Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hedberg is Hot

I drove up to see Chad Denny play for the Gladiators last night but I think he only played 1 shift in both the 2nd and 3rd periods and the team lost. I watched the Montreal-Atlanta game on tape delay and the game was another barn-burner contest. I find it ironic (or perhaps tragic is a better word) that the three best Thrasher games all season have NOT been televised locally. The wins over Toronto, Chicago and Montreal were tough tight contests that kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. It is a shame if you missed this one and a reason to think about getting CenterIce (or bringing a pizza over to my house).

Some keys to this game: Hedberg was rock solid. Consider his recent streak:
  • Montreal 2 regulation goals against
  • Chicago 2 regulation goals against
  • Nashville 2 regulation goals against
In the modern NHL if your netminder can keep his goals against average down to around two per game your team has a strong chance of earning points every night.

The defense and penalty killing were also rather strong. I plan to sit down and compare the first six games to the last six. It is obvious that the team is playing better but which players have turned their season around? I'll have more to say about this topic, but one hint can be found by looking at the distribution of the ice time among the defensemen last night:
27:33 Enstrom
24:20 Exelby
22:51 Klee
22:07 Havelid
13:27 Zhitnik
11:11 Popovic
Scratch McCarthy
Twelve games into the season Zhitnik has been demoted to the third pairing and Enstrom moved up to number one in ice time. I'm all for keeping players accountable and I can't argue with these changes. But in the long run this team needs Zhitnik to play better and earn some more minutes so that a rookie from Sweden doesn't have to carry such a heavy load on his shoulders.

The Thrashers had numerous quality scoring chances and Carey Price was very sharp in net to keep his team in the game when the Thrashers jumped out to a 17-3 edge in shots early on. Montreal climbed back into the game offensively with power play chances but overall it was probably the best performance by the team on both sides of the puck all season.

The surprise of the game came at the end when Coach Waddell idled Marian Hossa in favor of Bryan Little. Now Little and Montreal goalie Price played on the same WJC team and perhaps Don Waddell was counting on Little having some inside knowledge about where to shoot on him. If that was the plan it worked to perfection as Little gave the Thrashers an early lead in the shootout and Kovalchuk finished it off by going high glove side. As the TSN announcers said "You can know that Kovalchuk likes to go high glove side in advance and that knowledge doesn't make any difference because of his release."

The Thrashers dug themselves quite a hole with the 0-6 start and they have put together a nice little 4-2 run since then. They're not back up with the playoff contenders but they have crawled out of the basement and are just three points back of the playoff cutoff line.

The team is now 3-2 so far on the 7 game road trip. Personally I think a 4-3 road trip would be a successful one considering the teams they have faced on this trip. Ottawa is red hot and will be tough to beat and the Thrashers regularly struggle in Tampa Bay. The guys need to get one win in the next two games and then make hay when they return home.

Edit: Ben has a more complete game summary over on the blueland blog. One thing that he highlights is Kozlov's steal and goal. That makes two games in a row where good defensive play has given Atlanta a crucial lead. In the Chicago contest Kovalchuk swiped a pass and fed Kozlov at the front of net for a momentum shifting score.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thrashers Finally Finish in Chicago

I'm back home after seeing three hockey games in three nights. The trip was a lot of fun and my teams won 2 out of 3 so that's not too bad. The games were generally enjoyable and I was able to take in the Windy City's attractions. It was also a pleasure to meet the father of one our prospects, hopefully I'll get to see him in Atlanta some day with his son in a Thrashers uniform.

Unfortunately, the demands of my day job and lack of internet access during waking hours prevented me from posting quickly. But since the Chicago game wasn't televised here are my observations.

The United Center

I mentioned previously that I was not a big fan of the United Center but I actually enjoyed this visit more than some previous ones. The upper deck seats are still very far from the ice but it was fun to hear the organ throughout the game and Blackhawk fans who were once obnoxious seemed to have been humbled a bit by all the losing over the last few years. I only received mild derision for wearing my Thrashers jersey in the stands during the game.

There were a surprising number of Atlanta jerseys in the stands but I'm guessing the vast majority where Chicago Wolves fans. The Wolves Fan Club was one of the featured guest groups of the night. Every person I encountered who was wearing a Thrashers jersey said that they were from Chicago not Atlanta. There a kid in an Adam Berkhoel jersey who held a sign up for Haydar during warm-ups-- he noticed it and gave the kid a puck and he was quite pleased.

The worst thing about the United Center was the staff. We arrived very early and asked the usher on the main concourse if we could sit down low to watch warm-ups. He responded with a confused monologue about how the team's "had already warmed up because of the 7:30 start" and he doubted that they were going to come back out. He eventually let us stick around in the "unlikely" event there was another warm-up (I thought people in Chicago were supposed to be more hockey knowledgeable?)

Then there was a woman at the escalator who had this bored-out-her-mind look. Someone joked "can we get a smile" and she just ignored everyone. My friend approached one of the merchandise counters and had this conversation:
"Do you want to buy something?"
It felt like had ended up in New York and not Chicago. The staff at Philips Arena are miles ahead of the United Center in terms of being fan friendly.

The Chicago version of the ice girls wear even less clothing on top than they do in Atlanta and the scoreboard featured a prominent shot of cleavage as they came off the ice. My guess is that the Blackhawks are not really aiming for the professional working woman in their marketing efforts.

There are no TVs on the upper concourse where fans can monitor the action or see how much time is left in the intermissions.

Intro Video
The video screen showed an enormous Indian head being stitched together interspersed with shots of statues of Hawks greats, still photos of past Hawks and the names of past Hawks (although I'm not sure Bob Probert ever did much in a Chicago uniform). They played Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man at the start. Overall I give them a B+ for the intro video. After it was over the Blackhawks fan next to me (wearing a full Indian headdress) leaned over and said "See that? That's called tradition!" I said something like, "Well, let me tell you what the playoffs are like because you probably don't remember them." They moved down a few rows not long after that.

The Game: 1st Period
Things started off poorly as Holik took a penalty right away to put his team down a man. It turned out to be a theme of the night as he took two more penalties. For a guy who is paid a lot of money to provide leadership, he sure puts his team mates in a bad position. On the PK Klee got a clear that lead to a near breakaway for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Popovic was paired with Zhitnik and they played much better than the McCarthy-Zhitnik pairing had the previous couple of games. Personally, I think Popovic should get another game after his performance.

The team started with much more purpose and energy than they had in Nashville, although neither team brought much in the way of physical play. Todd White had a scoring chance. Hossa gave the puck away which led directly to a Chicago scoring chance.

Holik takes his 2nd penalty and the White losses the face and the Blackhawk centerman nearly scores on a shot from the faceoff dot, but Hedberg is sharp and he makes the save. On the same PK Hossa sets up for a short handed chance but White fails to even get a shot away.

Then the Thrashers get a power play as Kane goes to the box, Kovalchuk gets into a good spot but fans on the shot. Little is tripped and the Thrashers go up 5>3. Kovalchuk fires a point shot that is saved--he goes and changes sticks before the next faceoff--and then rips another slapper which is tipped by Kozlov for a goal 1-0 Thrashers!! (I jump up and clap half expecting to be showered in popcorn or beer but nothing happens.)

Now it is a 5>4 power play and Slava is wide open on the backdoor but he fails to redirect the cross ice pass into the half empty net. Then Enstrom is caught behind the play and Chicago gets a 2>1 short-handed rush up ice against Zhitnik but Hedberg is equal to the task.

The Thrashers checking line has a great shift where they cycle and hit which ends with Boulton having a golden opportunity to score but he too fails to get the shot on net. At this point I'm starting to get concerned because the team has repeatedly failed to get shots away in good scoring opportunities.

Ken Klee gets away with a blatant interference in his own end which the referees do not call. Later Hossa takes a high stick to the upper chest/chin region and there is no call.

Then Hedberg makes a save but has absolutely no idea where the rebound went to and Holik (I think) comes to his rescue and moves the loose puck away from the net.

