Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hockey Night in Denver

Your blogger has traveled out to Denver Colorado to spend some time with the family, do some skiing and take in a hockey game. The skiing on Monday was perfect with sunshine and only a 30 degree temperature. On Christmas Day about a foot of snow fell adding to the holiday feeling. We certainly don't see much of this in Atlanta!

So on Tuesday the young ones opened stocking hung by the chimney with care.
Thursday night I headed down to the Pepsi Center to see the Detroit Red Wings take on the Colorado Avalanche. No complaints about the view from my seat.

The Avalanche have a few more banners than the Thrashers do at this point.
There were a great many Red Wings fans in attendance. This guy had the ultimate jacket to silence any taunting Aves fan. Gaudy? Yes. Effective? Yes. The way the Wings are playing that guy might need to add something this summer.
There was at least one Thrasher fan bringing a bit of Blueland to Devner that night.
The Avalanche game production staff had a bit of fun mocking all the Wings fans. Here they framed a group with the caption "Santa's Naughty List" and of course the Aves fans were on "Santa's Nice List."
Joe Sakic was out of the lineup so the Avalanche were missing quite a bit of star power. Here is their netminder Peter Budaj tracking the puck.
Former Thrasher Brett Clark received a lot of ice time. Here he is protecting the crease area.
Here is the perhaps the best player in the NHL in the last decade in my opinion. Now wearing the "C" with the retirement of legendary captain Steve Yzerman.
Did I mention that I have a man-crush for Nick Lidstrom? Easily my favorite non-Thrasher playing in the NHL today.
Another future Hall of Famer, Hasek watches a puck sail into the netting behind the goal. Typical game for Hasek he misplayed the puck behind his own net giving Colorado a scoring chance (which they missed) and won the game with his unorthadox stick dropping style.
Mathieu Schneider left Detroit and Brian Rafalski took his spot and team never missed a beat. Rafalski looked even smaller in person. Can Tobias Enstrom have a career like Rafalski?
Zetterberg was not in the line up for Detroit but Datsyuk provided some skill up front.
Game Shot #1: Guess which team didn't like the call?
Game Shot #2: The Wings-Aves rivalry is not what it was back in the late 1990s but there is still some hate in the corners.
Game Shot #3: Both of these teams can really skate. Here are two players high stepping it out of the zone.
In case you missed the final score, this picture tells you which team won the game.
Game Production: Not much comedy at the Pepsi Center other than this intermission entertainment. They had the yellow team and blue team battle it out in a snowball fight at center ice. This was absolutely hilarious.

Here is a close up of the sled loaded with nice big snowballs. Considering that the roads were so snow covered that traffic was only moving at 40 mph on the highways this seemed very appropriate as between period entertainment.

The food at the Pepsi Center seemed quite similar to that in Atlanta and I would say that food prices were about a $1 cheaper per item (on the other hand ticket prices are double what they are in Atlanta). One cool thing I saw was a Carving Station Sandwiches where a guy cuts you off a piece of roast beef or turkey and you make your own sandwich. Pictured below is the Spud Spot where you could get a made-to-order baked potato.

Merchandise: The Avalanche fans have many more options in terms of team gear. For example they offer hats with four different player numbers featured on the front. They also sell (not pictured) hats that read "Sakic" "Stastny" "Wolski" so you can wear your allegiance on your head as well as your sleeve.

The Avalanche have the largest in-Arena Team Gear Store I've seen in my travels around the NHL (about ten different NHL buildings so far). They even have an annex with stuff of children and women. They have an entire wall that is arrayed with numbered and lettered jerseys. Basically you can walk in and buy the jersey of almost any player on the roster.

You can also re-create the display of banners up in the rafters of the Pepsi Center in your home if you purchase the full selection of mini-banners. (Note: We need more banners in Atlanta, my Southeast Division Championship is getting lonely up there on the wall.)

Conclusion: All and all I fun game. A lot of energy in the crowd and the snowy atmostphere outside made it really feel like hockey time. This spring the NCAA Frozen Four will be here at the Pepsi Center, so if you want to see the best of college hockey you might consider making the trip.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Who's Been Naughty and Nice (to the Thrashers)

In keeping the holiday spirit I thought it would be interesting to take a look at which teams have "given" the Thrashers points and which teams are the most stingy.

Perception versus reality. So I wrote down my guesses before I ran the numbers. I expected that that the Thrashers toughest opponent (points per game) would be Montreal in the east and Minnesota in the West (whom they have never beaten). My guess for most generous opponent in the East was Washington and Colorado (we're have some very surprising wins against them over the years)

Turns out I was mostly wrong. The Florida Panthers have played Santa Claus to the Thrashers more than any other Eastern Conference Team donating 1.3 points to the Thrashers every team the two clubs have matched up against each other. The second most generous team to Atlanta in the East is the Rangers who fittingly helped the Thrashers end their 0-6 start with a win (thanks again Rangers!). In the Western Conference the Blue Jackets were the biggest gift giver (how appropriate that we play them the day after Christmas!)

The Thrashers Grinch in the East has not been Montreal (much to my surprise) but the Flyers who have been a strong team since the Thrashers came into existence and even last year when the Flyers struggled they still killed the Thrashers. Out West the Wild have only surrendered a single point to Atlanta (perhaps more surprising is that Phoenix has been the 2nd toughest team versus the Thrashers in the West).

