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!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thrashers Talons Talks to Kulda

Last week I was up in Nashville for the two Rookie Games between Atlanta and the Predators. I had the opportunity to talk to Thrashers prospect Arturs Kulda.

Just as it was a rookie game for the prospects, it was my rookie attempt at interviewing. I took notes on a notepad and then attempted to fill out a full version while it was fresh in my mind. This Q and A is more of a paraphrase than a direct quote--any mistakes are from my own memory. Later that week I moved up and brought an audio recorder so I didn't need to rely on my memory to fill in the details.

I'd like to thank Arturs Kulda for answering my questions about his homeland and his career. I'd also like to thank the Predators organization for allowing me to attend and ask these questions.

I went into the interview with a few topics on my mind.
  • I was interested to learn about hockey in Latvia. The country was part of the USSR for many decades but regained its independence following the end of the Cold War. I was curious to hear about how Latvian hockey is doing in the post-Soviet era.
  • I am also curious to know more about the development process and the draft from the perspective of a player. Most of what we hear about this comes from the perspective of team officials trying to find talent.
  • Finally I wanted to learn something about Kulda as an individual, his strengths and weakness, his heroes and goals.
Thrashers Talons (TT): I see that you played for the Team Latvia Under 18 and Under 20 teams a few years ago. What is the state of Latvian hockey?

Arturs Kulda (AK): When I was playing there, there were only a few arenas and not as many teams. But both of those are improving. We just won the World Juniors [B Pool].

TT: We all know that hockey is very popular in neighboring Russia, Latvia has been an independent nation for a while now, where would you say hockey ranks in your country?

AK: Hockey is a very big sport--I would say it is number one.

TT: Speaking of Latvian sports I watched the Summer Olympics beach volleyball match where the Latvians beat the top ranked Americans [in the round robin play]. Was this a big moment for Latvian sports?

AK: I did not see that match myself, but I did hear about it. Latvia is right on the Baltic so we have many nice beaches.

TT: I have read that Europeans tend to stress skill development more than physical development and sometimes prospects have to catch up on the conditioning side when they come over to North America. did you find this to be true?

AK: Well they do teach both, but yes we did spend a lot of time on the ice practicing skills. But I have always played a physical style.

TT: Speaking of that, I've read that Boris Valabik's physical style is better suited to the North American game, would you say that is true of you as well?

AK: I think I can help in many areas, but yes hockey over here is better suited for me. [smiles]

TT: Many fans in Atlanta have never seen you play a game. Could describe yourself to them, what is your strongest attribute?

AK: I try to do whatever the team needs. If the team needs passing, I will pass.

TT: So you perhaps your all-around game is your strength?

AK: Yes.

TT: Growing up did you think that the NHL was possible for you?

AK: Yes.

TT: Did you know that Atlanta was interested in you heading into the 2006 draft?

AK: Yes, there were a couple of teams watching me and I knew Atlanta was a possibility.

TT: How did you learn you were selected by Atlanta? Did you have an agent call, the Thrashers or perhaps a friend?

AK: I saw it for myself on I sat there reloading online. I was happy because this is a good organization.

TT: Who is the greatest Latvian hockey player? I know Sandis Ozlolinsh is from the Baltic region.

AK: I would say Arturs Irbe and yes Ozolinsh is from the Baltic. You know their names because they have played in the NHL.

The Salary Cap System Helps Atlanta

At the Townhall Meeting GM Don Waddell said that the salary cap system really only benefited the top 8-10 teams. It is true that the owners of the top 10 franchises are now forced to turn a profit instead of spending every dime they earn in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Last season the Detroit Red Wings won the Cup may have cleared $15-20 million dollars.

Don Waddell indicated that the cap system changed expectations and any team that failed to spend the cap max is now viewed as a "cheap" team by their fans. There have always been cheap or free spending teams in the past, the difference is that now fans are much more aware of the $ and not just wins and losses. (The growth of fantasy sports also been fueling the process by making fans try and think like a GM.)

However, I strongly disagree that the overall conclusion that the cap/floor system has been a failure for small revenue teams and here is why:

#1 The cap has GREATLY reduced the gap between the rich and poor teams in the NHL.

