averaged only 1:30 of Short-handed ice time for the Hurricanes. Among their forwards he was just 7th in SH ice time. The coaching staff in Carolina did not use him in that role much.

On the other hand, during the 2005-06 season he as the leading PK guy for the LA Kings. He was 1st among the forwards in short-handed ice time, averaging 3:58 per game. In the season prior to the lockout we again see that Belanger was the LA Kings top PK forwards averaging 2:51 short-handed ice time. So Belanger has extensive experience as a PK forward and perhaps the Thrashers management and scouts remember his time in LA.

On the down side the LA Kings PK% was dead last in the NHL during the 2005-06 season and 3rd to last in the 2003-04 season when Belanger was their top forward. I do remember LA suffered from some poor goaltending and massive injury problems during those years so I'm not sure how much of the credit/blame goes to Belanger.

I have a very open mind on this trade. I'm curious to see how he looks in a Thrasher uniform. Only time will tell if this deal has the desired effect on the club.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pseudo-Live Blogging: Colorado Game

I couldn't watch the game live since I had something else going on, but I decided to write up the game as I watch it on the DVR on my couch.

1-0 ATL: Great work by the checking line. Holik hit leads to a rush. Mellanby gives young COL defensemen the spin move behind the net and dishes to Larsen who was open in the slot. Good goal produced by hard work. Too often ATL wins puck possession down low but there is no one free to shot in front of the net, but not this time. Assist to Theodore for not coming out enough to face the shooter.

2-0 ATL: Hossa carries behind the net and sends the puck to the left face-off dot. Kozlov snaps it home with a nice one-timer. Again Theodore sits back in his net leaving more to shoot at for ATL.

Another anemic ATL power play. Too much passing, not enough shots.

Sim drives the net to create a nice chance.

3-0 ATL Kovalchuk passes out to Exelby who just takes a quick hard shot on net which was redirected right in front of Theodore by either the COL defensemen or Metropolit. (I slowed it down and I couldn't tell who touched it.) The thing I really like about this chance is that even if the Exelby shot had not gone into the net, Hossa and Metro were on either side of the net ready to pounce on a rebound in either direction.

Sutton gives up a 2-on-1 chance after Brad May gives him a bump at the blueline--Save Kari.

Then COL gets two quick shots on Lehtonen in the last 10 seconds.

You know you're in the south when a furniture store has a TV featuring a furniture line named after a NASCAR driver.

Budaj replaces Theodore. I remember back when COL and MON exchanged Theodore and Aebischer (and exchange of struggling goalies) that I though COL took the bigger risk. Neither of the two goalies has played all that well this year. Both COL and MON have had success because of their other goalies Budaj and Huet.

Failed pass by Havelid gives Hejduk a good chance that Lehtonen stuffs out.

Exelby gives us some razzle-dazzle hit on Paul Statsny and then Mick McGeough gives XLB a high stick as he tries to protect himself from a following hit by a COL player. Once again, it looks to me like McGeough should retire as a ref. If that is a penalty on Exelby where is the obstruction call on COL for hitting an ATL player when he clearly doesn't have the puck?

On the PK Sutton tries to push a loose puck into Kari's pads and nearly scores one for the other team.

Again on the PK, Hossa single handily creates two good chances as he uses his speed to cut to the crease. Then he flat out steals the puck from a lazy COL player at the offensive blueline and goes behind the net for a wrap around chance.

Nice flashback on TV to the previous ATL visits on the SportsSouth broadcast. Nice to see the highlights of some memorable wins.

4-0 Metropolit wins a lose puck battle and makes a short dish in tight from the right face-off dot to Hossa who is cutting laterally across the crease area and Hossa goes in tight and upstairs on the right side of Budaj instead of his usual left wing side. Nice pass and goal.

Kovalchuk and Sim have great chemistry. Rucchin shows almost zero offensive flair--again.

4-1 COL goal off of a hard work down low and behind the net. Both Havelid and Sutton are trapped behind the play as they chase the puck, but the puck is centered and Larsen can't get there quick enough to cover the open man.