Atlanta Thrashers All Time Points Per Game Record
Eastern Conference
1.29 Florida Panthers
1.07 NY Rangers
1.04 Buffalo Sabres
1.03 Tampa Bay Lightning
0.92 Washington Capitals
0.88 Boston Bruins
0.80 NY Islanders
0.75 Carolina Hurricanes
0.74 NJ Devils
0.68 Montreal Canadians
0.64 Ottawa Senators
0.58 Toronto Maple Leafs
0.56 Pittsburgh Penguins
0.52 Philadelphia Flyers

Western Conference
1.38 Columbus Blue Jackets
1.11 Nashville Predators
1.00 Calgary Flames
1.00 Colorado Avalanche
0.88 Chicago Blackhawks
0.83 Vancouver Canuks
0.71 Edmonton Oilers
0.67 Anaheim Ducks
0.63 St. Louis Blues
0.50 Detroit Red Wings
0.44 LA Kings
0.44 SJ Sharks
0.33 Dallas Stars
0.30 Phoenix Coyotes
0.20 Minnesota Wild

Friday, December 21, 2007

End of Year Movie Review

FYI: I wrote up a list of my 10 ten films released in 2007 for my friend Rich who runs the Cable & Tweed blog which covers indie music and bands in Atlanta and Athens If you like movies click here to read my commentary.

A Great Win

I need to go finish up my shopping today so this will be short.

A couple of posts I talked about the roller coasters and whether this was a bad team that got hot or a good team that was just cold. I'm still not sure we know the answer that question but the club is hot again the last two games playing with great intensity and mental sharpness.

Last night Kari Lehtonen single handily shut down the potent Ottawa offense. Late in the third period Ottawa tried to screen him and get pucks past him but Kari moved well and did a terrific job tracking the puck through all those bodies.

The checkers did their part as Holik helped to create Kovalchuk's goal and Boulton got a huge one to tie the game. It seemed obvious to me that the Thrashers game plan was to throw pucks at Gerber at every opportunity and other than the power play unit the whole team really stuck to that strategy resulting in a season high in shots and a franchise high for shots in one period.

It was exciting to see the team play this well against a very good opponent. Now they just have to keep doing it as they take on Montreal which has pretty owned the Thrashers over the last eight seasons.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Am Concerned

The attendance at games on weeknights seems to be slipping down again. Even the weekend games are not selling out. I haven't sat down and really compared to the numbers from last year but just based on impressions I'd say the team is running behind last year in terms of bodies in seats.

Thrashers Attendance History
2000-01 15,262 Attendance Rank 21st Standings Rank 28th
2001-02 12,002 Attendance Rank 29th Standings Rank 30th
2002-03 13,476 Attendance Rank 28th Standings Rank 23rd
2003-04 15,121 Attendance Rank 21st Standings Rank 21st
2004-05 NHL Lockout
2005-06 15,550 Attendance Rank 23rd Standings Rank 19th
2006-07 16,229 Attendance Rank 21st Standings Rank 12th
2007-08 15,385 Attendance Rank 21st Standings Rank 26th

Honestly this comes as a surprise to me. I know that attendance always picks up in the 2nd half of the season post-football season, but the Thrashers were quoted as saying that advance sales where very strong heading into this year. They sold many full, half and partial ticket plans.

My question is where are those people? Did they only buy tickets for the 2nd half? Are they not using their tickets? If they are using their tickets then it looks to me like the Thrashers walk-up numbers must be down significantly. I expected a bit more of a bounce from a winning season and playoff appearance last spring.

This week the Atlanta Business Chronicle had an article that quoted the new head of the NHLPA union that NHL revenues are up substantially. If the numbers he quoted are close to the final figures for the 2007-08 season then the salary cap is going to take another jump up in 2008-09. The top of the cap will rise from about $39 in 05-06 to $45 in 06-07 to $50 million in 07-08 to about $55 million in 08-09.

The CBA between the players and owners sets both a cap on spending a floor on spending. If the salary cap rises to $55 million next year that means that the salary floor will go up to $39 million. That's right in 2008 the salary cap minimum will be the same number as the cap maximum was back in 2005--holy cow that's a fast rise!

Why is the cap going up so quickly? 1) Major shifts in the value of the US and Canadian dollar 2) ticket price increases in some markets 3) the new TV contract in Canada will bring in $100 million 4) attendance rebound in some markets like St. Louis.

Roughly speaking we can divide the NHL into three groups 1) 6 Canadian teams, 2) 13 US teams in traditional hockey markets, 3) 11 US teams in non-traditional markets. Back before the lockout the six Canadian clubs were being squeezed by the weakness of the Canadian dollar (they had to pay their players in US currency but ticket were priced in Canadian currency) and some of the smaller Canadian markets such as Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa were losing significant amounts of money.

Fast forward 10 years and there has been a massive swing in exchange rates and the Canadian currency is trading higher than the US dollar. This doesn't hurt the NHL teams in traditional markets so much because most have robust attendance, but it does hurt a number of the non-traditional teams such as Atlanta where ticket sales are far from automatic.

Here's the key part of the problem. Player compensation is determined by the overall amount of money the NHL brings in the door. That number is going up overall, but the increase is more heavily concentrated in the six Canadian teams. So Atlanta is going to be required to spend more on salaries regardless of their local revenues because more money is flowing to the league north of the border. We are now stuck in the same situation that Edmonton and Calgary were a couple of years ago where the exchange rate is becoming a major factor in the economics of our local hockey franchise.