The Thrashers checking line again applies the pressure and this time a hit jars loose a puck which is dished across the offensive zone to Larsen who is in a good position but misses the net. This pattern repeats one last time in the first as Holik whiffs on a potential scoring chance as well.

Save Of The Night: A kid comes walks up the stairs about 6 feet from me holding a drink and basket of fries. He slips and falls--landing on his chest--but he manages to keep the food items upright loosing just 3 French Fries. Impressive.

The Game: 2nd Period
The Thrashers had the better scoring chances in the 1st (although they missed the net on many of them) and the Blackhawks play better in the 2nd period. They are aided by a Hedberg penalty that gives them a power play. This time they move the puck efficiently across the top of the zone and the defenseman gets it to Kane who unleashes a quick shot but one that Hedberg should have had in my opinion. It beat him mid level glove side. This is one where the PK did exactly what they were supposed to do and kept the shots toward the outside. Game is tied 1-1.

Hossa looks like he is about to get a breakaway and he tries to step around the last Chicago defender who just stands him up with a nice clean check to snuff out the chance.

Havelid and Zhitnik are out together and it is scary as they both back up too much and give the Chicago forwards way too much room to maneuver.

Kovalchuk gets a couple of rushes and the Chicago defenders give him the outside lane which he takes but is unable to set up a linemate for a shot. I write "Kovy needs to shoot and try to force his way into the slot area."

Holik is in the box again but the penalty killing is very good and really limits their chances. The Chicago crowd gets anxious because of the lack of chances and shots.

The Game: 3rd period

The contest is tied 1-1 but the Blackhawks lead in the shots 20-13 which is a bit deceptive since the Thrashers failed to get shots during some of their most promising scoring chances.

The Thrashers get some early chances but Little is unable to finish and Perrin centers to a vacant slot area and late he mishandled the puck on a promising looking play.

2-1 Thrashers as Kovalchuk gets a great pass from Haydar that springs him up the right boards. He cuts to the net and finishes vintage Kovalchuk style. Huge relief as the team has the lead again.

3-1 Thrashers. A few minutes later Kovalchuk steals the Chicago attempt to clear their zone and quickly sends the puck to the front of the net where Slava Kozlov is all alone by himself. Kozlov catches the puck makes a couple of fakes and scores it five-hole. He had a ton of time and used all of it to gain the advantage. Big momentum shift

The young Hawks look a bit flustered but things heat up as Slater tries to hit someone (I didn't see who) and has his knee out a bit (I didn't see it but someone else in my row did). This leads directly to a scrum in which Thorburn and Ruutu start going at and Thorburn tosses him to the ice and lands some more punches. When Ruutu tries to get up off the ice Thorburn pushes him down again just for good measure. Once they start explaining the calls to Holik, Bobby says something and McCreary gives him the dramatic 10 minute misconduct. Both Holik and Thorburn are effectively done for the game. When all is said and done the penalties are off setting.

Hossa gets a vintage drive to the net and I was sure he was going to cash this one in, but Lalime kept it out of the net somehow. The Thrashers then get a powerplay which produces two hard point shots that turn into rebounds but neither bounces in the right direction for the Thrashers to turn them into goals. Haydar has a bad giveaway, but the defense is able to keep Kane to the outside and chance is snuffed out.

Then Chicago gets a power play but they look a bit out of sorts. They accidently clear it the length of the ice. Exelby takes a very stupid penalty by making an overhand slash on the stick of Blackhawk who is carrying the puck, putting the opposition back up by a man.

3-2 The Blackhawks get a goal as a Chicago player falls on top of Hedberg who is unable to make a play on a shot from the blueline. He is really pissed and I think he had every right to be. There should have been a goalie interference call. Hedberg's tosses his stick, helmet and gloves which earns him an two minute minor.

It is nail biting time as the Thrashers have a 1 goal lead with just 1:09 left in the game. CAN THEY HANG ON????? Hedberg makes a quality save. The Hawks pull there goalie for a 6>4 skater advantage. Another Hedberg save. Just 46 seconds left. One more save and then Havelid gets the clear to relieve the pressure. An aggressive forechecking Thrasher causes the Blackhawks to pass it around in their own end burning up valuable seconds. Finally the clock ticks down--Thrashers win to go 2-1 on the first three games of the road trip.

Three Stars: 1 Kovalchuk, 2 Kane, 3 Hedberg

The Thrashers were shut out in Nashville and began the game by failing to get the puck on net despite some great looking opportunities. They were able to break out and convert some of these chances as the game went along. Ilya Kovalchuk had a hand in each goal, giving his goaltender a lead he could work with.

The other story of the game was the penalty killing. Technically they gave up two power play goals but the first one was Hedberg's fault and the second was because Hedberg had a Blackhawk player on top of him. All night long the PK unit kept the Blackhawks to the outside and really protected the slot and crease area. If they can keep this up the rest of the road trip they should put up some good PK stats.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wolves Game, Trade Rumors, Chicago

I'm tired and so this will be short. It was good to back in Chicago and the weather was terrific early in the day. I made a visit to the Chicago Blackhawks store on Michigan Ave. They have a large variety of stuff available for their fans. While I don't think I would want to live here during the winter, I certainly enjoy visiting this city on a regular basis.

I met up with Wolfkeeper before the game. In case you didn't already know, Wolfkeeper runs the discussion main forum for Chicago Wolves fans, click here to visit it. As always it was good to see him and his wife who visited with me during the 1st period.

The game was something of an organizational meeting as I saw former Wolves Brett Sterling and Garnet Exelby (who signed autographs during the 1st intermission) in the building. I also noticed GM Don Waddell and Assistant Coach Steve Weeks and I'm assuming that Coach McCrimmon was around as well. The Wolves GM was at the Thrasher-Nashville game on Thursday so the staffs of these two teams are seeing a fair amount of each other this week.

It seems that some other teams are keeping close tabs on the Thrashers NHL and AHL players as I noticed a scout who was at the Nashville game was also at the Wolves contests. I'm not really a big fan of trade rumors, but there is some smoke here, so perhaps there is a fire brewing out of sight. From the outside it certainly appears to me that a couple of clubs are taking a hard look at the Atlanta Thrashers major and minor league assets--only time will tell.

The Wolves walked away with the game 4-1. It was the most sparsely attended Wolves

I'll post some comments on individual Thrasher prospects after the NHL game on Saturday. Perhaps we Pavelec will get his first start at the United Center. The Blackhawks-Thrashers game will not be on CenterIce so I'll try and take good notes and fill you in any interesting details from that game.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Live from Nashville

I'm sitting high atop the Sommet Center in Nashville with the puck drop just 15 minutes away.
I'll post comments as the game goes along.

Mark Howe is sittingf our seats down from me on press row.

This is just only the 4th time that the Predators and Thrashers have played each other in the regular season, which is really a shame considering that they are the team the closest distance to the Atlanta area.

If you never been to Nashville, the Predators skate out onto the ice through a giant inflatable Predator head. As far as fan entertainment goes I prefer the Thrashers choice of bird heads that shoot out flames.

The game lineups have been distributed and Larsen is a scratch and Boulton is being dressed. I'm not sure if Don Waddell is expecting some fisticuffs but they have someone ready to go if necessary.

Both teams enter this game with just 2 wins apiece and thus both have pressure to get a win tonight. If the Thrashers win they have a chance to escape the basement of the Eastern Conference and pass the Rangers and tie Buffalo

So far Exelby and Klee are really struggling in their own end. Enstrom and Havelid are getting the puck out. Seems like most of the game has been in the ATL end.

Finally the puck is in the Nashville end on solid play by 17 and 10.

Hedberg has been getting little help. He made some great saves in a flurry but then left a rebound behind which a Predator player beat McCarthy to.

Shots on goal are 16-3

No breakout for Atlanta, poor coverage and slow reaction times are allowing NAS to spend most of the game in the Thrashers end of the ice.

The team is very fortunate to only down 1-0

2nd Period
Sterling puts the Thrashers down a man. Then he gets a brief look in front of the net as his line draws a PP from NAS.

On the PP Enstrom has a nice play at the blueline and gives to Hossa who skates into the slot and passs to Streling who was in Hossa's usual spot down low left side.

