Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

How Much Better is Atlanta's Defense?

The Thrashers have essentially swapped out last year's 2nd pairing of Alexei Zhitnik and Ken Klee for Mathieu Schneider and Ron Hainsey. Now most Thrasher fans would probably look at that statement and start doing cartwheels, but let's move beyond first impressions.

A couple of observations. Ken Klee was the better than most fans give him credit, in fact, I'd say he was the 3rd best Thrasher defender last season (I know faint praise for a team that finished dead last in Goals Against). The other thing is that while Ron Hainsey brings some nice skills to the table, but he's not considered to be a great even strength defender. In fact, both Schneider and Hainsey broke into the league because of their offensive abilities rather than their defense.

So how much better is the Thrashers defense now than it was before? My crude back-on-the-envelope estimate is that the Hainsey/Schneider duo is 16 goals against better than the Klee/Zhitnik duo. If those two save the Thrashers 16 GA over last season, that alone is worth roughly 6-8 more standings points. (EDIT: Earl Sleek over at Battle of California points out that Schneider played well while getting top 4 minutes on D)

The other good news is that these two additions bump Exelby to the 3rd pairing where he belongs. Perhaps Coach Anderson can get more out of Exelby than Coach Hartley and Coach Waddell/McCrimmon did, but I'm keeping my expectations low. Based on the pre-season game in Nashville it will be another long season of watching X dumping the puck to center ice and letting the other team re-group to attack again.

Last year when Exelby was out on the ice the Thrashers were absolutely destroyed 36-63 (GA-GF) for a big fat -27. While the fans HATED Zhitnik, at even strength Exelby was even worse. Exebly certainly tried harder than Zhitnik did, but effort alone will not keep the puck out of your net. Exelby is still on this team and he still can't make an outlet pass to save his life--that's a major impediment to this club making the playoffs this year.

The other potential upgrade is the rookie who dresses in the 3rd pairing slot, Boris Valabik or Zach Bogosian. Whichever player it is, he will make some rookies mistakes and probably only play 10-12 minutes a night so I'm not counting on a huge impact. Still it wouldn't be hard to improve upon what Steve McCarthy turned in last season. When McCarty was on the ice at even strength the Thrashers were outscored 14-35 last year. That's a whopping -21 with McCarthy (and usually Exelby) out there on the blueline. If the Exelby/Valabik/Bogosian combo could just limit the damage to say -10, our 3rd defense pairing could save this club another 10 goals against. (By the way the underrated Mark Popovic was only outscored 12-16 at even strength last year, a better performance than Klee, Zhitnik, Exelby or McCarthy.)

Conclusion: Both big name defensive additions are known for their offense, but both are legitimate top four NHL veterans. The 2nd pairing looks to be significantly better than last year and the 3rd pairing has the potential of being significantly better as well. The Thrashers were simply brutal in their own end last year and adding two competent if not spectacular defenders should help the team move from from the brutal category upward toward the land of the average. With the loss of Hossa I have a hard time seeing major gains on the offensive side, but I know have a reason to hope for make strides in goal pre.


  • Falconer, great post and I agree with your assesments.

    I'll also add that having defenders who have strong O-fensive skills fits in well with Anderson's playing style. Having a system is nice...having players that fit into that system...nicer still.

    By Anonymous Rawhide, at 4:20 PM  

  • I like the Schneider deal, but since your post is in a cautionary vein, here are a few other things to consider. This will be Schneider's 8th NHL team: he's a professional, he can say the right things, and he's playing for what will probably be his last contract, but surely he must be a little road-weary and sick of the salary-cap politics that sent him here. He also has some history of not getting along with management, a contract dispute in Toronto, a dustup with Glen Sather in NY, disagreements with Andy Murray in LA. I wouldn't count on him to take much of a leadership role in Atlanta, especially if he thinks he's going to be shopped at the trade deadline.

    I have no enthusiasm for Valabik and would see it as a positive if he doesn't make the team. The concept of a defenseman as enforcer is outmoded: his minutes are too valuable. Doug Murray led d-men in fighting majors last year and he was 24th in the league. And Murray can play (+20 last year). It's "only" ten minutes a game but every fighting penalty means five minutes more that someone eklse has to pick up. And as you note with Steve McCarthy, even a #6 d-man can cause a lot of damage.

    By Blogger Big Picture Guy, at 10:06 AM  

  • BPG: re fighting defensemen.

    Valabik's problem is that he is the other extreme. While Exelby stirs things up but can't fight, Valabik will fight at the drop of a hat.

    I agree with you that we don't need a D that fights every night. I would argue that it can be useful to have a guy on your roster that scares cheap shot artists out there (see: Philadlphia) and Valabik has the potential to be a scary fighter. You just can't afford to have hi in the box regularly.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 11:59 AM  

  • I agree with everyone's comments about Valabik. some of the same things were said about Chara when he first came into the NHL, but Valabik, like Chara has to be cautious with his size and his ability to restrain himself. Fighting is easy when you are that big; exercising restraint and using your skating and outlet passing skills is harder to do. We have already seen what it looks like with defenseman who cannot make effective outlet passes, and we still have Exelby. Hopefully, Anderson will be true to his word, and bench him if he is not helping our defense. Then, I would be in favor of Valabik or Kulda. Really, I would rather Kulda play, as I have heard from you all that Kulda played well in camps, and is improving. I would rather have someone who is smaller than Valabik that has more skill play regularly.

    By Anonymous Steve, at 1:06 PM  

  • I am really excited about Schneider and the possibilities though. Falconer, I know you are trying to be cautious, but even you have to be excited about this trade. I am hoping to go Wednesday night to see the Red Wings game whether Schneider plays or not. I am ready to watch some hockey now!!!

    By Anonymous Steve, at 1:08 PM  

  • Seems like Bobo already has a bad rap with the officials. If he does keep himself in check, will he keep getting called for being too big? Seems like that happened in Nashville. You were there -- did you see that play? Why did he get a misconduct?

    Re: Schneider -- in exchange for Klee, I see no downside to this deal. For sure, we got better. We probably got a lot better. He is WAY above average for defensive scoring. And he is certainly as good as Klee on the other side of the puck. What did we lose? Nothing. What did we gain? I'm excited for the season to start so we can see!

    By Anonymous fatschoonerrat, at 1:14 PM  

  • Why has Schneider has played for so many teams? He's played in 7 NHL teams in the last 18 years. What makes some players jump from team to team frequently while others have a long run with the same team?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:01 PM  

  • Fat: sometimes rookies have to pay their dues with the officials. No fair, but that is the reality of the NHL.

    Anon: Why so many teams? Well the last three moves were: UFA, UFA, Traded due to cap problems. So the last 3 moves there absolutely nothing usual about them.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 3:10 PM  

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