Before the lockout the Thrashers spent of roughly $25 million on players and the Rangers spend nearly $75, which means Atlanta was being outspent nearly 3-to-1. Today the Rangers are capped out at around $56 million and the Thrashers must spent around $41. Todya the Rangers can only outspend Atlanta by 39% whereas in the pre-lockout the margin was 200%--that's a HUGE improvement in competitive balance within the NHL. In the old NHL the Ducks could have kept Schneider and Selanne on the same roster, now they can't and Atlanta benefits (Mike Knobler blogged about this as well).

#2 The salary floor requires all owners to put a decent product on the ice.

In baseball a "cheap" team can essentially assemble a roster of cheap minor league players and put them out there for a full season. In hockey that option is now impossible. With the salary floor being set at $41 million every team must have a couple of expensive stars in their lineup. This is giant "fan protection" mechanism. As a fan I appreciate the fact that my own team and other clubs are required to field a respectable looking roster. No team can just throw out a bunch of minor league riff-raff and call it a NHL team.

#3 A salary cap system puts a premium on good hockey management.

The truth of the matter is that both the salary cap and the salary floor have risen much quicker than almost anyone expected. Part of this is the sharp fall of the US dollar relative to the Canadian dollar. This currency shift shows up as a big "revenue" increase for Canadian franchises. Back in the 1990s small market Canadian teams were harmed by a weak currency and now the shoe is on the other foot as sunbelt franchises are being squeezed a bit by the rising floor that is being driven by events north of the border. The big problem is that while player salaries are set by LEAGUE revenue trends, revenues are not split up evenly among the league. Right now there is a very big problm caused by the uneven growth of revenues.

At the end of the day this a problem between owners, not between the NHL and the NHLPA. It could be quickly solved by adopting a new system in which every visiting team gets a cut of the home team's revenues. Problem solved! Good luck getting idea approved by the Board of Governors though. However, until there a big picture solution to revenues there is always going to be a problem with a system where player salaries are determined by collective revenues and yet teams operate on individual revenue streams.

Yes, the Thrashers bottom line is being squeezed by the rapid revenue growth of franchises north of us. However, even with a rising salary floor the Thrashers would be fine if they had been putting a solid product on the ice. The Atlanta organization is poised to take a giant loss this season. The NHL rules are going to force them to spend $41 million and people are staying away in droves because they are fed up with all the losing. In my informal circle of friends I know 10 long term season ticket holders and only one of those has renewed--and he can write it off as a business expense. While it is just anecdotal those are some very ugly renewal numbers.

At the end of the day it is about managing assets. You can contend on a budget--Nashville in an even smaller market with even shakier ownership does it year after year. The bottom line is that the Thrashers simply have failed to get sufficient value out of their payroll budget. In a cap and floor type league the differences between wise and poor management choices is magnified because relatively small errors can have large consequences. What we need in Atlanta is not a different CBA, what we need is a better return on salary investment. Rather than blaming a cap/floor system that fundamentally helps small markets, the organization should focus on getting the most band for their buck--it is the only path out of their current difficulty.

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.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Schneider A Thrasher


I already laid the reasons why I thought the team should acquire Mathieu Schneider in this post, if you missed it take a look.

Kevin Allen suggested that the Thrashers might get Bobby Ryan as part of the trade but obviously that did not happen. My guess is that the Thrashers asked for Ryan and Schneider and then waited, but Anaheim would not do it, so we made the next best deal.

Essentially the Thrashers add roughly $4 in salary once you subtract out Ken Klee going in the other direction. (Larsen's salary will be replaced by a kid making roughly the same amount of money--so no $ savings there.)

What are the repercussions of the Schnedier trade?

I was bullish on Bogosian and Valabik BOTH making the squad out of camp. Before the Thrashers needed his $4 million cap hit to get above the salary floor but now with Schneider's nearly $6 million salary they are comfortably over the limit. To be frank the history of 18 year old defensemen in the NHL is not very inspiring. Plus if you bring Bogosian to the NHL at 18 you speed up the date at which he is eligible for unrestricted free agency (age 27 or 7 NHL seasons whichever comes first under the CBA).

So here are the questions the Thrashers brass must answer? Is it in the long and short term interests of the team to keep Bogosian in the NHL at age 18? Is it better to play someone like Grant Lewis instead and return Bogosian to the OHL? Or is the team better off by claiming some like Sydor off waivers (assuming he is waived) or signing Malik?

