Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thrashers Take on Toronto Tonight

The Thrashers have seen little action and I've been busy wrapping up the end of the semester. I'm looking forward to the game versus the Leafs tonight. Click here to read a long interview with Don Waddell in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Brodeur cools down Thrashers

One of the posters over at the team boards made a comment that the 3-0 loss to the Devils may be the best shutout loss they've seen. I have to agree. The Thrashers played well and did exactly what you need to do against Brodeur. They found ways to screen him and they fired hard shots that produced rebounds.

Unfortunately those rebounds either bounced the wrong way for Atlanta or Brodeur came up big (like when he stopped Bryan Little from point blank range). The Thrashers have scored quite a few goals on Brodeur the last two seasons but tonight he looked more like the Hall of Fame player that he is. He made a terrific pad extension to block Dupuis who was sprung loose by a great play by Enstrom.

Speaking of Enstrom Craig Custance has a long profile up over at that is quite enjoyable to read. It turns out that he has a sister who plays for the Swedish National Women's team and that his dad is a coach (which may explain his good habits and positioning).

Tonight's battle against Pittsburgh will be a good test. Both teams are very close in the standing and the Thrashers need to play well against non-divisional teams to stay in the top eight that qualify for the playoffs.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

They Did It

The Thrashers pulled it out in OT on Monday and they have climbed from the NHL basement back up to the middle of the pack in just 14 games since the coaching change. Frankly I'm shocked that they accomplished this so quickly. I was hoping to see them hit .500 by around Christmas/New Years.

Can the team keep this up? Well probably not. Let's face it they are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now and it is unlikely they will play this way all year. They underachieved when they started 0-6 and they probably have overachieved going 10-4.

It is also human nature to relax a bit after accomplishing a goal. This team worked very hard to get back to even and they might relax subconsciously. There is a fine line between winning and losing in this new NHL and if they relax they will slump. Also keep in mind that we have also been playing some struggling teams like Florida and Washington. The schedule was very tough in October and significantly easier in November. They will face tough teams and hot teams at some point.

I have to say that Monday's game was probably the most entertaining contest of the whole year. There really is nothing sweeter than a come-from-behind win. When you're trailing 3-1 late in the 3rd period it feels like a surprise gift if you get two points. To be honest the Thrashers played a terrific first period and then ran into trouble due to Tampa's strict neutral zone trap and breakdowns in defensive coverage (Holik, I'm thinking of you). Kovalchuk had some good looks at the net early but shot wide a couple of times.

Perhaps the turning point on Monday was the dive call against Hossa. I can't remember a home crowd being more angry about a call. Fans booed throughout the penalty kill and even after. Once they got vocal the angry noise quickly transitioned into a positive "Let's Go Thrashers" and the home team played with more energy.

It was one of the most poorly officiated games on the year. Both teams got the shaft. Kozlov took an uncalled high stick and I witnessed interference being committed by both clubs. Tampa got some weak calls against them late but they also got the benefit of the diving penalty to Hossa which was marginal.

One key play that might be overlooked took place during the OT power play. Tampa had the puck and was skating around with it just killing time. Who stepped up? Little Tobias Enstrom skated up and checked a much larger Tampa player and dislodged the puck--down the ice they go and White scores the game winner with $14 million dollars in decoys crashing the net with him. I was glad to hear that Enstrom was awarded an assist for his part of the play.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Chance to Complete the Comeback

Tonight the Atlanta Thrashers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at home. A win at home would bring Atlanta back to an even 10-10 record through the one quarter mark of the season.

A win and an Islander loss (they play the Rangers) would move Atlanta into a tie for the final playoff spot in the Eastern conference.

With a win the team can essentially put the horrible 0-6 start behind them. With a win the team can shift their focus from getting back into the playoff competition toward winning home ice advantage for the playoffs.

A big opportunity--how will they respond?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hossa Heats Up

If you missed the Carolina game you really should go watch the highlights as Hossa scored two great goals using both is body control and hands. Todd White also gets major credit as well for making some great passes.

I think the thing that stood out to me about the Carolina contest is that this team is really starting to play with some consistency. We are seeing less of the old up-and-down Thrashers where you never knew which team would show up on a given night. Other than a really ugly effort against Nashville, the team has been fairly consistent for the last month or so.

Perhaps one factor leading to more consistency has been stable forward lines. There has been very little line juggling of late and it appears that the chemistry is starting to develop among team mates who have never played together before. The defensive pairing have only been changed to adjust for the injury to Exelby and they too have put forward a more consistent performance.

