Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

About That Defense

I've been crunching some numbers thinking about what exactly has gone wrong this season. Part of the answer is that our secondary scoring has really declined this year but the biggest problem has been the abysmal play of our defensive corps this year. Statistically speaking Havelid is playing about the same as last year and Enstrom represents an upgrade over all the departed guys (Sutton, de Vries and Hnidy). The real problem has been the near collapse of three returning defenders: Exelby, McCarthy and Zhitnik.

To illustrate just how atrocious they have been I've going to show you their performance at even strength (5 on 5) play for the entire season (64 games played). I'll be using the terrific stats from Behind the Net's site. BTN lets you see which defensemen face the toughest opposition and how well the team plays when a particular guy is on or off the ice. So here are the Thrashers defensemen ranked in order of the quality of opposition players out there.

1. Nicklas Havelid sees the toughest minutes of any defender drawing the assignment of matching up against the offensive stars of the other team. The Thrashers score an average of 3.06 goals per game with Havelid on the ice and allow 3.19 GAA, but when you take Havelid the ice everything falls apart: Thrashers only score just 1.54 ES goals per game and they allow a staggering 2.74 for a goal differential of -1.19 per game at even strength. Yikes!

2. Tobias Enstrom has been paired with Havelid since Waddell took over and his numbers are very similar to Havelid. Enstrom also plays tough minutes against the opposition's best forwards. When Enstrom is out the Thrashers average 2.72 ES goals for and allow 2.78 ES GA--roughly breaking even. When Enstrom (and Havelid) are off the ice, the Thrashers offense falls by a goal per game to 1.73 and the defense allow 2.90 per game. When Enstrom is absent the Thrashers are being outscored to the tune of 1.17 goals per game at even strength.

3. Ken Klee gets mocked by a lot of fans for being this year's version of Sutton. I'll admit that Klee is not fleet of foot but I've defended Klee because he is smart enough to realize he is not fast and therefore puts himself in a conservative position so he doesn't get beat too easily (unlike Zhitnik who still positions himself as though he still skate with the fast players). Well the stats show that Klee is our 3rd best defender. When Klee is on the ice at even strength we score 1.83 GFA and allow 2.46 GAA for a differential of -.63 but when Klee is OFF the ice we are even worse scoring just 2.20 GFA and allowing 3.08 for a differential of -.87 per game. Klee is not great but he stops the bleeding better than the other defensemen further down this list.

4. Zhitnik has seem more tough minutes than Exelby and McCarthy so he gets listed at number four. Just about every Thrashers fan has been riding Zhitnik for his poor play and the numbers show the the fans are correct. When Alexei is out there at even strength we score 1.91 GFA and allow 2.77 GAA for a-.86 differential, when Alexei is OFF the ice we score 2.19 GFA and allow 2.84 GAA for a smaller -.65 differential. But he is just part of the problem.

5. As much as people enjoy dumping on Zhitnik and Klee they really ought to pay more attention to the wicked bad seasons Exelby and McCarthy are putting together in 2007-08. Exelby has little offensive flair and the Thrashers score a palty 1.73 GFA when he is on the ice. In the past Exelby has been know as a "defensive defenseman" but we should not call him that anymore since when he is out there the Thrashers allow a brutal 3.02 GAA. When XLB is on the ice the Thrashers are outscored by a whooping -1.29 goals per game at ES and when XLB is off the ice they are out scored by just -.55 goals per game.

6. McCarthy's defensive numbers are very similar to Exelby's, but McCarthy has the the bizarre distinction of almost never being out there when the Thrashers score. Just as Exelby doesn't deserve the label of "defensive defenseman" McCarthy doesn't deserve to be called an "offensive defenseman" anymore. When McCarthy is on the ice at even strength the Thrashers score an incredibly low 0.68 GFA (that's right less than a goal per game) and when McCarthy is OFF the ice the team averages 2.63 GFA. In terms of defense in makes little difference whether McCarthy is on the ice (3.07 GAA) or off of it (3.01 GAA), but he has been a huge drag on the offense this year.

So there you have it. The Thrashers top pairing can break even against the opposition's very best, but it is the Thrasher 2nd and 3rd pairing that are killing them. Klee and Zhitnik are both getting outscored at even strength, but it is the Exelby-McCarthy pairing that is getting just absolutely ripped apart on a nightly basis. In my opinion the Thrashers would get the maximum gain out of their new salary cap space this summer by signing two quality defensemen. That would allow them to bump Klee, Zhitnik and Exelby down to the #5, #6 and #7 spots on the depth chart (McCarthy is a free agent and should be allowed to depart).