Assuming the Thrashers fail to reach the playoffs, Schneider could be flipped at the deadline for a high draft pick or prospect. Perhaps as high as a 2nd rounder. By the trade deadline Schneider will only have about $1 million plus due and a number of contenders could squeeze him under the cap at that point. What team wouldn't like to add a puck moving defenseman to perk up their PP going into the playoffs?

The other repercussion of this deal is that youth is likely to be served. The Thrashers may carry two rookies on defense (Valabik and Bogosian or Lewis) and Brad Larsen's spot will likely go to a rookie such as someone like Colin Stuart, or Jordan LaValle, etc.

Larsen always played hard but he really ceased to be an effectively penalty killer for the Thrashers and he scored almost no points at even strength last year. To borrow from baseball, his ES scoring rate was below the "Mendoza Line" of 1 point per hour of ES ice time. In plain English, his offense was so poor it was like sticking a guy who only bats .180 in your lineup--the Thrashers could do better by playing someone from their farm system. Larsen had ceased to be an asset defensively and his offense was simply not good.

The last repercussion of this deal is that this bumps the Thrashers a bit closer to being a playoff contender. I'll redo my projections soon and give you a more precise estimate, but earlier I pegged the Thrashers as a 83-85 points. If Schneider moves them say 4 standing points that makes the new Thrashers lineup closer to the 87-89 points--in most years you need around 94-95 to make the post-season. The upshot? I still consider the team unlikely to get in, but with Schneider they need less luck than they did without Schneider.

OK I lobbied for adding Schneider and the Thrashers did it--kudos for stepping up and making this team better at the price of the salary. This an addition with VERY little cost to the team in terms of assets. I'm MUCH more excited about this team now. Schneider isn't just a nice player, he has been an elite offensive player in the NHL. I'm really looking forward to see that Atlanta power play now, Ilya Kovalchuk meet Mathieu Schneider!

EDIT: Did anyone else see this in Mike Knobler's AJC article? "Long careers and the title “defenseman” are just about the only things Schneider and Klee have in common. Schneider has had 50 or more points in two of the three most recent seasons." ZING!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nashville Pre-Season Game Live Blog

fI'll be up in NashVegas tonight live blogging about key plays just like I did on Monday and Tuesday. The Blueland Blog reports that Predators radio will be covering it--my guess though is that if you listen it will be rare that Thrashers players are mentioned by name. The Preds radio are going to be more interested in talking about their own players.

Check back in this space in a few hours.

I'm live up high at the Sommet Center. 13 minutes until the opening faceoff of the first Thrasher pre-season game.

Based on warm ups it looks like T. White and S. Machacek will not be dressed for this game tonight and presumably will play in St. Louis tomorrow.

Impressions from warm ups Ron Haisey looks bigger than I expected. Wow, Mike Hoffman is HUGE.

Pretty much the entire Thrashers management is here watching in the press box.

scratches: announcer says it is too long to read :)

ATL Starters:

Video Preview going on.
Thrashers scratches are seated in the row in front of me.
Thrashers brass right behind me.

Former Thrasher Greg De Vries is starting for NAS tonight.

Pekka Rinne is in goal for Predators. It will be interesting to see how he does. He only had one NHL game last year but is expected to carry the load as the back up.

Decent pre-season crowd for a weeknight. I'd estimate 5,000 people here by the national anthem.
And we're underway.

Reasoner with SOG from top L circle. Thrasher vets get 1st scoring chance of the game.

Pavelec with SV kicks it right out near a Predator on opposite side but luckily he can't get a shot away with Pavs out of position.

Lessard to Esposito in front of the net but the D checks Espo off the puck--no shot.

Slater with long distance shot from Blueline, home crowd gives Rinne a huge applause.

ATL GOAL Exelby unobstructed shot from the blue line. Brutal goal to give up for NAS in my opinion.

Little with a takeaway via a skate deflection.

Rivers misses on a body check along the boards.

I've noticed Reasoner every shift he has taken.

I'm trying to type up every quality scoring chance or save in the game as they come along.

Stevenson draws a penalty, borderline call.
Espos, Lewis, Hainsey, Lessard, Stevenson out on PP
Hainsey pinches way in passes back to the point where ANOTHER LONG BLUELINE SOG BEATS RINNE!!!! Grant Lewis

2-0 ATL natives are getting restless here.

