Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Playoffs? Two Decisions that Could Put ATL in the Post Season

I am about to get hate mail for this post.

Here's how I see it, with the addition of the Schneider the Thrashers are better, right now I see them as a 89 or 90 point team. In most years the playoffs are 94-95 points in the East. The bad news is that barring a run of good luck I see the Thrashers coming up short of the playoffs. The good news is that they are now close enough that a few moves could put them across that line.

Picking up an extra 4-5 standings points could have a HUGE payoff for this franchise. Imagine if this team made the playoffs after virtually the entire NHL and the hockey media picks them to finish in the bottom five of the conference. Imagine recreating the buzz that the Washington Capitals generated with their epic run for the playoffs late last season--that could be the Thrashers of 2009!

So where can the Thrashers scrap up 5 more standings points? By removing below average players which are holding the team back. There are two guys on the Thrashers roster that I consider not just a little below average, but significantly below average for the NHL. Upgrading those two spots could provide the critical gains that result in making the post season. Both positions could upgraded without making additional financial commitments.

Roster Move #1 Replace Garnett Exelby. A fan favorite for his big hits, Exelby's lack of passing ability is major problem for the new up tempo "move it cleanly out of zone" style of Coach Anderson. Furthermore, Exelby's big hits frequently come at the price of giving up odd man rushes and goals against as he takes himself out position. Finally, his history of concussions keeps him from fighting. Exelby brings very little to the table other than being a physical presence. His inability to stand up for himself or his teammates is yet another illustration of just how one-dimensional he is. On the plus side he is popular with fans and probably teammates. If Exelby is a crucial looker room presence than the Thrashers should have won more games the last few seasons.

It is widely discussed that the Red Wings have 8 defensemen and Andreas Lilja or Kyle Quincey is available. The Penguins are reportedly shopping Sydor--who was a scratch much of the playoffs. The Panthers are supposedly looking to move Skrastins. If I were GM I would ship out Exelby for a draft pick to the Western Conference and then acquire the best of those guys I just listed. None of them makes a large salary so that would be a wash cap wise and remove a big black hole from the team's line up. We don't need an All-Star on the 3rd pairing, we just need someone competent who can make an out pass and prevent odd man rushes toward our net.

Roster Move #2 Keep Pavelec over Hedberg as the #2 goalie.
I realize this has a snowball's chance in Hell of happening, but hear me out. Everybody loves Hedberg, because he gives it his all--but the harsh truth is that his "all" is simply not very good anymore. He is well below average for a NHL goaltender. If the Thrashers are going to squeak into the post-season, it is critical not to throw away points--and every game Hedberg starts they risk doing exactly that. Bottom line: Pavelec gives the Thrashers a better chance of winning than Hedberg does in goal.

Now some will point to the fact that Hedberg had quite a few wins last season despite an awful save percentage. Why did Hedberg win despite letting in a lot of goals? Because the offense scored more goals for him than they did for Lehtonen. Last time I checked Hedberg doesn't play offense. Hedberg was the equivalent of a substandard pitcher on a strong offensive team like the Yankees where their big offense carries him to victories. The truth is that Hedberg was fortunate to get all those wins last year and counting on luck to repeat itself is a very unwise way to plan for the future.

Another objection is that Pavelec wouldn't get enough playing time. If the team split the goalie starts 50 for Lehtonen and 32 for Pavelec I think that would be sufficient. Take a look at some of the great defensive western teams over the last decade. For years the Sharks had two excellent starts in Nabakov and Toskala, the Ducks had Giguere and Bryzgalov, the Wings Hasek and Osgood, the Predators Vokoun and Dunham. If Pavelec were to stay in Atlanta not only would he represent an upgrade over Hedberg, but he would ensure Lehtonen is rested and push Lehtonen for starts. We all think Kari has more potential and perhaps a friendly rivalry could bring more out of him.

If you look at teams like the Sharks and Nashville one of the foundations of their success is committing to playing very young guys in crucial situations. Every year the Sharks bring up some 20 year olds like Vlasic, Michell, Carle, etc. The Predators win on a minimal budget because they embrace their kids and play them. There guys are YOUNG and they are filling key roles on a playoff team! We need to become the Predators of the East. The lesson is this: if your kids are good, it is important not to block them. In my opinion Pavelec is ready and playing Hedberg is the equivalent of tossing several standing points out the window.

Conclusion: I have a feeling a lot of people will hate what I've said because Exelby and Hedberg are very popular. If popularity got the Thrashers into the playoffs I'd be all for keeping them on the roster. But what we really need are quality players who make fewer mistakes and I think upgrading both of these spots could push this team over the line and into the post-season. This team needs to ruthless in taking the steps necessary to get over that line.