I tried to temper my enthusiasm after the last game because I wasn't sure how much credit should have gone to the Thrashers and how much was the product of a tired Florida team. But against Carolina last night the Thrashers again showed some very good defense. The shots against do not reflect just how few quality scoring chances the team allowed. This is a huge step forward from the loose defensive play of early October. Better defense is starting to result in fewer goals against now.

It was good to have Exelby back and his pairing with Ken Klee has become a very solid shut down pairing at even strength. Havelid seems to be emerging from his shell and looking a bit more like Havelid of the 2005-06 season--although I still think he needs to dig more to beat his guy to the corner.

The fourth line had another terrific game. They had two of the best scoring chances of the game (if only Slater had Slava's hands) and it looks like Thorburn's confidence is rising.

Even the Penalty Kill which has been the Thrashers greatest weakness all season was very solid and didn't give up all that many quality shots on goal.

The Darren Eliot made a couple of good points that I will repeat in case you didn't watch the game.
  1. Todd White is looking much more confident, unlike the nervous guy we saw in October.
  2. The Thrashers new breakout in which the forward comes lower takes the pressure off the defensemen to make the breakout pass and the forwards are making MUCH better outlets. The Thrashers are now able to depart their own zone with both speed and puck control instead of just chipping it out to center.
One more game and the team will have completed the first quarter. I'll do some number crunching to see where we are one forth of the way into this season after Monday's game.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

28 Seconds Later

They say that you only need to watch the fourth quarter of a NBA game because that is when most games are decided. Down at Philips Arena, you really only needed to see the final 28 seconds to see tonight's contest swing from a likely 2-1 loss to a 3-2 OT win. It was the sort of night that gives coaches heartburn and ruins their tailored suits.

I'm still sick (too hoarse to change "Hossa, Hossa" or "Kovy, Kovy" unfortunately) and I didn't take super detailed notes, but here are my observations.
  • The Thrashers were all over the Panthers in the first period out shooting them by a wide margin and piling up some nice scoring chances. In the first 10 minutes the Thrashers seemed to gain the Florida zone at will. After that the Panthers went into full trap mode which slowed down the Thrashers attack.
  • The Thrashers 4th line of Slater, Thorburn and Boulton had their best game of the season. They had a couple of shifts where they really bottled up the Panthers in their own end and Thorburn nearly scored his 2nd goal of the year.
  • Zhitnik's struggles continued as his man scored to give Florida a 1-0 when the Thrashers were completely outplaying the opposition. They only showed one replay at the arena but once again Zhitnik looked more like a tourist than a defenseman. McCarthy also made some poor plays in his own end. Exelby cannot return soon enough.
  • On the other hand Enstrom had another quality contest playing almost 27 minutes, making great passes and playing good defense. He had a point and finished +2. I shudder to think where the Thrashers would be without him. I thought Popovic played a solid game and I'd like to see him get more minutes.
  • Kovalchuk had three decent scoring chances in the game and was unable to cash any of them in. But he did finally connect in the OT to get the 2nd standings point. Another game in which Ilya played like a champion.
  • The Thrashers had the better chances in the game, but Anderson was very strong in net for Florida. Perhaps even more frustrating was seeing the power fall back in the bad habit where only Kovalchuk shoots the puck. The power play was ineffective until the very end when the team was desperate and they started throwing pucks at the net. This team MUST learn to do that more often. There are no style points in hockey--an ugly goal counts as much as a pretty one. The Thrashers absolutely need to pass to the man in the slot--even if it doesn't result in a goal it will cause defenders to collapse down low.
  • Another home game and another problem with the stanchions that hold up the glass. It seems to me that this has happed at roughly 1/2 the home games since the the new boards and glass were installed.
  • After the 0-6 start, the team has gone 8-4 and is just two points away from the final playoff slot in the standing. They have nearly dug themselves out of that hole but must continue to play good hockey. This club cannot afford to relax and fall into a losing streak with all of these divisional games this month.
  • One very encouraging trend is that the team has allowed fewer goals lately. They gave up 5 to Carolina but just 2 to Florida and just one to Washington and Florida on the road. In an earlier post I commented that the team must improve their defensive play to have any shot at making the playoffs and they have cut back on the number of games where they allow 4 or 5 or 6 goals against.
The team has just one game in their next 5 days so that gives them a bit of break. Hopefully they can keep up this momentum.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Odds and Ends

Sorry everyone but I've been sick a bit here lately and haven't felt much like posting. I'm sure the game tonight and Saturday will revive me a bit. While ill I did read a couple of interesting thing which I discuss below.