2 on 1 as Klein makes nice move for easy Tootoo goal.

Then the Sterling-Little-Hossa line nearly scored. Both Sterling and Hossa like to cycle. If Hossa had passed across the crease Sterling would have had a tap in goal.

Hoosa and Todd White didn't seem to know where the other guy was going.

Haydar with a terrific chance on a feed from Klee.

More good pressure by the Kovalchuk line.

More shots this period and more play in the Nashville end but it has not resulted in any goals against the backup of netminder. The offense is finally flowing but Ellis has been equal to the task.

3rd Period

No big scoring chances either way so far. Predators may be content to sit on 2-0 lead.

The Predators sem to have a stick of body in the lane every time the Thrashers try to shot or pass.

I'll have wrap up soon.

The Wolves are this Friday night.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Road Trip!!!!

Well this Thrashers blogger is hitting the road tomorrow and traveling up north for three hockey games in three nights. First we will visit lovely Nashville the Athens of the South (complete with its own full sized Parthenon) and re-connect with fellow stat blogger The Forechecker. I've seen about 6-7 NHL games in Nashville and always enjoy it there because the building seems more intimate than some other places (like say the Pepsi Center).

Last year's road trip featured stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo and included Adventure Cat. Sadly Adventure Cat is staying home this time but I'm sure she will be curled up at home watching the games on CenterIce.

Then Friday I will look in on the young guys playing for the Chicago Wolves. Of course Chad Denny and Grant Lewis are not actually playing for the Wolves on a regular basis (hard to develop in the press box) so I'll be taking a good look at forwards Jordan LaValle and Tomas Pospisil. Hopefully Nathan Oystrick has recovered from a poor pre-season.

Thrasher Garnet Exelby will be dropping the puck for this game and will be honored as part of the 2002 Calder Cup winning team (I was at Allstate Arena the night when they won the Cup in Chicago that year!)

Saturday it is off to the United Center to see our Thrashers continue their November tour of North America. I'm not a huge fan of the home of the Blackhawks but I do have some found memories of watching Brett Hull score two goals in a wild 4-4 game in the early 1990s there. The franchise seems to have found new life lately as their rookies have played well so far this young season. This game will not be televised at all, so even CenterIce subscribers are out of luck on this one.

Of course I'll be taking advantage of the great eateries in the Windy City such as the deep dish at Gino's East and Chicken Pesto sandwich at Cosi. I think a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry is also in order. They have a special exhibit The Science of Star Wars which includes a full scale mock up of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon

Thrashers and Leafs Play 1980s NHL Hockey

The Thrashers - Maple Leafs game last night was like getting in a time machine and watching a game from the late 1980s. There were multiple end-to-end rushes. A stand up goaltender. Some bad goals, some spectacular "oh my god, how did he keep that out of the net" saves. Defensemen pinching up to join the rush and odd man breaks throughout the game. The outcome see-sawed back and forth until the very end when it was decided by the final shooter in the shoot out. If every hockey game was this much fun to watch they could double the price of tickets and still sell out the place. It felt like my heart was in my throat the whole game.

  • Hedberg gave a weak goal to Hall Gill of all people, but was just sensational at other times including the last two minutes of regulation and during the shootout when he shut down Sundin.
  • The Toronto goal that tied the game should not have been goal. I replayed the overhead camera shot in slow motion several times. You can clearly see the puck is up against his leg pad, Hedberg puts his glove over top of the puck, pause, then the stick of the Toronto players comes in and smacks against the glove dislodging the puck and sending it under his leg pad and into the back of the net. There should have been a whistle. Hedberg had every reason to be furious with the referee.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continues to play the best hockey of his career. He was a force virtually every shift and the announcers were audibly fearful when he carried the puck into the offensive zone. Again, it is shame but nobody will notice how much better he is this season until the team starts winning. (Full disclosure: in the past I've always felt that Kovalchuk's poor defense would prevent him from becoming a MVP type of player but he is changing my mind this year.)
  • Tobias Enstrom also won praise from the announcers but I hate the fact that everyone is starting to call him "Toby" because I think "Tobias" sounds cooler. Borje Salming went by his real first name even though it was unusual to most English speakers, why can't they just call him Tobias? Getting back to the game, Enstrom had his first NHL goal off a nice drop pass from Ilya Kovalchuk. Enstrom joined the rush and was able to exploit the open ice created when the Maple Leaf defenders chased Kovalchuk down low.
  • Many Thrasher fans complain about bad calls and the tendency of this team to give up goals in the final minute of the period, but Atlanta was on the favorable side of that at the end of the 1st period as the linesman missed an icing and Kovalchuk scored to make it 2-1 in the final minute of that period.
  • Speaking of the referees it was throwback night for them too--back to the old days where lots of things were missed. In the third period they let go both a trip and an interference penalty (even the Leafs announcers commented on one of them) but they called Jason Blake for a phantom hook. On the replay it looked like he never even applied any pressure to the Thrasher player.
  • I thought Sterling had his best game as a Thrasher even if he didn't score. He was very involved in winning battles along the boards and was going hard to the net when he had a chance.
  • Another rookie Bryan Little dished out over 50 tickets to friends and family and he was playing very hard all night as well.
This is one of those games where I've very glad that I purchased the NHL CenterIce package. I'm sure Dan Kamal did a fine job on radio but it was a really a must see.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What should be done next?

There is usual rumors that Atlanta might be interested in a making a deal. Of course you don't exactly need to be a genius to see that a trade might be desirable for the Thrashers. But let's slip on the GM hat for a moment and think about our options.

First of all every potential trading partner is hoping to screw you over because you're in a bad spot. Probably the only fair deal you can make is with another struggling team. So perhaps a Toronto, LA Kings or Nashville would be a willing partner. But if you make a trade with another struggling franchise odds are you're just going to exchange struggling players and hope the change of scenery makes a difference for the guy you pick up. That's hardly a sure fire way to improve.

In the long run the Thrashers have four guys on their blueline who have all played well in previous years (Exelby, Klee, Zhitnik and Havelid). It seems to me there are two possibilities: a) they all forgot how to play hockey and should be dumped overboard; b) they are all struggling right now, but still have some ability to play in this league.

In economics class they teach you about "sunk costs" and the need to concentrate on the future and not let the past dictate your actions. The Thrashers have already sunk money and draft picks into acquiring this foursome. What's done is done: "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on" and now the question is what is the best course forward from this point.

If you think that all or some of them have just plain lost the ability to play NHL hockey than sending them off in dump trades would make some sense. At this point, I'm more inclined to believe that they all still have talent, but they are in a collective slump right now. If you do decide to dump them overboard you're likely to get next to nothing for them--in fact you may have to pay someone a draft pick to take them off your hands. So it makes far more sense to try and turn them around. Now the turnaround might happen too late to allow the team to make the playoffs, but if they do bounce back you then have the option of dealing them at the trade deadline for prospects who can be on the next Thrasher playoff team.

The question is who can get their performance level back up? Which brings us to the coaching question. My personal favorite among the candidates who have been touted is Randy Cunneyworth. He coaches the Buffalo system which is well suited to quick smallish forwards. It seems to me that the current Atlanta roster requires a more puck possession style of play. I'm sure there are some other talented coaches out there on junior teams that I'm simply unaware of but Cunneyworth does seem to be near the top of the coaches-on-the-rise list.