Slater to the box, ATL PK
Solid SV for Pavelec. SOG from Right hash marks.
Better SV, shot on goal, rebound in tight SOG--Save!

Lewis sagged too much on the PK allowing his man to get a clean shot from R faceoff dot. Save.

Sterling fails to clear on PK. Sterling wins puck behind the net and tries to dish to Thrasher winger but they hold it in again. Finally cleared. PK over.

NAS penalty, ATL PP coming up next.
PP unit Rivers, Oystrick, Stevenson, Espo, Lessard
Oystrick unable to hold puck in while under pressure.Oystrikc chance top circle misses net.
Rivers misses net.
Boulton with good chance close in, save.
Hoffman shot from the wall.
NAS clears to man coming out the box, quality save Pavelec.

Reasoner with decent chance on pass from Thorburn.

Rivers late covering his man but he fails to covert great pass. Lucky for ATL on D breakdown.

ATL PP Dumont in the box for 2nd time tonight
C. Stuart attempt to jam puck into the side of the net. NAS clears.
Lot of passing trying to get a SOG, Lewis finally winds up and takes a slapper which is easily blocked and out of the zone by the NAS PK forward.

Looks like ATL PP was trying to work puck along one side and then move it across for a SOG.

Sterling checks his man off the puck in the O zone, Valabik gets puck dishes right back to Sterling for SOG near L face off dot.

4 minutes left in 1st.

Valabik with excellent read to pick off dangerous pass. Haisey takes outlet and skates all the way into NAS zone.

Valabik to the box cross check in battle around the net. ATL PK
NAS GOAL point shot. Two men at ATL net. Perhaps a screen.
2-1 ATL now

ATL penalty again. Slater this time.
Wow some bad PK going on right now but NAS is eitehr hitting Pavs or missing the net.
Hainsey and Valabik took the same man in the crease leaving the back door wide open--shades of watching Andy Sutton coverage there.

End of 1st 2-1 ATL shog 13-12 ATL

2nd period.
Quaity SH Save for Pavelec on cross ice feed, he put the pad down.

Rivers-Oystrick combo had a TERRIBLE coverage error that left NAS player wide open for back door chance. Save by Pavs. Not sure which guy got out of his defensive lane.

Little 1 on 1 chance, fired a fairly tame SOG from outside.

Sterling almost sprung loose into the slot, but not quite.

Too many men NAS, ATL PP
NAS guy lost his stick now.
Oystrick to Little wide open in the slot. Little chooses to hand on instead of shooting and then his return pass misses the target. ATL players gives funky rebound off boards but can't stop and takes out the net causing a whistle.

ATL GOAL Lessard of L side of net attemps a bpass that hist NAS defenseman and goes into the net. Really not Rinne's night so far. 3-0 ATL.

3 on 1 for ATL and Slater elects to shoot, save.

Lewis pinches up and gets taken down puck squirts loose to NAS player and leads to a slow developing 4 on 1 (Hainsey is back) and Predators player fails to make a good pass and they get NOTHING out of a 4 on 1--unfreaking believable!

ATL SH Lewis delay of game puck over glass

Strerling on the PK nearly picks off NAS pass. Pavs makes a funny looking save by squating on the puck with his back to the post.

Exelby has a man slip in behind him but stays close and harasses the guy and Pavelec makes the save.

Rivers weak coverage leads to a turnover and point blank chance in front. Great concentration by Pavelec to stop that one headed toward his 5 hole. Now I see why Rivers never stuck in the NHL, great offensive skill with poor defensive coverage.

ATL going on PP delayed call.
From way up here, it looks like Pavelec may have just made a save with his face. Appears to be OK.

ATL PP slash.
Oystrick nearly falls down handling the puck in his own zone on the PP.
Thorburn with small chance right out from but good D by NAS to snuff it out.
Lewis steals puck high in O zone and tries to dipsy do to the net but loses his balance the puck slids away--actually B. Jones hooked Lewis now a 5 on 3 PP briefly.
Lewis gets puck into the slot where Sterling nearly gets a SOG away but is stick checked.

Thrashers showing some of the stuff Coach Anderson talked about, they are working the puck hard in the corners of the offensive zone trying to open up space for cross ice passes or using the D men.