Great chance by Ilya after a quick stop frees him of his defender. Rucchin is available on the doorstep but Ilya shoots. I don't blame him, I would have done the same presented with those options.

Rucchin is tagged with a late high hit to the head by Guite. That sort of hit is what has been banned by the OHL because it makes contact with the head area and not the shoulders or other part of the upper body.

5-1 PP Goal. Thrashers try the pass across crease from Hossa to Mellanby which Scott misses, but on the ensuing recovery Hossa moves to the left side and dishes back across the crease to Kozlov who settles the puck and then rips it home.

5-2 Another PP Goal on a back door goal as the ATL defensemen sneaks down and recieves the pass and puts it into a half empty net. That is a skater goal. You MUST protect your goalies blind side. In my opinion it was Larsen who missed the pinch by the defenseman.

5-3 Atlanta's PK lets Colorado get back into the game. Sakic shots misses wide but the rebound comes out hard. Sutton's coverage is good as he eliminates his man next to the net. But the extra man zips in from the wing and snaps the loose puck home for a goal. Frankly this was a bad luck goal as much as anything. I don't see any glaring mistakes by the Thrashers PK unit here. Colorado has an extra guy and the puck bounded right out to that guy. I need to sit down and look at which Thrashers are best at the PK because this is becoming a real problem.

6-3 EN goal by Hossa.

Summary: The Thrashers played with great energy, effort and intelligence. The Thrashers benefited from some below average goalie play by Colorado--but to their credit they took advantage instead of shooting wide, hitting posts or failing to generate shots--all problems in some previous games. Metropolit received about 17 minutes of ice time (for the 2nd game in a row) and his line scored 2 even strength goals so I'm happy to see the team try one of my 5 suggestions for improving the team.

Special teams remain an issue. The PK allowed the opposition back into the game. The PP remained stale at times. The one PP goal happened because the Thrashers moved out of their usual positions. Mellanby moved up the wall, Hossa rotated over and Kozlov slipped down into Hossa's spot. All that player movement created problems for Colorado's coverage and they were able to move the puck effectively over to Kozlov who was wide open with plenty of time to settle the puck and shoot. We need more player movement on the PP in my opinion.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tip of the Hat

Congratulations to Karlis Skrastins who will tie the record for consecutive NHL games played tonight in Denver (assuming he doesn't trip going down some stairs and break his leg). While Skrastins isn't someone I would put at the top of a list of toughest NHL players, hockey is a hard game and you need determination play that many games in a row. Heck, I play no-check beer league hockey and I've had my own injuries keep me out of the lineup every once in a while.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cross Post: Talking Trade

Note: This was first posted over at the Southeast Shootout. I thought I'd post it here as well for those who may not have seen it. The one thing I wish to add this summary is that Derek Armstrong a center for the LA Kings is another possible trade candidate. I wish I could say something brilliant about him but to be honest I don't think I've seen him enough to offer much of an opinion other than he would be better than Kapanen.

The NHL shopping season is upon us! NHL GM's are trading phone calls like sorority girls anticipating a shoe clearance sale at Macy's. Beat writers angle for any news and management tries to misdirect them like a Rod Brind 'Amour deflection in the slot.

In years past Thrashers fans have pined for that perfect player who could put their team into the playoffs. However, this year the playoffs seem very likely and the team is able to focus on making the Thrashers an actual Stanley Cup contender. So whom will Atlanta end up with after the deadline passes?

First let’s identify the sellers in this market. Only Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago are completely out of the playoff race. Personally, I think that the GMs of Florida, Boston, Washington, Columbus, Phoenix and St. Louis ought be focusing on next season, but they may not see themselves as sellers just yet.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell has identified team needs as a center and a puck-moving defensemen. Let’s take a look at the market for centers. Mike Comrie ($3.0 million salary in 2005-06) and Craig Conroy have already been traded ($2.4) thinning the ranks of potential candidates. Peter Forsberg ($5.75), Brian Smolinksi ($1.5), Jozef Stumpel ($1.75) are all presumed to be potential trade candidates.