If you're the Thrashers GM you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Making a good trade will likely be next to impossible. The easist (and best) way out is to get your underperforming assests performing again.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

And Another Step Back Toward the Brink

I got home from the Gladiators home opener and sat down to watch the game. It is going to be a short post tonight.
  • The Rangers game suggested that the coach was the problem. TheTampa game suggests that our defensemen simply can't cut in the NHL. If the team continues to give up four or five goals per game we will have a new GM it is as simply as that.
  • Our best defensemen right now is a short rookie from Sweden (who prevented Lecavalier from scoring on a semi-breakaway). At what point does Popovic get some ice time? Nobody else seems to have a clue in the defensive
  • Bryan Little was finally on the ice for a goal against. He played well, but the shut out streak is over.
  • Johan Hedberg was simply fantastic--I can't believe I just typed that about a guy who gave up 5 goals but it is true. Tampa was getting so many high quality shots that it was just a matter of time.
  • Alexei Zitnik continued his sleep walk through the season. He was the ice for two against that I noticed and at one point simply feel down in the crease trying to play the puck with his foot. Has he beat any forward into the corner this season?
  • Kovalchuk continues to play at a high level and would be mentioned as a potential MVP were he on a team with a winning record. The Hossa-Kozlov line was AWOL after the first.
  • The Klee-Exelby combo had a rough night as well with Klee making two fine passes to the opposition.
Naming Names Season Update

Odd fact: Despite playing on Kovalchuk's line for a couple of games, Jim Slater has still not been on the ice for any Thrashers goals scored so far this season. Little was finally on the ice for a couple of goals against but he still remains the teams leader in the net goals for/goals against ratio. After a slow start Sterling's net number is even for the season.


The move of Enstrom to Havelid's pairing seems to have stabilized that one pairing, but now that Zhitnik is partnered with McCarthy his numbers are continuing to plummet. McCarthy has also been on the ice for just a single Thrashers goal scored which is pretty bad for someone who is supposed to have an offensive dimension to his game.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why Jeff Schultz is Both Wrong and Lazy

Some of the folks on the message boards are hyping Jeff Schultz's recent blog post in which he said that Don Waddell should be fired instead of Hartley. The Waddell haters love to harp on what they perceive to be his draft day record.

Now I think Don Waddell has made some mistakes as the Thrashers GM. In my post on Wednesday I pointed out exactly what I consider to be Don Waddell's chief failures as GM 1) a propensity to acquire players in their declining years 2) an inability to construct a roster that fits together so that it has an overarching identity or strength.

Those people who continue to harp on the draft simply are barking up the wrong tree. Let's take a look at some of the player development "facts" Jeff Schultz trotted out in his article. A central theme of his post is that Don Waddell has been terrific failure when it comes to developing talent. For example Schultz says: "What’s wrong with this picture? Don Waddell, the general manager who has drafted 28 defensemen but has only two to show for it on the Thrashers’ roster, stays."

That sounds pretty damning doesn't it? Just two defensemen on the roster after all those drafts years!!! Any reader who sees that is going to think, "Wow! That Don Waddell must be a total idiot when it comes to evaluating talent" right? There's just one problem, while the facts are correct, the implication is very false.

Of course, if Jeff Schultz had actually spent more than about fifteen minutes writing this blog post and gotten his hands dirty by cracking open the NHL Guide and Record Book or gone to or some other hockey website it would have only taken him a few minutes to discover this basic fact: there is absolutely nothing unusual about the Thrashers only having two draftees playing defense.

One thing that always annoyed me when Jeff Schultz was the beat writer assigned to cover the Thrashers is that every other week he would get some basic fact wrong in his coverage. I don't have a lot of respect for him as a professional journalist. I'm not a paid journalist, but I did crack open a few books and used a few websites in my time away from work. In fact I spent several hours of my free time going through every single NHL team's current roster and here's what I discovered.
  • Three NHL teams have zero defensemen drafted since 1999 (that's when the Thrashers had their first draft) on their current roster.
  • Seven NHL teams have just one defensemen drafted since 1999 on their roster.
  • Nine NHL teams have just two defensemen drafted since 1999 on their current roster.
What does this mean? The Thrashers are right at the league average in terms of defensemen drafted since 1999 on their roster. No more and no less--just average. In fact the Thrashers have more rostered defensemen drafted since 1999 than:
  • 2007 Stanley Cup Champs Anaheim
  • 2006 Stanley Cup Champs Carolina
  • 2006 Stanley Cup Finalist Edmonton (who is playing all their kids now)
  • 2004 Stanley Cup Finalist Calgary
  • The New Jersey Devils (frequently cited as the best drafting team in the NHL)
Do you see what I'm getting at here? In Schultz had bothered to do about 5 minutes of research before going off about the Thrashers ONLY HAVING TWO DRAFTED NHL DEFENSEMEN ON THEIR ROSTER!!!!! he would have found this out for himself.

Schultz goes on to say: "Player development has been dreadful. There is little to show for nine drafts and 82 players. Of the 28 defensemen drafted, the only two here are Garnet Exelby (eighth round, 1999; blind squirrel, meet acorn) and Tobias Enstrom (eighth round, 2003; just got here)."

If Schultz had actually looked at the output of the farm system instead of tossing out lazy accusations he might have been able to tell his readers that the Atlanta Thrashers developed four additional defensemen who are currently in the NHL. Three of those defensemen were traded in exchange for quality NHL veterans including one third of our current defense corps.
  • Brian Pothier (traded for Shawn McEachern)
  • Kurtis Foster (traded for Nic Havelid)
  • Braydon Coburn (traded for Alexei Zhitnik)
  • Mike Weaver.
So in reality the Thrashers farm system accounts for four of the six starting defensemen on the roster: Enstrom, Exelby, Havelid and Zhitnik. That puts thinks in a bit of different light doesn't it? Not exactly "little to show" is it?

OK, while we are at it let's take a look at how the Thrashers compare to all 30 NHL teams in terms of draftees (since 1999) who are on their current roster. This includes forwards, defensemen and goalies. Here's how it breaks down:
  • 12 Players: SJS
  • 10 Players: WAS, MIN, PIT, EDM
  • 9 Players: DBJ, DET, BUF, OTT
  • 8 Players: DAL, MON, NYR
  • 7 Players: ATL, NAS, VAN, CHI, COL, STL, FLA
  • 6 Players: PHX
  • 5 Players: TBL, NYI, LAK, TOR, ANA, CGY, PHI
  • 4 Players: BOS, CAR, NJD
Once again we see that the data clearly indicate that the Atlanta Thrashers are just average in terms of players drafted since 1999 on their current roster. I said this last spring when I did my analysis of the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 drafts (clink on the links if you want to see a more hard core analysis of those drafts). The Thrashers have not been great, nor have they been terrible, they are simply average. Even when you adjust for picking high in the first round they still just average.


Don Waddell has made some mistakes as GM, but most people I read seem obsessed with the draft which is the wrong place to look. If you want to criticize Don Waddell at least know what you're talking about. He hasn't been a terrible GM in terms of drafting and developing talent. He's been rather middle of the pack. The NHL is not Lake Wobegon--not every GM is going to be above average. Now maybe you expect more than average--that's your perogative as a fan--but saying he is terrible at drafting is simply not correct.

Friday, October 19, 2007

First Step Back from the Brink

Last night was a good game for the Atlanta Thrashers, however, it was one game and it must be followed up by several more wins if this club is to dig themselves out of the basement. The good news is that three more wins puts them back around the playoff cutoff point in the standings.

Quite a few veteran players who have struggled so far this season turned in good games. Jim Slater had one of the best games that I can recall, delivering a good hit and making himself useful offensively. Holik had a good game against the top line of New York and Larsen was decent on the penalty kill and made perhaps the best pass of his NHL career to set up the first goal. In fact pretty much every player on the roster did something positive last night--it was a true team win.

The team didn't finish off some of their early opportunities as Hossa hit the post and Slava Kozlov just missed scoring a goal as well. The slow developing Perrin short handed tally was a gift from the Rangers that was a real game breaker as it put Atlanta up 3-0 after the Rangers looked like they might cut the lead to 2-1.

The Rookie Line continued their strong play and scored a goal (Bryan Little). Brett Sterling isn't scoring much but he did get involved physically and got the opposition to take a penalty against him last night.

The special teams were good when it really counted. I noticed on the first power play that they were doing a three man rotation up at the top of the zone. I don't know if that was a new strategy or just player improvisation but I liked it. They were moving during the power play opening up new passing lanes and giving the Rangers PK unit problems. Later on the 5>3 the Thrashers fell back into standing around looking for the perfect pass.

Enstrom was on the ice for 3 of the 5 Thrasher goals and came back from what looked like a knee injury much to my relief.