  • Wow, this is some tuff luv on XLB. He was a favorite of ours during 06/07 for both his defensive playing and open ice checking ability. That said, I think it is fair to say we all recognized that he is struggling this season - but were afraid to admit it publicly.

    As I recall XLB was a 7th or 8th round pick - he has clearly exceeded all original expectations. So the key question is whether or not 07/08 is just an off season for XLB as it has been for most of the team - or is his play of late indicative of his long-term potential? Fortunately, we have DW's wisdom to sort out these questions.

    By Anonymous d, at 3:41 PM  

  • Question, can teams pick-up waiver wire people after the trade deadline? If so, then the Thrashers should waive Zhit when mathematically eliminated from the playoffs (really should now). If no one pickas him up, then buy him out for next year. XLB should be traded around the draft, as he has always had problems with positioning and puck movement. Klee has been up and down but may work better as a #5/6 as opposed to a #3/4.

    By Anonymous Bluto, at 4:47 PM  

  • These numbers could be deceiving. To get a complete picture, we would have to see who is out there offensively along with the defensive pairs.

    If the first defensive pair is out there mostly with the first and second line, and second and third pairing are out on the ice with the third and fourth line, then it could be that our third and fourth line offense has no defensive sense..If that makes sense.

    By Anonymous Kozlov, at 5:06 PM  

  • d: I think that Exelby just isn't up to playing top 4 minutes. He and Klee would probably be fine on the 3rd pairing matched up against weaker opponents.

    bluto: The Thrashers can pick up people on waivers but not that many have been sent down lately. Personally I wouldn't mind seeing both Valabik and Grant Lewis get a 10 NHL games in the last part of the season. What do we have to lose? This team is not going to make the playoffs, let's give the kids a taste of the big leagues.

    Kozlov: Most of the time the coaches match up the defenders against the other teams forwards and do not pay as much attention to matching the D to their own forwards--but there are some differences. Here is a ranking of the Thrashers defense by the quality of teammates where 100 = average.
    Enstrom 117%
    Havelide 116%
    Zhitnik 95%
    McCarthy 89%
    Klee 88%
    Exelby 88%
    Popovic 84%

    That shows is that the top pair is out there more with the better quality players, while while McCarthy, Klee, Exelby, and Popovic less so.

    How about the quality of the opposition? The BTH website looks at who is out on the ice and the expected GFA for the 5 players a defenseman is lined up against. So if Enstrom is out there against Crosby the expected GFA might be something like 3.50 GFA, then you add in the other four skates and so forth.

    Here is the breakdown for the Thrashers defense by the quality of opposition.

    Havelid: expected GAA 110% average.
    Enstrom: expected GAA 108% average.
    Klee: expected GAA 102% average.
    Zhitnik: expected GAA 101% average.
    Exelby: expected GAA 94% average.
    Popovic: expected GAA 92% average.
    McCarthy: expected GAA 86% average.

    So we see that McCarthy and Exelby are both on the ice with weak teammates--but he is also on the ice against weak opposition. Enstrom and Havelid are the ice with top teammates more but also matched up against top opposition. Zhitnik is near average on both scores and is getting outplayed.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 5:32 PM  

  • Who are the key defensive UFA's hitting the market and what are they going to cost?

    By Blogger pkwaldrop, at 11:53 PM  

  • Gabriel Desjardins does great work at behindthenet and your study highlights the basic problem of lack of defensive depth. It was truly terrifying to see Klee/Zhitnik on the ice last night in a faceoff situation in their own zone, 4 on 4 overtime, but, as you've shown, the alternatives are worse, especially since Enstrom seems to be hitting the wall in a rookie season.
    Here is a basic list of UFA defensemen, leaving out geezers like Chelios, Blake, Foote etc. The full list with salaries is at A + means they are positive in basic GF/GA analysis-Ana-DiPenta Bos-Ward+ Buf-Kalinin+ Car-Hedican + Wesley CBJ-Hainsey Col-Liles + Sauer+ Dal-Nostrom Fla-Mezei, Montador+ Minn-Carney + Nummelin MTL-Brisebois, Streit NJD-Rachunek + Mottau, Salvador + NYI-Berard NYR-Mara + Malik + Rozsival + Ott-Redden +, Commodore Pitt-Eaton + Orpik STL-Walker SJ-Campbell+ Van-Miller +

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:40 AM  

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