Forsberg will likely command a hefty price based upon his superstar past even though questions linger about his health. Of those three, I think that Smolinski is the most likely candidate because of his reasonable salary, ability to win face-offs and overall game. Stumpel plays for divisional rival Florida—I have no idea if that would prevent a trade or not. In the past the Thrashers made a trade with Florida, but that was before current GM Jacques Martin took over.

If we dig a bit deeper, it is possible that some additional centers may (or may not) be on the market. Scott Burnside of recently suggested that Toronto begin rebuilding in earnest by shipping out captain Mats Sundin ($7.6). Should the Leafs choose to restock they will no doubt be looking to stockpile young talent and/or high picks in exchange for their veteran players.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell expressed interest in shoring up the team’s penalty kill unit on Centers who could possibly be used for both offense and in a PK role might include Blue Jackets Sergei Fedorov ($6.0) Coyotes Stephen Reinprecht ($2.0) and Toronto’s Mike Peca ($2.5).

As far as defense goes, a certain website continues to pimp Brian Leetch, but I seriously doubt it. The Thrashers need to strength their defense not weaken it. Leetch hasn’t played all year and I wouldn’t take a chance on him at this point. Other defensemen mentioned as being available include the disappointing: Eric Brewer ($2.0), and Joe Corvo ($2.5); the overpaid Jason Cullimore ($2.5), Adrian Aucoin ($4.0). Looking around the teams at the bottom of the standings I suspect that Adam Foote ($4.6) and Derek Morris ($3.9) could be obtained from their current squads. Brad Stuart is also been mentioned as being available.

Out of that list I like Joe Corvo’s potential as a PP quarterback and certainly Don Waddell should be very familiar with his game since he played for the Thrashers AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves during the lockout season. Brad Stuart also has some potential but frankly none of these candidates really excites me all that much.

It is possible that the team could try to improve the power play by adding a winger like Keith Tkacuk or Bill Guerin, but the Thrashers appear fairly loaded at that position already. But if the price was reasonable I could see the team adding either to the roster.

In order to make a deal you have to give something up of course (unless you’re acquiring Roenick perhaps). In the past, the Thrashers rarely traded away picks or prospects but as the team enters a contending phase they may change philosophy. What assets do they have on hand? At the NHL level they have three veteran defensemen all in the final year of their contract (Andy Sutton, Vitali Vishnevsky, Greg de Vries) and they now have a logjam of 8 defensemen and just 6 spots. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Vishnevski or de Vries moved at the deadline.

Down on the farm the Thrashers have a nice collection of prospects with upside. In Chicago winger Brett Sterling has been scoring goals right and left. Sterling may have attracted some GM’s desire by winning the All Star Game MVP. Bryan Little is a top OHL player and a leader on Team Canada’s 2007 World Junior Squad. Goalie Pavelec was sensational last season in the QMJHL, but has not been as dominant this year. Alex Bourret is also from the Q and he struggled at the start of the AHL season but has picked it up lately.

Currently the Thrashers have young defensemen coming out of their ears. Defensemen Braydon Coburn looks NHL ready and Boris Valabik is physical defensemen who may be ready in the near future. Other AHL Defensemen Popovic and Oystrick give the Thrashers great depth at the D position. The team also has two promising young defensemen in Europe (Enstrom and Zubarev) and one in college (Grant Lewis) all of whom may sign with the team this summer.

I think that if the Thrashers make a bid for a center like Sundin or Forsberg the other teams are going to ask for either Coburn or Little and another pick or prospect. Based upon Waddell’s comments I think he is very unlikely to deal Coburn, so a trade for a top center would likely involve a top prospect and a high pick in my opinion. If the team were to trade for a less high profile centerman like Smolinski or Stumpel I expect that the team would like to deal one of their many defensive prospects such as Popovic, Oystrick, Enstrom, Zubarev, Lewis or Valabik.