On principle I didn't like Exelby not fighting with Orr when he challenged him, but if memory serves wasn't it Orr who gave Exelby a concussion a while back in a fight? If that is the case I don't fault him for wanting to stay healthy and in the line up. Exelby's hit was clean and he didn't have anything to stand up for in my view. McCarthy acquitted himself well considering he is not really a tough guy (although we would drop the gloves back in juniors).

The team got solid play in the nets from both Lehtonen and Hedberg. It is unknown how long Lehtonen will be out of action. On the bright side the organization has built depth at every position including goal which should help the team weather injuries.

I'm not going to get overly excited about one win. The team looked energized and much happier (in my opinion) and had great jump. They will need to keep that going. I thought the Rangers looked completely out of it until the Exelby hit on Prucha woke them from their slumber. It better test will be the road game at Tampa (where the team often struggles) against a divisional rival in their own building. If we win that game and then again at Toronto then we will be on a roll.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hartley, Waddell and the Players

Back on April 6, 2007 I wrote a post entitled Has This Team Outgrown Bob Hartley? in which I said the following:

"When Bob Hartley was hired he brought some badly needed discipline, organization and a stiff upper lip. He hammered away at the need for players to stay in the fight and keep battling away. The Thrashers were young, unstructured and lacked confidence. However, those words no longer describe this team.

"The Thrashers now have one of the oldest rosters in the NHL. They have veterans who have been around the league for years--people who ought to know where to put their stick in the faceoff circle. This is no longer a club of young kids taking on the big bad National Hockey League and as a consequence they need don't need a coach who is going to lead the charge over the barricades. What this team needs is a coach who make the roster function together with maximum efficiency, and I'm pretty sure the Hartley is not the guy."

In that post I gave my reasons for doubting Hartley as the best possible coach for this team. In summary they included:
  • Lack of power play effectiveness with All-Star talent
  • Failure of the penalty killing
  • Tendency to play favorites
  • Failure to establish a goalie rotation
  • Lack of trust in young players
Then when Hartley pulled the plug on Kari Lehtonen after just one playoff start I wrote the following: "Bottom line--I think Hartley's job depends on how this turns out. By suddenly changing up the goalies after just one game, Hartley has put the focus on the coach and not on the player's performance. If it doesn't work and the team loses in the first round I wouldn't be surprised in the least of he is fired/not renewed for next season."

OK, so I was off by about 6 games. In retrospect I think it is pretty clear that Hartley was not the best person to coach this team with this set of players. He probably should have been replaced this summer, but that is very hard thing to do when a guy has behind the bench for your first ever playoff appearance.

Who is to blame?
When a team goes 0-9 and is outscored 27 to 9 EVERYBODY deserves some blame (just like everyone deserves some credit when you win). I've already stated the shortcomings of the coach so let's continue.

General Manager Don Waddell has assembled a roster that I believed would contend for the playoffs all year. I still think it is entirely possible they will make the playoffs, despite the terrible start. But I don't think that this team is a lock for the playoffs and that is because of flaws in the way this roster was constructed.

As I mentioned in a recent post, athletes in every professional sport decline as they move past age 30, and in most sports (including hockey) player performance tends to collapse as they move past age 33. Despite this tendency, the Thrasher organization has repeatedly gambled that they are smart enough to pick out which players will beat the odds and still be good at the end of their careers. Todd White was given a very long contract when you consider that he is not a All-Star level player. Slava Kozlov had a career high and at his age he is almost certain not to repeat that performance during his new deal. Steve Rucchin was given a two-year deal and can not perform because of injury (also more likely as players age)

But far and away the most damaging decision was the signing of Bobby Holik for $4.25 million a season. He has been an incredible bust. He is a good penalty killer during his time in Atlanta, nor has he provided the sort of leadership they expected. His salary plus the money given to Rucchin could have been used to re-sign a top center such as Marc Savard (or someone with a similar talent level). Imagine how much better this club would be if Eric Perrin was our (cheap) checking center and we had a skilled guy like Mike Comrie or Savard centering one of the top lines?

Finally my other major criticism of Don Waddell is that when he constructs a roster there is no apparent over-arching plan. Are the Thrashers a fast team? Are the Thrashers a big team? Are the Thrashers a physical team? Are the Thrashers a puck skill team? I don't think you say yes to any of those questions.

It seems to me that as a GM, Waddell always tries to take the best player available in the draft or tries to sign the best free agency bargains. In the short run that certainly makes sense, but in the long run--and I say this as someone who has watched virtually every single game in Atlanta Thrashers history--far too often these individual bargains do not mesh together into a coherent whole.

From time to time Waddell has talked about fielding a fast skating Western Conference team (which got completely outskated by real Western Conference teams last year). After the lockout team toughness was touted when Holik was signed. Then this fall we heard more the addition of more speed. These shifts are evidence of modest changes not an organization philosophy.

We are not a power team, we are not a speedy team, we are not a skill team--we have some of these elements but the Thrashers have never had any consistent team identity the roster has always been a mishmash of interesting pieces. A "little of this and a little of that"might produce a good omelet at breakfast, but it doesn't seem to produce a great hockey team. Look at the best teams and you can quickly point out their trademarks: Detroit (skill, puck possession), Dallas (rock-solid defensive hockey) Ducks (aggressive and tough), Buffalo (skilled and quick), Ottawa (size, speed and skill). The Thrashers are tending towards to small and skilled but that looks more like an accident than a conscious plan.

The Players
Finally it is time to discuss the players. The best guys on the squad this year are the rookies. They showed up and were ready to play physically and mentally. The same can not be said of the veterans who have turned in an embarrassing performance. How many years has Alexei Zhitnik played in the NHL? Shouldn't he know how to get himself ready for the season? Why do veteran leaders like Nic Havelid keep giving away the puck? How many times is Bobby Holik going to get called for the same hooking penalty--these new rules have been around for 170 games now I think.

These guys are professionals and they right now they are playing like amateurs. They look unprepared, unfocused and undisciplined. In many private industries those three attributes would lead directly to becoming unemployed. In my line of work I don't have the luxury of not showing up for work.

It was a series of failures that put this team into their current position. It is going to take a series of good decisions to get them back on track again. But at least the team is interesting again. I was nearing the point of not wanting to watch the games anymore. They have my attention again, so please give me a reason to stay tuned.

Hartley Fired

According to TSN.

Well that saves me from writing my "It's time for a change" post.

I'll have comments later. I must get back to work now.

Almost Time

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thrashers Times

In case you missed it, a new one stop shop for Thrashers News was recently created called Thrashers Times. It lists the three most recent articles from the and all the Thrasher blogs so it is the most convenient place to go if you want to see what other folks are writing about the home town team. I've added a link to it on the sidebar.

J.P. started one for all the Capitals bloggers and George from Talking Thrash took the lead and set one up for Atlanta fans. I'm not one who posts a ton of links so I'm glad to see this site go up as well. Between the Southeast Shootout (Divisional blogs) and now Thrashers Times (Thrashers blogs) we fans have some handy resources available to stay on top of things.

Finally, it is good to see that we have enough bloggers to merit something like this. I first started blogging after the lockout because there was so little Thrasher content out there. I wanted to read more stuff myself and I guessed that there must be others who felt the same way. They always say "write the book you would like to read" so I took that approach with blogging. My blog favors numbers and analysis because I enjoy reading that sort stuff about baseball.

NHL Scoring Falling Again

Chris Boersma posted these numbers in a discussion over at Canucks Corner. I found it interesting.

Combined Goals Per Game in the NHL
6.14 1st half of 05-06
5.96 2nd half of 05-06
5.81 1st half of 06-07
5.70 2nd half of 06-07
5.34 through 10-12 of 07-08

After the lockout scoring went up because more penalties were called and a larger percentage of each game was spent in special teams situations. Even after the NHL eliminated much of the clutch and grab and interference tactics scoring at even strength did not shoot upward. Scoring went up in 2005-06 because there were a lot more power plays. Now that NHL players have adjusted to the new rules the number of PP minutes per game has also declined. It looks like scoring has also started to tumble as well.