When Atlanta Spirit took over this team they spent to the cap max the first two seasons ($39 million, $45 million) , even though they lost substantial amounts of money. This season the team is on pace to spend $44.2 (according to Irish Blues great website). They could still add some salary but from the outside it looks like they are working with a budget of in the neighborhood of $45 million and I assume they will probably lose $5-10 million this year.

I'm still very bullish on Atlanta as a hockey market in the long term. There are 5 million people here and almost 1 million Yankee born) but if you're the owners those losses are real money. The problem is that for the foreseeable future this team is going to lose money. Even if the Thrashers spent the bare minimum they would likely finish in the red--now that minimum is rising fast each year. At some point this club needs to start showing major increases in revenues.

There are many sports team owners out there who operate their teams at a yearly loss because of tax write offs. They know they will get paid when they sell the team because the sports franchises appreciate substantially. If Belkin wins who knows maybe he would sell of the Thrashers (but keep them in his building) to cut his losses. If the Spirit Group wins they may choose to bring in another partner to provide cash to help cover those annual losses and buyout Belkin's share. Honestly I have no idea how they would handle the situation but the owners have to be talking about these issues with each other.

I am not worried about this team moving. But I am worried that this team will lose so much money that ownership will spend closer to the bottom than the top of the salary cap. As a fan I'd rather see my GM go into each season able to spend as much money as the Rangers, Red Wings, Flyers and Maple Leafs but this seems unlikely to happen again in this market in the near future.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Steve McCarthy Gets a Plus

Steve McCarthy was selected as the number one star in the Thrashers victory over the Lightning. He had 2 Assists, he was +3 and he played 19 minutes (which I assume was a season high). It has been a pretty rough year for the Thrashers blueliner as he was last in the NHL in terms of the plus/minus statistic.

In case you're not familiar with how plus/minus works a player gets a plus each time he is on the ice for an Even Strength (ES) or Short Handed (SH) team goal and a minus when he is on the ice and his team allows a ES or SH goal.

With his +3 performance last night McCarthy improved from -19 to -16 which puts him in a tie for dead last in the NHL with Brad Richards (who was -3 last night thanks in part to McCarthy). Here is the really amazing thing. The Thrashers are now 30+ games into their season and prior to last night McCarthy had been on the ice for 19 ES or SH goals against and 0 ES or SH goals for.

Think about that last statement for a second. There was a guy on the Thrashers who played 255 minutes of ES and SH ice time and was not on the ice one time when the Thrashers scored. 255 Minutes!--that is the equivalent of a team being shut out for 4.25 GAMES! So McCarthy broke his season long ES+SH shutout streak last night by being on the ice for 3 Thrasher goals.

Now you look at McCarthy's shut out streak two ways. You could say he was just incredibly unlucky--the Thrashers are a decent offensive team and he just happened to be off the ice each time they put one into the net. On the other hand you could say that McCarthy's incredible shutout streak demonstrates that he simply lacks the offensive skill needed to make things happen in the NHL. After all how could play the essentially 4 entire NHL games and not help produce a goal if you have any offensive upside? I'll let you decide if it was a matter of luck or a product of skill.

Tampa Game Comments:
  • Hossa had more jump than I've seen in a while. The Kozlov-Perrin-Hossa line looked great.
  • Tampa did not trap and the Thrashers gained the offensive zone with ease. The real test for these new offensive lines will come when they get matched up against a hard trap.
  • The checking lines were going good again and I was very pleased to see Thorburn and Dupuis rewarded for their hard work last night.
  • Perrin added yet another SH Assist last night when he dished over to a wide open Dupuis for a tap in goal. Eric Perrin moved into 2nd place in the SH scoring race last night.
  • Zhitnik was a turnover machine yet again last night. He either made a direct turnover of just dumped it to a dead spot on the ice where Tampa picked it up. Has he lost the ability to see things out on the ice? His passes are just brutal. I'm afraid Ken Klee has his work cut out for him on that D pairing.
  • Exebly and McCarthy played together and the numbers say they had a great game. I'm going to take a wait and see with these two. I did hear Exelby say on the post game show that they are good friends off the ice and that aids their on-ice communication.
  • Lehtenon was moving very well last night and his body position looked sharp to me. We need him to play like that all the time.
  • Personally I think Tampa just mailed it in after the 1st period. The Lighting had some good puck possession in the Thrashers end during the first but Lehtonen kept them from scoring and after their net minder was pulled they seemed to just turn out the lights.

A needed win but the opposition only put a fight for about 20 minutes. Ottawa will be a much sterner test on Thursday.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Riding the Blue Streak

As a kid I used to go to the Cedar Point amusement park near Cleveland Ohio. The park had numerous roller coasters and one of them was named the Blue Streak. One kid told me that the coaster was so named because it caused riders to lose their lunch. The same could be said of many Thrasher fans I suspect. The team has played inspired and exciting hockey only to jerk you around and make you feel like you're going to retch.

Let's review the roller coaster ride so far and see if we can pinpoint any patterns. The club started 0-6 under Hartley and then ripped off a great month where they went 10-4-1 only to spiral downward again in the last 11 games in which they have gone 2-7-2 (I treated shoot outs as ties here). The big question is which of these is the real Thrashers team? Time will tell if this is a good team going through a bad stretch or if this a bad team that had a hot stretch after their coach was fired.

What is driving this roller coaster?