I want to point out that Kevin Allen has a column today that is fun to read and mentions the Thrashers a couple of times, click here to read it. I should mention that Allen has a blog which I only just discovered this last week. It is worth checking out (even some of his older posts) because he is very passionate not just about the NHL but about American hockey which often gets little attention from many American and Canadian newspaper writers. He also pays more attention to the Thrashers than many other NHL commentators do.

Also the Thrashers Prospects Annex has an item about Mike Vannelli whom the Thrashers drafted in the 4th round of teh 2003 NHL draft. He choose not to sign with Atlanta and found himself playing in the ECHL. Perhaps he got some bad advice from his agent, or perhaps he just thought too highly of himself--I don't know, but after moving from one of the elite college teams (Minnesota) to the ECHL he decided to end his pro career at two games and retire.

The Forbes franchise valuations and revenue estimates came out this week. As far as can tell the numbers fit with things that I have heard (if the numbers are wrong the Thrashers are free to dispute them--just send me an email). According to Forbes the team had an operating loss of around $6.5 million last year. The most encouraging thing in the Forbes article on the Thrashers is that revenue appears to be going up. After years of just treading water between $57-60 million the team's revenues in the first post-lockout season rose to $64 million and then rose again to $67 million last season. According to a recent article in the Atlanta Business Journal team officials are reported as saying that advance ticket sales were robust this off season and they need to keep growing revenues at a good clip if they want to continue receiving the maximum in NHL revenue sharing monies.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pavelec Puts on a Show

Rookie Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec helped the Atlanta Thrasher climb right back to within a stone's throw of the Eastern Conference playoff race. In just his fourth profession start (2 in the AHL and 2 in the NHL) he was nothing short of sensational in the 1st period when the Thrashers were flat in the opening period after a long road trip (a very common occurrence in the NHL).

The only goal Pavelec allowed came after he made one save and Washington swung the puck quickly around behind the net and then back out to the crease to a wide open Nylander (I'm not sure what Havelid was looking at on that one).

In his previous start against Tampa Bay Pavelec was very strong despite allowing four goals. The blame for three of those four goals should probably go to Thrasher skaters 1) Exelby (falling down in the crease), 2) Perrin (tipping a low shot into the top of the net) and 3) the penalty killers (for leaving the back door wide open to try and double team someone).

What Pavelec has done so far is just remarkable. He has basically made the jump from junior hockey straight to the NHL and looked pretty solid. Goalies often take longer to develop and they frequently spend a few years in the minors before making the big leagues. Now Pavelec has a some things he needs to work (like loosing sight of the puck after a save) but right now he looks like he belongs in the NHL. (This could give the Thrashers a lot more leverage during contract talks with Lehtonen this summer.)

At least three times in the 1st period I thought that the Capitals were all but certain to score. One player Pavelec robbed in the first period was Chris Bourque who was playing in his first ever NHL game. Prior to the start of the game your blogger stepped into the elevator to go up to my seats and was joined by Ray Bourque and his wife. I quickly asked him to sign my game program since it was his son's first NHL game and he did so. That is the second great defenseman I've met in the last 30 days as I recently talked to Mark Howe on the recent road trip.

One negative is that the Thrashers continued a pattern seen on the recent road trip in which they failed to get shots on net in some of their best scoring chances. One play that stands out took place in the third period with the game tied and the puck was sent across the crease and Todd White just couldn't redirect it into the net. White went on to redeem himself with a terrific goal in OT to get the win (Slava Kozlov made a thread the needle pass to put it on his stick).

Another big storyline from this game was the injury to Ilya Kovalchuk. The Thrashers were on the power play and he let loose one of his trademark slap shots and then stumbled to the ice and slid into the corner. He was obviously in some pain (although he was not writhing around) and left the ice under his own power. In the stands we speculated hamstring, knee and shoulder which all turned out to be wrong as he had back spasms.

If you didn't attend the game you missed Kovalchuk's highlight reel goal which gave the Thrashers an early lead. My friend Adam said he thought it was his best goal of the whole year so far. He came across the blueline cut wide and the defensemen couldn't stay with him so he cut back inside and just snapped off a terrific wrist shot. When the play started I didn't think he would score but Kovalchuk turned a so-so opportunity into a goal. Another clip for his MVP videotape.