Now you don't have to me a math major to see that the trend is towards less goal scoring. This trend has been evident since the 1980s when combined goals per game peaked. The rule changes brought a one time jump in scoring after the lockout but the trend line downward once again.

What I find most interesting is that the trend toward less goal scoring is evident if virtually every single high level hockey league. You will find the same pattern in major junior hockey, European Pro Leagues in Russia, Sweden, Finland, etc. No matter where you look the long term trend is for less scoring.

To me this suggests that the cause of decreased scoring must be something more widespread that affected the entire hockey world on both sides of the Atlantic. Is better goalie techniques? Bigger goalies? Greater emphasis on defensive play? Larger players? That is difficult to sort out.
I do know that if the trend toward fewer goals continues I would be in favor of a modest increase in the size of the nets. A few years ago in the NFL the was an increase in field goals and decrease in touchdowns. The league considered this bad for the sport so the narrowed the uprights to making kicking a field goal more risky which would cause more coaches to go for the (more exciting) touchdown. Baseball years ago lowered the pitchers mound when pitching got the upper hand on hitting. When your sport is in a 20 year period of offensive decline I think that is is time to consider making adjustments to bring balance back to the offense/defense equation.

Now I'm calling for a return of 7-8 goal games like we saw in the 1980s but the historical average for the NHL since World War II is 6.4 combined goals per game. I'd like to see the league get closer to the historical average. At the moment we are below that average and moving further away from it with each passing year.

Monday, October 15, 2007

If At First You Don't Succeed, Try New D Pairings

Craig Custance reports on his beat blog that the top defensive pairing of Zhitnik and Havelid will be split up and Havelid will pair with Enstrom and Zhitnik with McCarthy (Klee and Exelby are to remain together).

The official reasoning is that Zhitnik and Havelid are both "too quiet" on the ice and need to play with more vocal partners. If the ability to talk out the ice is so crucial, wouldn't Aaron Ward be an All-Star defensemen?

Havelid has not been handling the puck cleanly at times and I like pairing him with Enstrom who is very good with the puck. If the puck is dumped in on Havelid's side he should be able to reverse it over to Enstrom for a good breakout pass.

I'm not so sure what to make of the Zhitnik-McCarthy pairing. But I like the fact that something new is being tried. All of top four have schorched by the opposition in the first five games. It wasn't working so trying new combinations makes some sense.

The really big question is how the ice time will be distributed. Will all three pairings see relatively equal time of Coach Hartley pick out one as his top pairing and put them on against the Briere-Gagne line? Personally I'm curious to see how Enstrom matches up with Briere--both guys are smallish and very skilled. Enstrom has the wheels to stay with Briere and speed and positioning will probably be more important than size against that line.

The Thrashers Re-Gift This One

I watched the game Sunday night after a 24 hour cooling off period. A couple of comments before I run down the goals for and against. This was the best Thrasher effort of the season, better than the loss to Ottawa and Brodeur gave up five goals and yet somehow they still lost. Just amazing.

  • Passing REALLY matters for this team's offense. Both of Kovalchuk's goals came about because of great passes. The Haydar goal was also made possible by a great pass.
  • The Thrashers were called for two interference calls where they made contact with a Devil player who did not have possession of the puck--yet this exact series of events happened to Brett Sterling along the wall just prior to the Haydar goal and I didn't any referee's arm going up. If they're going to call it very close it that should have been a penalty on New Jersey.
  • The Thrashers really dominated the 2nd period--well the first 19 minutes of it at least. Watching the second period on tape I kept thinking "how in the world did we lose this game?"
  • Ilya Kovalchuk is playing some the of best hockey I've ever seen out of him in the NHL. He was perfect on the PK, scored two goals and busted his butt every single shift. If this team were 5-0 instead of 0-5 people might be talking about him for the MVP race. But the struggles of the team are going to cause many to ignore his performance.
  • The Rookie Line (Sterling-Little-Haydar) created four scoring chances in the 1st and 2nd period and were the best line all night. Why did the barely see the ice in the third? Those guys have been on for almost no goals against early on this season.

NJ 1-0 Interference call on Havelid. PP rebound goal. Larsen's man scores you can see him trailing behind the man who jumps into the crease. Brad Larsen has been on the ice for 13 of the 23 goals the team has allowed so far this season.

ATL 1-1 Little gains the zone (i.e. no dump and chase) and dishes off to Haydar who has loads of time and space as both Devils defensemen collapse back on Little. He wires one one off the post and in for his first career goal.

NJ 2-1 Sterling sent off for holding and Elias gets a goal that bounces in off his shin pad. Larsen is trailing behind him in a futile effort. In all honesty I'm not sure there was much Larsen could have done short of hauling him down and creating a 5 on 3. I'll call this one a favorable bounce for New Jersey Devils.

ATL 2-2 Kovalchuk wrister short side that Brodeur probably should have had off a nice pass from Kozlov (again after they gain the zone with speed--no dump and chase here either).

ATL 3-2 Exelby fires it into the net as four bodies hit the ice including Brodeur. This was a favorable break for the Thrashers as the Devils defensemen did the dirty work of making this goal possible.

ATL 4-2 Boulton attempts a shot/pass that produces a juicy rebound for Holik who smartly tossed a soft backhand shot upstairs quickly. Kozlov probably would have tried to settle the puck before attempting a perfect shot but Holik just snapped it quickly and Brodeur had no time to adjust.

NJ 4-3 This was the beginning of the collapse. A late period goal off a rebound. Zhitnik had no idea where his man was but Lehtonen has to shoulder most of the blame for a terrible rebound. Here's the bad news for Kari--everyone in the league is going to see that most of the goals on him are coming because of screens, rebounds or tip-ins which means that EVERY smart team is going to attempt more of this stuff in the future.

NJ 4-4 Puck goes in the corner, Zhitnik eliminates his man from the play, the puck is sent into the crease where it is stopped by Boulton's skate. It then slides loose into the low slot where Zajac beats three Thrashers to the loose puck. Havelid took a weak stab at it before Zajac lifts it upstairs for a the tying goal. The coverage MUST be better than this! By the third period everyone in the building could see that New Jersey was throwing every puck into the low slot. Zajac should never have been that wide open in the first place. The Thrashers were not short handed which should have allowed for tighter coverage.

NJ 5-4 Stop me if you're hear this before. Devil player throws puck at the net-->rebound-->scramble won by New Jersey player-->goal. McCarthy's man scored. If he eliminates his man instead of looking for the puck the goal never happens.

ATL 5-5 White gains the zone (i.e. no dump and chase) and makes a sweet pass for a classic Kovalchuk one-time for a goal. With all the bad stuff that has been happening I have not mentioned that Todd White has played pretty well after a shaky opening night. Hopefully this is the start of some beautiful chemistry between those two.

NJ 6-5 Exelby takes a totally unnecessary penalty in the final 2 minutes of the game. This completely changes the momentum of the game. Personally I'd bench him and put Popovic into the lineup, what he did was selfish and stupid. The Thrashers PK was never able to obtain possession of the puck nor was Kari able to freeze it on a save. They were absolutely exhausted. Sitting up the in stands I said "Zhitnik is so tired he isn't even bothering to skate into the corner to try and get to the puck" and the puck comes out to the point for a slapper-->Goal.

Epilogue: With less than 16 second to go a last-gasp scoring attempt comes up 2-3 inches short as Brodeur reaches back to collect the slow moving puck. I was sitting right above the net and there is no way the entire puck ever crossed the line. Game over man.

Naming Names (updated for the Devils debacle)


Playing well: Little, Kozlov, Haydar, Kovalchuk, White, Thorburn.

Playing poorly: Perrin, Slater, Larsen.

Question: Why do people continue to wax on about Slater's effort? He takes dumb penalties and he doesn't get the job done when he is on the ice. I think he and Larsen should sit and Hossa and Throburn dress the next game.