Don't be too conservative! Go for it! But the best lineup on the ice!


  • The difference in GAA between Pavelec and Hedberg isn't really much. Hedberg's GAA over the last two seasons is 3.26 while Pavelec's last year was 3.11.

    If we use these two numbers as projections and assume that the backup will play thirty-two games, then it's a difference of four to five goals over the course of the year.

    Having said that, I think it's safe to say that if Lehtonen is healthy for the whole season that he should get at least sixty starts if Hedberg is the backup. Lehtonen's GAA over the last two years is 2.84. Taking ten starts away from Lehtonen and giving them to Pavelec translates into losing two to three goals over the course of the year. Taking twenty starts away from Lehtonen eliminates any gain you have from Pavelec over Hedberg.

    I understand the desire to push Pavelec into the backup role since he probably would be marginally better than Hedberg. This would be a decision to develop Pavelec though, not to try to win as many games as possible. If you're trying to make the playoffs, you start Lehtonen for as many damn games as you possibly can and have Pavelec take the leftover scraps. If you're interested in balancing winning with development, you put Pavelec in the minors while Lehtonen starts all of the games. Pavelec starts in the minors and if Lehtonen gets hurt you bring up Pavelec.

    Also, Exelby might be good at hitting things, but doesn't seem to be very good at hockey. Replacing him is a fantastic idea.

    By Blogger Scott, at 12:08 PM  

  • No Hate Here...

    100 % Behind your Exelby idea. The Moose thing not as much. I think the team's respect for him is tangible and his presence in the room and on the bench is important.

    By Blogger pkwaldrop, at 12:22 PM  

  • As much as I'd love to count on Lehtonen being healthy for 60 starts--the track record is simply not there to assume he can do that.

    GAA is a function of SV% and SOGA. The only thing the goalie controls is SV% so I prefer to look at that.

    15th Lehtonen
    30th Pavelec
    42nd Hedberg

    36th Lehtonen
    42nd Pavelec
    44th Hedberg

    One important thing to keep in mind is that Pavelec put up that SV% pretty much straight out of juniors. He was called up in early Oct and VERY few professional starts. Now that he has a full AHL season and AHL playoffs it is entirely possible he might put up even better numbers.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 12:23 PM  

  • I agree about Exelby, as much as I like the guy. I disagree about Pavelec, though. I'd rather keep three viable goalies in the system than screw ourselves like we did way back when.

    I think we need more help up front now than anything. If we could ship a C like White or Slates + a pick for a solid RW, I'd do that. Maybe we could help a team that needs to dump salary.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:40 PM  

  • I suppose comparing save percentage is fair enough, though I do think that goalies have some impact on the amount of shots that they face. Still, save percentages in NHL games over the last two seasons:

    Lehtonen - .914
    Pavelec - .905
    Hedberg - .894

    The point remains that the gap between Pavelec and Hedberg is very similar to the gap between Lehtonen and Pavelec.

    Why would you want to commit to starting Pavelec for 32 games now? If you're wrong and Lehtonen doesn't get injured, then you've thrown away points.

    I do agree that If Lehtonen gets injured that the right thing to do is have Pavelec starting.
    But at the outset, if you're concerned with both winning and development Pavelec should start in the minors where he'll get games. If you're just concerned with winning, let Pavelec be the clear backup and start Lehtonen as much as possible.

    By Blogger Scott, at 12:50 PM  

  • Scott:

    It is true that if Lehtenon goes down you can bring up and start Pavelec.

    I suspect that Pavelec today is a better goalie than his .905% from OCT-NOV of 2007. But that's my opinion I don't have any data to back that up.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 1:08 PM  

  • I cannot disagree with your analysis. Hedberg is beloved by all, but we belove wins more. His performance against St. Louis underscores your point.Kari has not lived up to his potential and needs to deliver 65 quality starts this year or we need look to the goalie of the future. Pavelec has looked better in practice and games so far ... and it may be time for the Thrashers to determine which of their two young goalies is ready to be the goalie of today.

    X has an atrocious +/-. I'd trade fewer dramatic hits for fewer goals and shots on goal any day.

    By Anonymous Rusty, at 1:15 PM  

  • Seems to me we suck at all offensive positions but Kovy's, yet we have two premium goalie prospects and more in the pipeline. The story of the upcoming year will be our poor offense: stop Kovy and stick a fork in us. We have only one finisher. Therefore I would trade Lehtonen or Pavelec if we could get a good young offensive (in a 'scoring" not 'body odor' sense) player in return. Anyway, lets face it: if the D doesn't stop giving up 50 close-in shots a game it don't matter a gnat's butt who's in goal. Moose is a good-enough back-up.