When a team is losing it is seldom just one thing. When the Thrashers got hot they were scoring nearly 3.5 goals per game and lately they have cooled off to just 2.27 goals per game. The "cold Waddell" offense of 2.27 per game is better than the 1.50 under Hartley but both numbers would rank dead last in the league. What is perhaps most interesting is that the Thrashers forwards could score like Red Wings for a month and then completely fall apart the next month.

Goals For Per Game
1.50 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--worst in NHL
3.47 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--best in NHL
2.27 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--worst in NHL

The big story here is on the defensive side of the puck. Most NHL teams go through spots where they struggle to perform--but even in those slow stretches most teams can use defense and goaltending to eke out some points. For example, both the Islanders and Bruins have had relatively weak offenses but they have taken care of their own end and they are still in the playoff hunt.

On the other hand even the "hot" Atlanta Thrashers were not great in their own end. During the Hartley start they were extremely bad: 4.50 goals per game. The worst defensive team in the NHL other than Atlanta is Tampa Bay who are allowing 3.24 Goals per Game. During their hot stretch Atlanta limited the opposition to "just" 2.87 per game (which would rank as slightly below average) and during the recent cold period they have gone back closer to allowing 4 goals per game (which is about 13% worse than the 29th ranked NHL team).

Goals Against Per Game
4.50 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Worst in NHL
2.87 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Slightly below NHL average
3.82 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--Worst in NHL

If you've felt disgusted watching the porous Atlanta Thrashers defense this season you have good reason to feel that way. In the bad parts of the season the defense and goaltending hasn't just been "below average" or "poor" it can most accurately be described as "worst" as in "worst in the NHL" in its quality.

Team Save Percentage
.869 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Worst in NHL
.909 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Above NHL Average
.883 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--Worst in NHL

What can we learn from this season so far?

The Thrashers did put together a hot stretch with these defensemen and these goaltenders. But (and this a huge "but") they were able to win because their offensive productivity was red hot--as in Ottawa Senators hot and Detroit Red Wings hot. Can the offense return to that level again? Can the defense and goaltending return to league average? For this team to make the playoffs the offense must get insanely hot or the defense must play much better.

Is there any area where the Waddell Thrashers have been consistent?

Yes, since the firing of Hartley the Thrashers have shown steady and consistent improvement in the Penalty Kill. They were phenomenally bad at times last season under Hartley and that continued this fall. After Hartley was removed the PK improved from incredibly bad to just bad and lately it has been incredibly good. The St. Louis Blues have the best PK unit in the NHL and they kill off 88% of their penalties and the Thrashers have matched that in the last 11 games.

Think about last sentence for a minute. The Thrashers have been getting phenomenally good penalty killing and yet they are still allowing close to 4 goals per game lately. That tells you just how bad this team is at preventing goals at even strength.

Penalty Kill Percentage
71.4% Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Way Worst in NHL
75.4% Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Wost in NHL
87.8% Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--3rd Best in NHL

Saturday, December 15, 2007

8 Seasons Later, Still No Defense

I like Don Waddell as a person and over the years I've defended him quite often. But the one thing that is hard to explain is how a former defenseman like Waddell continues to assemble a roster that is so weak in their own end.

Atlanta Thrashers History
1999-2000: 313 Goals Allowed (28th out of 28 teams)
2001-2001: 289 Goals Allowed (29th out of 30 teams)
2002-2002: 288 Goals Allowed (30th out of 30 teams)
2003-2004: 284 Goals Allowed (30th out of 30 teams)
2004-2005: 243 Goals Allowed (25th out of 30 teams)
2005-2006: NHL Lockout
2005-2006: 270 Goals Allowed (24th out of 30 teams)
2006-2007: 241 Goals Allowed (15th out of 30 teams)
2007-2008: 104 Goals Allowed (30th out of 30 teams)

Now the Thrashers were grossly outspend by other clubs prior to the lockout but that is no longer the case post-lockout. DW has had roughly the same amount to spend as other GMs in the league and with his money he has put together one club that was average defensively, one that in the bottom third and another that is on track to finish dead last. One acceptable defensive team in eight years is not a good return on investment.

Another Loss, Different Reason

The Thrashers lost again last night, 4-0 to Toronto. The effort level was much improved and the checking lines in particular played well hitting and generating turnovers which led to scoring chances. Holik and Boulton in particular had some great opportunities to score. When your checking line creates scoring chances that is good news. When your checking line generates your BEST scoring chances of the game that is a bad sign.

Why have the top two lines been shut down?

Inability to beat the trap. Boston and Toronto both trapped hard in the neutral zone and didn't allow the Thrashers room to skate end-to-end with the puck or make pretty passes. Other teams are going to watch that game tape and know that if you want to beat this team just keep playing the neutral zone trap against them. The Thrashers MUST make adjustments because smart teams are going to keep playing them this way until they prove they can adjust.

The loss last night wasn't because of a lack of effort, it was because the scoring lines failed to make adjustments to the opposition's defensive system. If you're getting trapped you have to dump it to a spot and forecheck with speed going to that spot. If the Toronto defensemen are trying to stand you up at the blueline they are going to have to sprint back to retrieve the puck.

That's why the checking line had chances and the scoring lines had few. Slava Kozlov in particular is loath to dump the puck (and I prefer to watch puck possession hockey myself) but there are games where you must adjust to what the other team is doing. The Kozlov-Perrin-Recchi line was VERY quiet because they keep trying to skate it in or make perfect passes in the neutral zone which were picked off by the Leafs.