Thrasher College Prospects

Hockeys Future has a new feature on the Thrashers collegiate prospects. As a group they don't inspire me all that much (especially now that Sterling has turned pro). Although on the positive side I think that every single one of them might be better than Scott Lehman.

The one guy that I really like is Grant Lewis who looked great at camp. I was hoping that Lewis would turn pro this season. But he returned to college only to become injured, so it has been a bit of a wasted season for him so far.

The other guy with some potential is Michael Vannelli plays on a very strong Minnesota team. The Gophers are high scoring squad and it is hard to know if Vannelli is getting points because he is creating offense or if he is getting points because he plays on an offensive team. We will have a better idea when he turns pro and plays on a different team "who was driving the bus" as they say.

The good news for those of you who are weary of watching the mistakes of de Vries, Sutton and Vishnevsky is that all three are soon to be free agents and the Thrashers are loaded with young defensemen prospects, so you can look forward to seeing mistakes made by rookie defensemen in the coming years.

Monday, February 05, 2007

5 Ways to Improve the Thrashers without Making a Trade

1) Put Kovalchuk, Hossa and Kozlov on one line.

This team needs to recover its ability to score goals. In hockey the team that has the most goals at the end of the game wins, whether the score is 2-1 or 8-7. Let's face facts, we have a solid goaltender and a roster lacking in All-Star defensemen. There is no recipe for pixie dust that his suddenly go to transform our set of defensemen into Scott Stevens or even Ken Daneyko. We have to live with the players that we have. Therefore, if we want to win games we must score.

Right now the lines we have are not scoring and it is time to try something more radical than moving one winger from line A to line B. I think we should experiment with moving Kozlov back to center and playing Hossa-Kozlov-Kovalchuk as a line together at even strength. The Thrashers played Kozlov as a center for a stretch between Heater and Kovy before and that worked out rather well.

2) We need unleash Glen Metropolit and the team needs to recognize that Niko Kapanen should not be centering either scoring line.

Metropolit has been our best offensive centerman all season. In fact, it is not even close if you take a look at the numbers.

The team should cease to wasting their world class talent at wing by playing Niko Kapanen at center between Kozlov and Hossa. Niko is not good defensively (check his plus/minus compared to teammates here and in Dallas), he has a weak shot, his passes are off target much of the time and he is nothing special in the faceoff circle. Niko Kapanen is holding back our top line at even strength.

In the table below we see the four centerman ranked according to their number of even-strength minutes. If we want to see which centerman is most efficient in using his ice time we divide ES ice time by ES points and we get ES scoring efficiency (note: the lower the number the better-it indicates that you need fewer minutes to score an ES point).

When you look at the efficiency numbers we see that there is not much difference between Holik and Rucchin and that Kapanen is the worst center in terms of producing ES offense (why is he on our 1st line?). But what should leap out at you is that Glen Metropolit is TWICE AS EFFECTIVE as any other center on our roster. This is not a minor difference, this is huge! Yet we see that over the course of the season Glen Metropolit has received the fewest total ES minutes of any center. This is a gross misallocation of team resources and it needs to be corrected.

Player ES Points Total ES Minutes ES Scoring Efficiency
Holik 16 658 41
Rucchin 15 606 40
Kapanen 12 559 46
Metropolit 21 446 21

3) This team needs a North American style crash line that will work for "garbage" goals

Back when the Red Wings were really good they had two top units. They had a North American style line featuring Yzerman and Shanahan who would throw pucks on net, crash the crease and generate chaos to produce rebound goals. Then they had the Russian Five who used great puck possession and skill to create goals. (I'm sure DW remembers since he got his name on Lord Stanley's Cup as part of that 1997 team.) Our European players are highly skilled and reluctant to just throw the puck on net. That's fine for some games, but when you are facing a hot goal tender (Huet, Nittymaki are recent examples) the more you try to find the perfect pass the easier it is to read the play.

In the playoffs you must be able to score both pretty and ugly goals to advance. Right now the Thrashers are too heavily focused on highlight reel goals. We must create an effective crash line. If we stack the first line with the All-Stars then we can create a 2nd line centered by Metropolit that has Sim-Metro-Haydar which would give the team a 2nd line that could crash and bang in the North American style.