Forwards GF GA Diff GFA GAA
Little 3 0 +3 2.49 0.00
Kozlov 3 1 +2 2.21 0.74
Haydar 2 0 +2 7.07 0.00
Kovalchuk 4 4 E 2.38 2.38
White 5 5 E 3.06 306
Thorburn 0 0 E 0.00 0.00
Dupuis 2 3 -1 1.72 2.57
Sterling 2 4 -2 1.73 3.47
Hossa 1 3 -2 1.52 4.57
Boulton 1 3 -2 1.88 5.65
Holik 3 6 -3 2.58 5.16
Perrin 0 5 -5 0.00 4.28
Slater 0 11 -11 0.00. 11.41
Larsen 1 13 -12 0.91 11.89

Chart Legend GF=Goals For (when that players is on the ice), GA = Goals Against, Diff = Net difference between GF and GA. GFA = Goals For Average or the team's offensive output (when that player is on the ice) per 60 minutes, GAA = Goals Against Average or the team's defensive output per 60 minutes.


Playing well so far: Enstrom and Popovic

Playing poorly: everyone else. When any of our top four defensemn (by ice time) are out on the ice the Thrashers are giving up goals at a rate of 5 per game. Wow.

Question: At what point do you start to give Popovic and Enstrom more ice time?

Defense GF GA Diff GFA GAA
Enstrom 3 3 E 1.86 0.00
Popovic 0 0 E 0.00 0.00
Havelid 5 9 -4 2.54 4.57
Klee 2 6 -4 1.80 5.39
Zhitnik 5 11 -6 2.39 5.27
Exebly 2 8 -6 1.32 5.27
McCarthy 1 9 -8 0.67 6.05

Penalty Killing Unit

Playing well: Slava Kozlov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pascal Dupuis, Eric Perrin.

Playing poorly: Brad Larsen, Jim Slater, Marian Hossa, Ken Klee, Alexei Zhitnik, Bobby Holik.

Question: When the Thrashers killed the 4 minute double to Bryan Little, Slava Kozlov and Todd White and Perrin were out there a lot, shouldn't that happen more often?

Larsen 21.6 22.22
Slater 15.8 19.03
Hossa 3.8 15.79
Klee 11.8 15.25
Zhitnik 24.4 14.74
Holik 4.3 14.01
Exelby 18.7 12.87
Havelid 24.6 12.18
McCarthy 11.1 10.86
White 12.1 9.92
Dupuis 14.0 8.56
Perrin 9.6 6.23
Kozlov 3.2 0.00
Kovalchuk 7.2 0.00
Enstrom 1.9 0.00
Sterling 1.8 0.00
Boulton 1.1 0.00

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Tough Day for Hockey In Atlanta

Bob Johnson who coached the Wisconsin Badgers and Pittsburgh Penguins was famous for his saying "It's a great day for hockey!" but Saturday was just the opposite--it was a very tough day for hockey in Atlanta.

Before the Thrasher game the Atlanta Amateur Hockey League laid to rest a pillar of the local hockey community Larry Pickett. Larry was the long-time secretary of the league and his wife continues to work with the league. Five years ago in his mid-40s Larry was diagnosed with ALS and after a brave struggle the disease took his life this week. Larry was a good hockey player (he skated around me more than a few times) but an even better person. He will be greatly missed by the hockey community here.

I don't really push causes on this blog, but if any readers are interested, Hannah Dudley is walking in memory of Larry in the upcoming Walk to Defeat ALS fundraiser in Atlanta. If you wish to participate or assist her, click here to go to her page. I myself have participated in the walk in the past on behalf of Carrie Meystrik the wife of a team mate who was also burdened with this disease.

In addition to the loss of Larry, another long-time AAHL player Terry Gahl passed away and will be laid rest on Sunday. I played one season against Terry and his son in one of the local leagues and it is very sad to know that another young man has lost his father at an early age.

So I went to the Thrasher game tonight hoping for a bit of diversion or at least a pleasant distraction and for a while it seemed I would get my wish as the team jumped out to 4-2 lead midway through the game. Martin Brodeur was not at his best but the Thrashers failed to take advantage of a rare 5 goals against by the New Jersey star and let this one slip away. Frankly, I'm worn out right now and a bit emotional so I'll just end by saying this team is going nowhere until it gets better play out of the top defensive pairing of Zhitnik and Havelid.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Naming Names

I could write something like "this team sucks right now" but if you're been watching the games that is not exactly a news flash. I'll leave the emotional responses to other bloggers to express and try do some analysis. The sock puppet asked me to update the numbers and I will.

I'll name the names of who is not playing well and who is so far in this young season. Let's see who is on the ice for when the Thrashers score (Goals For) and when they get scored upon (Goals Against). Look at the column labeled "Net" to see if a particular player has been on the ice for more goals for or more goals against.

Forwards GF GA Net GFA GAA
Little 2 0 +2 2.05 0.00
Kozlov 2 1 +1 1.77 0.89
White 3 2 +1 2.31 1.54
Kovalchuk 2 2 E 1.47 1.47
Thorburn 0 0 E 0.00 0.00
Boulton 0 2 -2 0.00 5.46
Hossa 1 3 -2 1.52 4.57
Dupuis 1 3 -2 1.00 3.01
Perrin 0 4 -4 0.00 4.37
Holik 1 5 -4 1.06 5.28
Sterling 0 4 -4 0.00 4.14
Slater 0 8 -8 0.00 11.09
Larsen 0 9 -9 0.00 10.94
It looks like the Thrashers best player so far this season is a 19 year old rookie who was playing in the Ontario Hockey League last year, Bryan Little. The team has scored twice while he was on the ice (he scored one of those two goals) and he has been on the ice for zero goals against. That is quite a feat when you consider that team has allowed 17 goals against so far. So my hat is off to the rookie for playing well when others around him have not.

Only four other players are positive or even, Slava Kozlov, Todd White, Ilya Kovalchuk and Thorburn. Again, being just even in the net category is an accomplishment on a team that has been outscored 17-4 so far this season. I have to say I've been very impressed with the play of Kovalchuk all season. He is getting scoring chances, playing better defense and standing up for team mates. Unfortunately the same things cannot be said of the rest of the squad.

OK so who is getting schooled out there on the ice so far this year? Well Larsen and Slater have getting absolutely torched so far. Both have been on the ice for 4 Even Strength Goals Against and another 4 or 5 Power Play Goals Against. They have not gotten the job down at either even strength of on the penalty kill. Honestly I don't understand why Slater is not scratched and Thorburn given a shot at more playing time. Slater has taken several dumb selfish penalties that put his team in a bind and when he is on the ice he is getting a sun burn from seeing the red light go off all the time.

Other early season goats include Sterling, Holik and Perrin. Sterling is a rookie learning to play the opposite wing and he has struggled--so I'll cut him a bit of slack given his situation. The other two guys Perrin and Holik came to Atlanta with reputations as strong defensive players but so far they have not shown much evidence of that this season. Holik in particular may be one of the most over-rated players in recent NHL history, but more about that when we get to the PK unit.

Now as the sock puppet noted, ice time can be a factor in the raw GF and GA numbers because someone like Kovalchuk plays a lot more minutes that Dupuis. So I converted the raw GF and GA into Goals For Average (team offense per 60 when that player is on the ice) and GAA (team goals allowed per 60 minutes when that player is on the ice). But to be honest we are so early in the season that ice time differences are not as huge as they will be in a month so the GFA and GAA generally just confirm what the raw number indicate.

Now let's turn to the defense. Mark Popovic is the only even player but he is a rookie who has played just 15 minutes all season (still he played 1/4 of the Buffalo game and was not on the ice for any of the 6 goals so good for him).

Defense GF GA Net GFA GAA
Popovic 0 0 E 0.00 0.00
Enstrom 1 3 -2 0.75 2.25
Havelid 3 6 -3 1.96 3.92
Zhitnik 2 6 -3 1.83 3.65
McCarthy 1 6 -5 0.83 5.00
Klee 0 6 -6 0.00 6.93
Exelby 0 7 -7 0.00 5.75

Among the regular defensemen rookie Tobias Enstrom has the best raw goals against (-3) and the best GAA (2.25) but he also doesn't see much PK time so that helps him. Still I find it interesting that when we look at both defense and forwards we see that it is THE ROOKIES who are performing the best in the early going.