I know a lot fans will be talking about Lehtonen's screw up on the first goal. Yes it was a terrible goal to give up in a tie game. But Holik had a great quote in the Carroll Rogers game story: "Things like that [first goal] shouldn't matter," Holik said. "It happens to everybody. You overcome it by playing consistently. ... I think we played one of our best periods in the first period in a long time, but then we get frustrated in a sense. We have no right to get frustrated. If we continue to play the same way we did in the first period, we'd be fine. But then suddenly we start to cut corners, and it comes back to haunt us."

That first goal wouldn't have mattered if the offense could get things going and score. More than the bad empty net goal I think what hurt this team the most was the lack of sustained pressure on Toskala. The whole team has to adjust to the trap--not just the checking lines.

Alex I'd like "Defensemen Who Can Pass for $500,000" please

Finally, I think Exelby played one of the worst games I've ever seen him play. He just made unforced error after unforced error. Maybe X was thinking about his unfinished Christmas shopping because he sure didn't look like he was all there last night. Zhitnik showed little improvement too.

A major problem for the Thrashers last night in their own end is that Klee keep dishing it over to Exelby who made bad outlet passes. Same thing with McCarthy and Zhitnik. Up in the stands I commented that our inability to make a decent outlet pass was also playing right into Toronto's trap strategy. It is a real problem when 2 or your 3 defensive pairing can't make a good pass. We can't clone Enstrom and put him on each pairing so the other guys are just going to have to play better.

Post Game All Star Game

Thanks to everyone who stuck around and watched the amateurs take their turn on the NHL ice. I'll have put a game recap with pictures on the blog soon. Our game certainly had more drama than the Thrasher as it went into sudden death overtime. Thanks to the Thrashers for making this possible and a special thanks to event coordinator Carrie Neville.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Thrashers Watch Bruins Skate to Victory in Atlanta

The Atlanta Thrashers started off the 2007-08 with several anemic efforts and put themselves into a giant 0-6 hole. They recovered from that poor start with a string of solid efforts and climbed back up to the .500 mark. Lately the bad Thrashers have re-appeared at Philips Arena. A week ago the team beat the Islanders despite being outplayed. They played better the next game beating the Rangers 4-2 but turned in a terrible effort in Washington.

Last night the Thrashers lost a game that the Boston Bruins tried to give away in the 2nd period with a series of dumb penalties. In case you missed the game here's a short summary.
  • The Thrashers didn't skate.
  • The Thrashers didn't hit.
  • The Thrashers didn't play with any sort of intensity (with a few exceptions).
  • The Thrashers scored some power play goals to make the score look close.
The checking lines which had turned in some great performance in recent weeks barely broke a sweat. A friend I talked to at the game asked if the checking line had broken a sweat during the 1st period. The Thrashers are not a physical bruising type of team but last night Bruins forwards could skate with no fear of getting hit.

Holik in particular had a brutal -4 performance. Not exactly what you expect out of your highly compensated defensive captain. It was Holik's man that scored in the slot for the first goal. Coming into the goal Nokelainen had just one marker all season. If Holik who was called for a late penalty which helped Boston score the game winner.

Another veteran with a game to forget was Zhitnik who was -2 in less than 8 minutes of ice time. He was all but benched in the 3rd as he and McCarthy played just one shift in the final period. Tough to win when you only have 4 defensemen you can trust to put out there in a close game.

Hossa had a few good moments but at other times he just gave the puck. His power forward moves have been missing-in-action most of the season. I was willing to cut him slack early because of the groin injury but that was two months ago. Unless I hear otherwise I have assume that he is healthy. We never see him walk out of the corner and roof the puck anymore. What happened to that Hossa who was impossible to control along the boards? Now he just seems content to try these shifty moves that rarely work out. The speed is still there and the passing is still there but the low boards dominance is not.

The Recchi-Perrin-Kozlov line showed some real flashes at times. It is just one game but it certainly looks like Mark Recchi can still make a great pass and he can still shoot. That re-direction goal was a thing of beauty. Kozlov seemed revived a bit by playing with the NHL veteran and Perrin's body language indicated he was excited about skating with those two guys.

Kovalchuk played hard but Boston had scouted him well and always had a man there to pressure him high in the zone which prevented him from driving the slot or getting his shot away cleanly. I also loved that Ilya was willing to drop the gloves after former Thrashers Mark Savard cross-checked him in the neck. I would have paid extra to see those two go a round or two.

I'll give the Bruins some credit because they had their trap going full tilt cramming all five Boston players into the small amount of ice between the center ice red line and one of the blue lines. But the Thrashers played right into their hands by either not dumping it in, or failing to forecheck aggressively when they did dump it in.

But you could tell who was going to win this game by looking at just one thing--the skates. The Bruins had their feet moving and they were the aggressors they were creating mismatches. The Thrashers skates were not moving as quickly, they were standing around and reacting. If the Thrashers want to get back to winning and get back into the playoffs they have to want to win and they have to get their feet going.

Under Waddell: Improved But Defense Still Lacking

We are now 23 games into the Don Waddell/Brad McCrimmon coaching staff era and I thought it would be good to look at some numbers. It has been a while since I've posted anything spreadsheet here.

The Thrashers offense has been very good since Waddell replaced Hartley behind the bench. The team has scored nearly 3 goals per game (shootouts are excluded from all of the stats in this post) which would put it right near the top of the NHL if they can sustain this pace the rest of the season.