Since the game wasn't televised in either market I kept track of good scoring chances. What is a scoring chance you may ask? Well basically my definition was this: "While watching did I say ooooh?" if the answer is "yes" it was a scoring chance for the team that got me excited (or worried).
  • 1st period: 9-5 Capitals
  • 2nd period: 6-2 Thrashers
  • 3rd period: 6-4 Thrashers
  • Overtime period: 3-0 Thrashers

The game had some real swings of emotion as the Capitals dominated the 1st period and start of the 3rd period and the Thrashers controlled the 2nd period and end of the 3rd and the overtime session.

One thing that made me laugh was a contest where they gave a fan some names and he had to say if that person was either a former Capitals coach or a US Senator. I was perfect on that one, too bad that isn't a real game show I could make a fortune. Also amusing was seeing the skit where a Capitals player and Matt the Penalty Box Timekeeper sang the duet "You Don't Bring Me Flowers, Anymore" during an officials timeout.

A win versus Florida puts the Thrasher right smack in the mid section of the Eastern Conference standing. Let's keep the momentum going guys!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Waddell Thrashers-What Has Changed?

You don't need to be a math major to know that the Thrashers 5-3 record under GM Don Waddell is better than their 0-6 record under Bob Hartley. In today's post I will point out which areas have improved and which areas have not since the coaching change took place.

Where has the team improved under Waddell? Offense and Power Play.
  • The team's offense has nearly doubled from a measly 1.5 per game to close 3 per game (I am excluding shoot-out goals). The team's offensive output the last 8 games under Waddell would rank 13th among all 30 NHL teams.
  • Perhaps even more impressive is the turn around of the Thrashers power play. Under Hartley it was an astonishingly bad 8% and under Waddell the man advantage has produced a goal 20% of the time which would rank 11th in the NHL.

What has not improved under Waddell? Defense, Penalty Killing and Goaltending.
  • The Thrashers Goals Against Average is down but even under Waddell the Thrashers rank dead last in terms of goals allowed. This must change for them to have any shot at the playoffs. Even on a successful road trip the team allowed 4 or more goals in half their games.
  • The same goes for the PK unit which actually slipped backwards (thanks to a 2-2 performance by the Ottawa Senators). The Waddell era PK ranks dead last in the league. This too must improve for the club to have a shot at the playoffs.
  • The team has seen their save percentage improve from absolutely brutal (29th) to merely terrible (26th).

Category Hartley Waddell Difference Rank Under BH Rank Under DW
Goals For per Game 1.50 2.89
+2.33 30th 13th
Goals Against per Game 4.50 3.75 -0.83 30th 30th
Shots For per Game 23.5 25.0 +1.5 30th 28th
Shots Against per Game 34.3 32.8 -1.6 30th 28th
PP% 08% 20% +10% 29th 11th
PK% 71% 67% -4% 30th 30th
SV% .869 .885 +.016 29th 26th

Why has the power play improved?
Ilya Kovalchuk has been red hot, but the re-emergence of Slava Kozlov has also been a key. Waddell has also benefited from having a healthy Marian Hossa out there as well. Although Hossa himself has not found the back of the net much the team's power play has been very productive when he is out there on the ice.

The other significant change is the way the power play ice time has been spread around. Under Waddell Tobias Enstrom is the only defenseman receiving any appreciable PP ice time. Zhitnik has been removed and McCarthy has been scratched lately. So the Thrashers PP unit is Enstrom plus Kovalchuk at the other point along with Kozlov, White and Hossa. Sterling and Perrin are seeing fewer minutes under Waddell, while Little, Holik and Haydar are seeing more.

What has changed with the penalty kill?
While the penalty kill has continued to struggle under Waddell it is not from a lack of trying new things. Brad Larsen and Jim Slater were the top two recipients of PK minutes under Bob Hartley. Those two guys were so brutal that readers who have a squeamish stomach might not want to read the next sentence. Under Hartley the team's top two PK forwards were on the ice for a PP goal against every 3.3 minutes of PK ice time-- their PK% was close to 50% or in other words EVERY OTHER PENALTY THEY ALLOWED A PP GOAL.