The defense pairing of Zhitnik and Havelid has been on the ice for 6 goals a piece which pretty much matches McCarthy, Klee and Exelby--but the big difference is that the team has scored when they are out there so the goal differential for those two defensemen is not as ugly looking.

The worst defensemen so far this year are Exelby, Klee and McCarthy. Klee was scratched for the Buffalo game and Exelby and McCarthy played together which hurt McCarthy's numbers because Exelby continued to get toasted by opposition forwards. At some point do you move Enstrom up to the top four and move Exelby back down to the third pairing with McCarthy?

The Penalty Kill
Early on the team is just getting ripped when they are a man down. So which players are performing the best and worst when we are short handed? I calculated the team GAA when each player is out there on the PK. The results may surprise you.

The table below displays each player who has at least 1 minute of Short Handed Ice Time (SH TOI) and the team's Goals Against Average (SH GAA) when they were out there on the PK. So far Kovalchuk, Kozlov and Perrin have been perfect on the PK. So far each have only seen a few minutes. Which raises the question why not give Kozlov and Perrin more PK minutes if the other guys are getting destroyed out there?

Speaking of getting destroyed Bobby Holik leads the way. This is the guy we are paying $4.25 to provide us with defense, leadership, penalty killing and faceoff wins. Well at least we are getting one out of four. Bobby Holik is an expensive albatross around the neck of this team. He's about as useful as a gold plated toilet on a bass boat. Looks like there was a reason why the New Jersey Devils never used him much as a Penalty Killer. Last year he finished dead last among all forward PK members and the team cut his SH TOI way back after Belanger and Dupuis arrived. Coincidence? I think not. There is a big chuck of data that shows his defensive reputation simply does hold with the facts when it comes to the man dis-advantage.

Kovalchuk 4.85 0.00
Perrin 6.13 0.00
Kozlov 1.23 0.00
White 7.3 8.22
Dupuis 11.87 10.11
Hossa 3.8 15.79
Slater 13.6 17.65
Larsen 15.98 18.77
Holik 2.93 20.45
Enstrom 1.88 0.00
McCarthy 9.65 6.22
Havelid 17.77 10.13
Zhitnik 17.55 10.26
Exelby 13.77 17.43
Klee 8.32 21.6

Among the defensemen we see that Enstrom is at the top but his minutes have also been quite limited so far. Maybe he should see more minutes? Klee and Exebly have been absolutely torched when out there on the PK. Havelid and Zhitnik have been better but not good enough.

OK, I'm done looking at ugly numbers. Basically the best players on the Atlanta Thrashers so far this season have been rookies and the worst players have been the veterans. Which raises some questions. Was the team unprepared for the start of the season? Shouldn't veterans know how to get themselves ready to play? If the veterans did prepare are they fed up with Hartley and trying to get him fired? All I can say is stay tuned. Things may not get better immediately but they will get more interesting I think. They are either going to start winning or we are going to see locker room dirty laundry be aired in public, one or the other is bound to happen.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Concerned? Yes. Paniced? Not Yet.

There is no way to make 0-3 look pretty. It is a bad way to start the season. What should we think? What does this mean for the season?

Is a 0-3 start fatal? Absolutely not. When I look at last season's schedule on page 116 of my spanking new 2007-08 Thrashers Media Guide I see this set of interesting facts: Last year the Thrashers had a lot of streaks:
  • Won 5 in a row: 3 times
  • Won 4 in a row: 2 times
  • Won 3 in a row: 2 times
  • Won 2 in a row: 5 times
  • Lost 2 in a row: 3 times
  • Lost 3 in a row: 1 time
  • Lost 4 in a row: 2 times
  • Lost 5 in a row: 2 times
It may be hard to believe but the Thrashers had losing streaks of three or more games a surprising five times last season and STILL won their division and made the playoffs. So losing three games in a row is hardly a fatal blow to the teams hopes.

So you're not worried? Well......yes I am. The schedule to start the season is pretty rough. Before the season began I honestly expected the Thrashers to finish the month of October with a losing record. Why? Because the Thrashers play many quality teams early and they play many road games early in the season. Last year the team struggled in months (Jan, Feb) where they played a lot of playoff teams and excelled when they played a weaker schedule (Oct, Dec). Here is a breakdown of the 2007-08 Thrashers schedule by month showing the percentage of games versus opponents that made the playoffs the previous season.
  • 58% OCT
  • 42% NOV
  • 44% DEC
  • 54% JAN
  • 50% FEB
  • 29% MAR/APR
As you can see October has the highest share of playoff teams of any month this year (with JAN coming in 2nd) The season starts off difficult and then is softer in NOV and DEC and the end of the schedule is much easier. But the team needs to stay in the hunt long enough to have a shot at rolling a big win total in March and April. If they fall apart early those easy games late in the season will not be of any help.

What should be the Thrashers goal? Right now the team, coaches and management have to focus on limiting the damage in this month so that they do not fall too far behind. The team cannot afford to finish October six, seven or eight games behind the division leaders. They must stay within sight of the other playoff clubs in the division.

What is working right now? I'd say the power play looks much sharper than last year. No they are not scoring loads of power play goals right now but they are doing the little things that will eventually result in more goals. Last season people were afraid to shoot the puck and there is was way too much passing around the perimeter looking for the perfect chance. I see much less of that so far and more point shots on net that have produced rebounds. They have been a little unlucky early on and in not being able to cash in on rebound chances, but if they keep doing what they are doing goals will come.

I'd also say the goaltending has also been decent. When you're 0-3 the goaltending could always be better, but the majority of the goals that the team has allowed have been screen shots where the net minder had little chance to stop the shot. It is also hard to win when the offense only scores 1 goal in two of your games.

What is not working? The Thrashers don't have the puck on offense enough and the other teams are getting way too many chances against Atlanta.

The offense is simply not generating enough chances on a consistent basis. It could be a lack of chemistry, but I'm more concerned that it is a product of their style of play. The 2007-08 Thrashers are smaller but quicker. When you're smaller you are less likely to win those battles along the boards than when you are big. But the team continues to rely on the dump and chase strategy and I'm not sure that is a good idea in the long run. They may have to add more puck possession to their game plan to keep control of the puck and keep the time of possession more even. The Thrashers best goal scoring chances this season have often come from players do free lance stuff with the puck instead of playing dump and chase.

The Thrashers rank dead last (30th) in shots on goal against. A good part of that is the fact that the defense is simply not that fast. For the Thrashers to succeed they must 1) anticipate where the puck is going to dumped into their zone 2) skate hard to get there first 3) make the right decision and move the puck effectively 4) wingers must clear when it comes around to their side. There have been breakdowns in all four areas early in the season--they simply must get better. I will say that the Thrashers seemed to make an adjustment to Ottawa after the first and really cut down on the chances against in the 2nd and 3rd periods.

Hey I thought you were a stats blogger, how about some numbers?

OK, here is where the team ranks in the very early going.

  • Offense (Goals For Average): Tied for 27th (with three other teams)
  • Defense (Goals Against Average): Tied for 23rd (with three other teams)
  • Goal Differential: Tied for 27th (with three other teams)
  • Shots On Goal For: 28th
  • Shots on Goal Against: 30th
  • Save %: 19th (between Anaheim and Detroit)
  • Power Play %: 22th (tied with Buffalo)
  • Penalty Kill %: 21st (tied with Chicago)
Who is out on the ice when the Thrashers get scored on? The Thrashers have allowed 11 goals and Exelby and Klee were out on the ice for over half of them (6 of 11). Slater was right behind them.

-6 Exelby
-6 Klee
-5 Slater
-4 Larsen
-3 McCarthy
-3 Perrin
-3 Sterling
-3 Hossa
-3 Zhitnik

Who out on the ice when the offense scores so far?

+3 Todd White
+3 Alexei Zhitnik
+3 Nic Havelid
+2 Kovalchuk
+2 Kozlov
+2 Little

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