Hartley: 1.50 GFA (30th out of 30 teams)
Waddell: 2.96 GFA (7th out of 30 teams)
Combined: 2.66 GFA (17th out of 30 teams)

On the other hand the defense (in terms of goals allowed) still ranks dead last to bottom in the NHL league. If you look just at the Waddell coached games it still only ranks 24th out of 30 teams. That's hardly a recipe for sustained success in the regular season and playoffs. If the team receives a better performance from Zhitnik they might be able to move up a few more spots. In the history of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise defense has always been below the league average.

Hartley: 4.50 GAA (30th)
Waddell: 2.96 GAA (24th)
Combined: 3.28 GAA (30th)

When it comes to special teams we see a split decision. I criticized Hartley for being unimaginative with the power play and we see that under Waddell the PP% is 17.0% which is about league average. I still think that with players like Hossa and Kovalchuk the Thrashers power play should be better than league average.

Hartley: 07.7% (30th)
Waddell: 17.0% (15th)
Combined: 15.1% (25th)

On the other hand, the penalty killing shows only modest improvement under Waddell. The PK was dead last when Hartley was let go and it has risen to just 28th. Under Waddell the opposition power play scores on 1 out of every power plays against Atalanta.

Hartley: 71.4% (30th)
Waddell: 78.9% (25th)
Combined: 76.9% (28th)

How have the Thrashers Improved? Big Saves and Burying Chances

We have established that their defense is still poor, but the offense has performed much better. If we look at shots we notice that under Waddell the Thrashers are only generating a few more shots per game than they did under Hartley.

Shots on Goal For
Hartley: 23.5 (30th)
Waddell: 26.0 (24th)
Combined: 25.4 (26th)

What has changed dramatically for the Thrashers is their Shooting Percentage. Under Waddell they have been the 2nd best team in the NHL at turning shots into goals. A huge amount of credit goes to Ilya Kovalchuk who has been just unreal in his ability to convert opportunities so far this season.

Shooting %
Hartley: 06.4% (30th)
Waddell: 11.4% (2nd)
Combined: 10.5% (6th)

On the defensive side of things we see that the Thrashers have shaved a couple of shots per game off their average under Waddell.

Shots on Goal Against
Hartley: 34.3 (30th)
Waddell: 31.4 (26th)
Combined: 32.0 (26th)

While the shots against may be roughly the same under Waddell, the goal tending has been much stronger. The .906 SV% put up by Hedberg, Pavelec and Lehtonen is above the league average. So while the Thrashes defense is quite poor at preventing shots on goal, the club's goaltenders have been above average in keeping those shots out of the net.

Hartley: 86.9% (30th)
Waddell: 90.6% (12th)
Combined: 89.8 (20th)

The Big Picture
The Thrashers have turned around their season with better play on offense. A more efficient Power Play, a terrific Shooting % which has increased their offensive production. One big concern I have is that the Shooting % may not be sustainable over the long run. If Kovalchuk cools off other players must step up and generate more shots and more goals.

On defense the team is no longer terrible but it still is poor. The data suggests to me that this is more the fault of the defensemen than it is the goaltenders. I should also note that the Thrashers choose to play a wide open style which will lead to more shots and goals against than say the Minnesota Wild. I do think that the defensemen (Zhitnik in particular) are capable of playing better than they have so far this season. This team will need strong nights from their blueline to get back into the playoffs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Falconer Skates on NHL Ice this Friday Night!!!

You may have heard that the Atlanta Thrashers added a player in his mid-30s with declining skills to their roster this weekend. Unfortunately that's not me, that's Mark Recchi. But the good news is that I will make my first ever appearance on the ice at Philips Arena.

The AAHL will have their Lower A All-Star Game immediately following the conclusion of the Thrashers-Leafs contest. I've been chosen to play in this contest and I'm really looking forward to skating around on the NHL ice.

We are selling tickets (at a modest discount) to cover the expense of the ice and to raise money for the AAHL Foundation (which helps people in our local hockey community--in the last year we have had players deal with stroke, cancer and deaths). So if you don't already have a ticket for Friday get one now--the game may sell out.

The ticket discounts are as follows:
$38 300 Level seats for $33
$58 200 Level seats for $53
$74 100 Level seats for $69
Call Carrie Neville with the Thrashers 404-878-3936 and tell her The Falconer sent you.

So come on out to the Thrashers-Leafs game and stick around and cheer (or mock me) on Friday. It should be a lot of fun--well at least until I get home and see what the other bloggers say about my hockey skills (I expect a scathing review from the sock puppet).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Recchi A Thrasher

The Pittsburgh Penguins sent Mark Recchi down to the minors and no team (including Atlanta) put in a claim for him. They Penguins then recalled him and the Thrashers did claim him. What is going on here? Because he was on recall waivers the Thrashers are only responsible for half of his 1.75 million salary.

When you consider that the NHL minimum is .475 million, Atlanta is only paying about .878 to give him a look. Certainly a low risk move. If Recchi can help the team he comes cheap and if he can't help the team he hasn't cost them that much either.

So can he help the Thrashers? Honestly I don't know. Fans in Pittsburgh were riding him pretty hard when I was up there for the Thrashers-Penguins game last year. He will probably be asked to fill the Mellanby's role of veteran leader, but that will only work if he can still skate and contribute on the ice. At one point he was a great NHL player. Only time will tell if he still has enough left. Who knows a change of scenery and a new team might spark him to play better.

Brathwaite Leaves Chicago for Russia?