4) We need to move Kovalchuk off of the point and we should put Holik there instead.

The power play has become extremely stale and predictable. Everybody in the building knows the puck is coming back to the point. Ilya's powerful shot is completely wasted if it never reaches the net--and lately that is the case. It is time to move Kovalchuk back to the wing.

Who would play the point then? How about Holik? He has a powerful show and teams would have to respect his ability to score. An added benefit of having Holik on the PP unit is that he could take the face-off and then slide back to the point. Holik would be more responsible at the point than Kovalchuk. Our 1st power play unit would then look like this: Hossa, Kozlov, Kovalchuk, Holik, McCarthy/Havelid. I really think this could be a very effective PP unit.

5) We need more physical play form our checkers.

We need some more nastiness to stir things up. Philips Arena has been an easy place to play lately. I would use a 3rd line of Slater-Holik-Mellanby to check the other teams top line.


There comes a time when it is necessary to recognize that what has worked in the past isn't working anymore and for the Thrashers the time is now before they head out on the road trip.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Huge Missed Opportunity

After the 1st Flyers loss I was angry. After the Islanders loss I was ticked off. After the 2nd Flyers loss I'm just depressed. Why? Because I don't see much evidence that crucial problems are being addressed by the coaching staff.

Let's take a hard look at the situation. The Thrashers are in the tail end of stretch where they played 8 of 9 at home. During that same stretch Carolina has stumbled and allowed Tampa to catch and pass them in the standings. If the Thrashers had simply played up to their talent level they could have won 12 points in those 9 games and ran away from the 2nd place team.

The Thrashers did not take advantage of their opportunities and now they are headed out for a road trip against mostly Western Conference teams. It is no secret that the West is considerably stronger than the East. The way this team is playing right now I would not be surprised if the Thrashers 1-5 or 2-4 on this trip.

While the Thrashers are playing four western teams plus two strong eastern teams on the road. Tampa is playing western bottom teams like LA and PHO and they have a home-and-home with last place Florida. Tampa only plays two playoff teams (NYR, NJD) in their next 7 games.

Given the nature of the schedules and the way Atlanta is playing right now and the lack of creativity we are seeing from the coaching staff I expect that the six point lead over Tampa may be completely gone by the next time this club plays a home game in late Feb.

Next post I will offer up my own suggestions for things that could be done to make this team better without making a single trade.

Friday, February 02, 2007

What is Wrong with this Team Pt. 2: Goaltending Stats section lets you break down goaltending Save % by game situation which is a great tool for analysis.

The Thrashers #1 goalie Kari Lehtonen has played well this season. I've seen some complaints about him on message boards, but if you compare him to the average starting goalie (minimum 20 games played) he fares well in most areas. Kari's even strength save % ranks him 10th out of 39 goalies who have played 20 or more games. He ranks 10th in Short Handed SV% and 15th in overall SV%. The one are that lags behind is his SV % when the Thrashers are facing the other team's power play and in this situation is just average 20 out of 39 goalies.

My personal bias is that his pedestrian SV % while facing the other team's PP unit is more a matter of our defense failing to protect him against point blank back door chances than anything else. I've lost count of the number of times the opposition has gotten a goal on him after giving our defense the slip behind Lehtenon's back.

Situation Lehtonen Hedberg League Median
Even Strength .925 .916 .920
Power Play Against .863 .762 .863
Short Handed Against .948 .688 .915
Total .910 .881 .908

There is a huge drop off when Hedberg starts his SV % is below that of the NHL median starting goaltender in every facet of the game. He has been particularly brutal in the special teams situations allowing 5 goals on just 11 Short Handed shot attempts and he's also bad when the Thrashers have been trying to kill off the opposition's power play allowing 10 goals on just 42 shots against. Ouch! I think Coach overplays Lehtonen at time, but after seeing these numbers I think I know why he does it.

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