Don Waddell has basically removed both Slater and Larsen from the PK rotation. Hossa has become the team's #1 PK guy and White has jumped up to the #2, while Perrin and Dupis are #3 and #4. The problem is that most of these guys have seen their effectiveness slip with more PK ice time. The chief exception is Hossa who has been just outstanding in a PK role--if we could clone PK Hossa this team would kill off nearly every opposition power play. Other skill guys doing well in limited minutes are Bryan Little and Ilya Kovalchuk both of whom are perfect as PKers under both Hartley and Waddell. Perhaps their performance should lead to more PK minutes now and then.

What is going on with the defense?

Zhitnik was demoted to the 3rd pairing and Enstrom has become the #1 defenseman in total ice time. McCarthy struggled mightily and was scratched in favor of Mark Popovic who has been solid on the 3rd pairing.

At Even Strength the Klee-Exelby combo is receiving the most minutes and under Waddell. That pairing has allowed the fewest goals against once you factor in the ice time, so the coaching staff is putting out the right people at even strength and reducing the minutes of Havelid but especially Zhitnik.

On the PK Enstrom and Zhitnik have basically switched roles with Enstrom now #2 in PK ice time and Zhitnik now a distant 5th in PK minutes. Among the top four PK defensemen Enstrom and Havelid have been more effective at killing than Exelby and Klee under Waddell.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ilya Kovalchuk is Playing like a MVP

Very early in the season I wrote that Ilya Kovalchuk was playing performing like an MVP but that no one was taking notice because of the team's struggles. Well the NHL season is now roughly 1/6 complete and Ilya Kovalchuk not only has back-to-back hat tricks but he is almost single-handily willing this team back into the playoff race.

His offense ranks him in the top half dozen of the NHL and his defense has taken massive strides forward (zero goals against when on the ice killing penalties so far this year). Kovalchuk is even in plus/minus category--which doesn't sound that impressive until you consider the fact that the Thrashers have been outscored by 22 goals this year! Kovalchuk is just 3 back of the team leader in plus/minus.

Just how valuable has he been to the Thrashers so far this season? Consider this fact: Ilya Kovalchuk has scored or assisted on over half of all the Atlanta Thrasher goals this season. Furthermore, as of today he leads the NHL in the percentage of his team's gaols he helped to create. Simply but the Kovalchuk has been more valuable to his team than any other forward in the NHL so far this season.

Percentage of Team Goals Scored Created by a Player
  1. 54.3% Kovalchuk
  2. 54.1% Crosby
  3. 50.0% Zetterberg
  4. 48.6% Malkin
  5. 47.7% Iginla
  6. 44.2% Alfredsson
  7. 41.5% Stastny
  8. 40.4& Sundin
  9. 37.7% Brind'Amour

Friday, November 02, 2007

Kevin Allen on Don Waddell and The Thrashers

Kevin Allen of USA Today has a new column up on the Thrashers GM Don Waddell. Fans might want to go over and read it because Allen has frequently published news that he could only have gotten from the GM himself, so my assumption is that the two had a long phone conversation recently. It is refreshing to see press coverage at the national level that goes beyond simply regurgitating known facts and actually provides readers some new information.

Who do the Thrashers want as the new coach of the team? The article suggests that the Thrashers are frustrated by not being allowed to contact their top candidates who are assistant coaches in the NHL. Those mentioned by name are Mike Sullivan (Tampa Bay) and Brent Peterson (Nashville). Given those difficulties, Allen reports that Waddell himself may remain behind the bench the rest of the season.

How is Don Waddell perceived within the hockey world? "In a world where everyone is always complaining about something, Waddell always acts as if he is always thankful to make a living in the hockey business. He is well respected around the NHL, and if he gets fired from the Thrashers, it is presumed that he would soon find new employment with the league office or with another team. Most people in hockey like Waddell because he always treats everyone with respect."

Who didn't show up ready to start the season? "He cut Zhitnik's minutes because he decided he wasn't in shape, and he needed to regain his confidence."

What mistakes has Don Waddell made? "Waddell is not working with the league's most talent-laden roster, and certainly he bears responsibility for that. As GM, he pulls the levers behind the curtains. He has made decisions that haven't helped. The signing of Steve Rucchin was a mistake. Waddell is glad he has Bobby Holik, but his $4.5 million salary has made it difficult to build any depth." This echoes my complaints about the team spending too much on older players.

What is Waddell saying in the locker room? "He's selling his players on the fact that they have already played almost 25% of their road games and a now favorable schedule will allow the Thrashers to climb back into contention." As I commented in a post earlier this week, if they can go close to .500 on this road trip it sets them up to make up more ground once they return home.

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