The Chicago Wolves have suspended goaltender Fred Brathwaite according to league transactions. According to some foreign newspapers he may be breaking his NHL contract to go back to Russia where he played for two seasons during the lockout and the season after.

What effect does this have on the Thrashers? On the down side it removes some depth from the organization. On the other hand it will mean that top prospect Pavelec sees a lot of ice time in the AHL.

Why did he leave? I don't know for certain but I can think of several potential causes for this development. Perhaps Brathwaite was frustrated about not being called up when Lehtonen went down. Perhaps he was losing starts to Pavelec in Chicago. Or maybe he can make more money in the Russian league.

What this does highlight is the increasing tension between the NHL and other European ice federations. The Russians rejected the IIHF transfer agreement that allows NHL teams to make binding contractual agreements with Russian players. The Russians argue that the compensation the NHL teams give to the Russian Ice Federation is not sufficient for the costs associated with developing young talent. Now recently another country has discussed opting out of the agreement (I believe it is Sweden).

Recently Gary Bettman expressed doubt about NHL players participating in the Winter Olympics to be held in 2014. Some have suggested that traveling to Russia is really not much different than traveling to Italy for the Winter Olympics. I suspect that Bettman is using the NHL participation in the Russian games as a bargaining chip to try and get the impasse with the Russian ice federation resolved.

Another side issue is that the compensation to play in Russia continues to improve as high oil prices have greatly increased the amount of money flowing into that economy. When you factor in the falling value of the US dollar (which is the currency for all NHL contracts) the money available in the Russian League starts to look more and more attractive for players who are not NHL stars. If there continues to be no transfer agreement and the US dollar remains low we could more NHL depth players head across the Atlantic in the future.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kovalchuk for MVP

Several weeks ago I expressed concern that the rest of the NHL was not noticing the terrific seasons put forth by Ilya Kovalchuk and Tobias Enstrom. Well it appears that my fears were unfounded as Kovalchk was the 1st star of the month and Enstrom was named rookie of the month as well. Both players have been absolutely crucial to the revival of their team's fortunes after a terrible start to the season.

Kovalchuk has played like a force of nature at times. Many players can score when the other team's defensemen make a mistake, but Kovalchuk is scoring in despite of the best efforts of the opposition. That is the mark of a very special player or a very special season. I'll be honest and say that prior to this season that I favored Hossa over Kovalchuk because of Hossa's defense and all around game, but Kovalchuk has taken an additional step forward in terms of his defense and leadership in critical game situations.

When Kovalchuk first arrived he was exciting but very raw. From day one he had one of the best shots in the entire NHL but many other parts of his game needed finishing. His passing wasn't great for an elite player, he had no idea what to do on defense and he wasn't a natural leader. He was wild, woolly and unpredictable and he was still just a kid in some ways.

Kovalchuk is entering his middle 20s and like most of us he has matured with time. It is apparent that he has taken a larger leadership role this year and he has carried the team's offense on many nights. He has re-discovered his wrist shot after of couple of season's where he seemed overly reliant on his slap shot. His passing is much improved from the early years and playing with Hossa has encouraged him to look for team mates more frequently.

He has learned to play defense (and I give former coach Bob Hartley a measure of credit for this). When Kovalchuk was first installed as the point man on the Thrashers power play I worried about short handed goals but he has shown great determination and broken up quite a few SH chances by the other team. Today I seldom worry about short handed goals with him on the blueline.

In the old days you would see Kovalchuk madly try and beat four defenders all by himself as his linemates peeled off for a change. Today he saves his energy (knowing that he will play more than 20 minutes each night) and channels his competitiveness into more productive directions within the game.

As is so often the case the fans have not yet caught on to the superstar Ilya Kovalchuk who has emerged this season. He deserves to be a starter in the All-Star game based upon his play but often fan voting in often greatly shaped by performances in previous seasons. I hope that with time fans in other buildings give him their votes because he has earned their respect with his play.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Atlanta Thrashers and Blogging

I feel a bit guilty blogging about bloggers since I've been a bit of an absentee writer of late. This is a busy time of year in my day job and I've been sick a bit lately. On top of all that, the Thrashers play of late has neither inspired nor outraged me so I have less to get off my chest than earlier in the season.

This weekend I was watching Hockey Night in Canada on my CenterIce package and they had a piece on NHL bloggers in between games. They took a camera to the Washington Capitals game and had some interview clips from prominent Caps bloggers. It was nice to put a human face on these virtual commentators. The Capitals have created an open door policy for bloggers in their press box because they do not receive the coverage they desire from the local broadcast and print news media (and having lived in DC for several years I would agree with that assessment).

Craig Custance discussed the Thrashers blogger policy in his beat blog at In his comments he suggested I be given press access and I appreciate the support. I did request a press pass for a game late last season after the Thrashers blogger night and some back channel encouragement, and I was turned down, I have not asked this season. I was granted a press pass in Nashville when Atlanta played there in October.

Where do bloggers fit into the media picture?

I tend to view bloggers as supplemental and complimentary to the traditional news outlets such as the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution). Personally I have no interest in replacing Craig Custance. I think he does a fine job and I have don't have the time to attend each practice, morning skate, and road trip. Craig keeps me up to date on players who are rehabbing their sore groins and when we might see a change in the lineup. So you could consider me a content consumer of his product.