    By Anonymous Doug Rivers, at 4:32 PM  

  • I agree with you suggestions to improve the team (although keeping Pavelec in the minors another season might be to his benefit in the long run) but I have to question the first assumption of this post. Atlanta an 89-90 point team is just wishful thinking. Sure, Schneider is good but without Hossa and without any other major roster moves, I don't see the Thrashers getting 15 points better in one season, especially in a division where every other team should be better than last season.

    By Blogger DMG, at 4:32 PM  

  • I think you have to give Hedberg at least some credit for the team being better in front of him offensively. He's one of the better puck handlers in the league and Kari has to be one of the worst... ought to tie that boy's skates to the posts to keep him from going behind the net.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 4:35 PM  

  • Funny I get weird looks and nasty responses when I say something about X as well. He's looked good in years past but only because of the other "talent" on the blueline. I think his lacks are going to be more apparent now that we have some significant improvements on D.

    Falconer, did your stats on X account for him being moved to a 6th/7th spot, cause that is where he will be this season. I'm expecting him to rotate out of the line-up with Valabik, which may be a push between the two.

    Forwards may make an impact as well. If some of the younger guys get spots on that 4th line that can finish better than Boulton or whomever, that will boost us up. Additionally Kovy looks to have at least one competent linemate in Williams, possibly two with Christensen. I can't (and don't want to) count how many times Kovy himself set up a perfect scoring opportunity that White could not finish on.

    I dunno - I think we have too many intangibles at play this season to really get a fix on what will come of this season. But I think (hope) it will be fun finding out.

    By Anonymous Sara, at 5:06 PM  

  • Sara: Defense is the hardest thing in the world to forecast, but yes I had X slotted to the 3rd pairing.

    But also I have him playing a full share of games. Why? because injuries happen far more often than most of us realize. The average NHLer plays only about 70 games. Now the median is slightly higher because you have people like Jon Sim (1 GP) or Chris Clark (18 GP) pulling down the average.

    Still if you're forecasting with the injury risk evenly spread out (i.e. randomized), that means you have 7 D playing 70 GP each and 14 F playing 70 GP each as well.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 5:27 PM  

  • I forgot to add--thanks for all the comments lately readers! :)

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 5:27 PM  

  • I'd trade Lehtonen (keeping Pavs and Moose), and I'd pay someone to take Slater off our hands (of stone, as it were).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:30 PM  

  • i like X but i agree he probably needs to go. it makes me sad to say it but i also agree that pavelec should have the backup job.

    By Anonymous swegs, at 7:03 PM  

  • Honestly, I've never gotten X. Call it blasphemy, but I just never did. He doesn't fight anymore. So I'd be fine sending him away.

    Moose, er... uh,, I love Moose. So I don't want him to go. See, with all the stats and stuff, I just have to remember that he had a crap defense in front of him last year, he took the reigns when Kari got hurt, and I always feel good when he is in goal during a shootout. Remember last december when Kovy was killing it and Toby was boy wonder. Moose was like Alfred, the older guy that kept things together. Sure we had Hossa then, but it wasn't like he was the normal Hossa we remember. Moose stepped up and did what he could in a terrible situation with bad defense, an odd coaching situation, and teammates that weren't fully in the game. I can't say anything bad about him. It's tough for me because I love all three of our goalies. I just don't want anyone else to have them.

    By Blogger FrenchCatalogues, at 2:26 AM  

  • I agree completely on Exelby.

    I have to disagree on Moose though. There's something to be said for a team performing better consistently in front of one goalie over another. Your Yankees analogy is flawed because they're a good team regardless of who is on the mound. They carry the mediocre pitcher. In Atlanta's case, they're a mediocre team that plays better when their mediocre goalie is in net.

    Sports - especially chaotic and improvisational ones like hockey - cannot be distilled down purely into stats. Hedberg is obviously a guy the Thrashers players believe in and it affects their play positively. What's more, Pavelec would be wasted in a backup role right now. Let him continue to get experience as the man in Chicago and then when Moose's contract is up he can challenge for the 1A job in Atlanta.

    By Anonymous Jim Slater's Ex-Girlfriend, at 10:14 AM  

  • I agree that X was shaky as hell last year, but lets not rewrite history. X played good solid hockey for several years for this franchise. He was and still is a stay-at-home d-man. But two related things have happened: the game has gotten faster with more offense and X's confidence, especially handling the puck, has dropped.

    By Anonymous doug rivers, at 11:32 AM  

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