On the other hand, bloggers do provide things that the traditional media outlets do not or can not provide. Looking about the blogging world I see roughly four types of bloggers:
1) News aggregators such as Kukla's Korner (for the NHL) and Thrashers Times (for the Thrashers fans).
2) Fan blogs where folks express their passion for the home team and hate for the opposition or attempt to combine humor with hockey (example: The Pens Blog).
3) Analysis blogs with hardcore stats where people break down games or teams in a way that would never be printed in a newspaper (example: Mudcrunch).
4) Columnist blogs where someone gives an opinion but in a less partisan way than in your typical rah-rah fan blog (example: Tom Benjamin's blog).

I think all four types of blogs are useful to fans of team and help to disperse information and increase discussion of NHL hockey. I would describe Thrashers Talons as a mix of #3 and #4. Last year I tracked which Thrashers drew penalties and can't imagine that ever appearing in a print publication. On the other hand, I do write posts that are intended to be analogous to a traditional newspaper column. In my free time, I favor reading analytical and opinion blogs and the saying is that you should "write the book you'd like to read" so I that's what I attempt to blog.

I know that many journalists fret about blogs as competitors (see for some anxiety) but I tend to see them as complimentary. We need each other. Journalists benefit from all the links that bloggers put up that direct people to their work. There are many print articles I would not have discovered were it not for bloggers. Bloggers benefit from journalists who distill the essential facts so everyone can move on to discussion and debate.

Where do the Thrashers rank in local media coverage?

Let's take a hard look at the Atlanta Thrashers. They rank behind the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Georgia, Georgia Tech, NASCAR and high school football in terms of media coverage in Atlanta. The ONLY time the word "Thrashers" comes up on local sports talk radio is when Don Waddell or Bernie Mullin is being interviewed. Once that interview is over, the conversation ALWAYS shifts to another sport. The team receives perfunctory coverage on local TV news (does anyone still watch local TV news anymore?) An honest assessment is that THERE IS ALMOST ZERO BUZZ ABOUT THIS TEAM IN THIS MARKET. This team needs bloggers, this team needs buzz, this team deserves to be talked about.

I have attended almost every Thrashers home game over the last 5 seasons and I can tell you that most evenings you could set up a game of shuffleboard in the upper press box at Philips and play without bumping into a journalist. It is really a shame that this team gets so little attention. It is also a shame that they don't use all that press box space to encourage more blogger coverage.

The Washington Capitals and the Nashville Predators have the same problems that Atlanta faces in their marketplace and they have opened the door to bloggers. I was recently granted press access to the October game in Nashville. I sat in the press box. I wore a suit. I stayed out of the way of the beat reporter and still managed to ask Don Waddell a question after the game. I think that if there is room for bloggers in Nashville and Washington, there's room for bloggers in Atlanta.

What about the problem of blogger accountability?

I think the accountability issue is pretty straightforward. If the Thrashers granted me a press pass and I did something out of line they could revoke it. If I did something libelous I could be sued just like any other print journalist. I think any team granting press access to bloggers would be wise to adopt a code of conduct. Recently the Islanders granted their bloggers special access and some of them wore team jerseys to the locker room after the game. I think this is a mistake. To me press access carries with it the understanding that you dress professionally, you don't ask for autographs or ask questions about a player's personal life and so on. Put it in writing and have bloggers sign it.

The great irony is that face-to-face contact would probably reduce the vitriol that is so often present in anonymous online forums. People have posted many harsh things about Don Waddell over the years but at every Meet The GM event I've attended, people are rather polite in person. I've said some harsh things about Andy Sutton and Jeff Schultz in this blog, who knows maybe I would have been nicer if I saw them in person on a regular basis.

What would The Falconer do with a press pass?

I'd do interviews and I would probably ask slightly different questions than a beat reporter. For example, when I had a press pass for the Nashville game the beat reporter (Carroll Rogers that night) asked questions about specific plays within that game because she was writing her story about that game. But I was more interested in the big picture for my blog so I asked Coach/GM Waddell for his overall assessment of the team in his 2nd game behind the bench. I asked a broader question because I wanted to try and get a feel for how the GM saw his team and how that might influence his actions in the future.

If were doing some stats analysis on the penalty kill I'd like to go talk to the members of the PK unit and combine their comments with my stats. I'd also like to do some interviews that are too specialized for say the, perhaps one about what players look for when they are picking out their sticks and skates. I'd like ask some of the players about their first NHL game and what they remember about it.

"Bloggers are just trying to get free tickets!"

I can't speak for all other bloggers out there but I've been a season ticket holder since season three and I've purchased tickets for Thrasher games since season one. I'm certainly not doing this for money (there is no advertising on my blog) and I'm not doing it for free tickets. I'm willing to bet money that I produce more content about the Atlanta Thrashers than many of the folks who sit in press box each game--and I'm doing it for free. I'm also willing to bet that I have a larger audience than some who sit in press row--so far this year 29,872 unique visitors have come to Thrashes Talons.

Will bloggers really help the Thrashers that much?

Since the Thrashers hired Ben Wright to author the in-house Blueline Blog it seems clear that the franchise must see some value in bloggers. Some people might say "How will having a bunch of bloggers grow the sport? Your readers are people who already like NHL hockey?" I will admit that increasing the number of bloggers may not do much to increase the number of fans but it can serve to increase the INTENSITY among current fans. Every fan that becomes more interested in the team is a fan who is more likely to buy merchandise, more likely to buy tickets or more likely to become a season ticket holder. The Thrashers don't need to be the top sport in Atlanta, but they do need 18,000 crazy die-hard hockey fans in the building each night and bloggers can help them reach that goal.

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