NAS Goal off a great looking tip right in front of Pavelec. Looks to me to be Oystrick only man back and he was on the opposite side of the net. 3-2 ATL now.

Thorburn called in the O zone for high sticking, ATL PK
XLB nails guy carrying the puck.
Pavelec with a nice sv on a point shot, rebound went into the corner.
PK over

Sterling witn nice dish to Thorburn for SOG.
Antoher Thorburn shot goes high and wide of the net.
Pinne makes save with Sterling driving hard into the crease, but NAS covers puck.

End of 2nd. 3-2 ATL, shots 24-19 NAS.

Always interesting to see which teams have scouts here: Boston, Ottawa, Detroit, Colorado, Washington--no sign of Anaheim FWIW.

3rd period about to start.
Predators replace their goalie.

Fight!!! Hoffman lands a couple of punches. That was over quick. Refs step in.

Stevenson tips puck back into his own end and Esposito ends up taking a hit to bail out his team.
PP never really got organized. Valabik with some PP time tonight.

Penalty ATL, now Boris wrestling with a Predator, no fight. I'm assuming Boris is headed to the box. Boris actually getting escorted around the ice by the ref and now headed off to the dressing room. I'm not sure if got cut or if he got a bunch of minutes--there is 13 left in the period. One Predator is in the box already. Off setting 5 on 5. Boris gets 12 minutes.

ATL SH for 2 minutes with 13 left to go.
Reasoner, Exelby, Hainsey and Crabb to start the kill.
Reasoner tip and ATL clears. Crabb checked and goes head over heels but pops right back up off the ice--home crowd LOVES THAT HIT.
Quality SV for Pavelec and no rebound either.
Two more saves for Pavelec on the PK.
Hainsey clear, PK over.

Hainsey good defensive stop 1 on 1. Ron is having a solid game, no too flashy on offense but no defensive breakdowns that I have noticed.

ATL on PP kneeing call.
Espo is tripped on PP, now it will be 5 on 3 PP for a minute and a half..
Too much passing Hainsey had a chance to dish to RW but didn't and then they just passed it around until someone finally took a so-so shot.
Fantastic chance, Little on L side to Sterling in the crease for two quick shots, Sterling deserved to score a goal right there.
NAS clears.
Hit by Thorburn creates loose puck and shot from the side of the net.
PP over.

G. Lewis puts his man into the net--NAS PP now.
Very nice save for Pavelec, Predators did a good job moving the puck around and he tracked it well.

Thorburn to the box. a little less than 5 left in the game. We always have to rush off at the end so I will not have much time at the conclusion of the game.

PK great save by Pavelec in tight. If it were me I'd have used both Pavelec and Lehtonen this season and split the starts 50-32 and not re-signed Hedbeg, but nobody asked me.

HOLY COW SAVE BY PAVELEC the entire press box was commenting. Desperation move-threw out his stick to save a certain goal fired at empty half of the net, he was down from making the initial save on the R side and NAS moved the puck to the L side for what looked like a certain goal to tie up the game.

ATL Goal, bit fluky perhaps, shot and rebound came right to ATL player hwho put it away. Slater with SOG--on the replay it looks to me like the rebound hit a NAS defensemen and went in. 4-2 ATL and fans are heading for the exits with minute and half.

OK folks hope you enjoyed it, time to put away the laptop and go down stairs. I hope to do a quick interview to post on the blog this weekend. (I talked to Kulda earlier this week and will have that as well).

Forecasting Baseball: The Computer Guys Win

Now that the 2008 MLB season is winding down the website VegasWatch went back and looked at the pre-season predictions and who fared best. The quantitative guys cleaned up with Nate Silver (PECOTA), Rob Neyer and Law coming in ahead of the Las Vegas Over/Under numbers. Bringing up the rear are former Mets GM Phillips and ESPN journalists Tim Kurkjian and Buster Onley. The article I've linked to looks at the "hard to predict cases" such as Seattle, Chicago (AL), Tampa and which prognosticators did best. Phillips in particuar appears to have bought into the dead wrong hype surrounding Seattle. If you're interested in predictions/modeling it is a fun read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Schneider, Nashville, Odds and Ends

I'm back home for a day of work and then it is off to Nashville on Thursday for my 3rd game in four days in that city. For anyone making the trip for the pre-season game I would point out that there are several good places to eat right around the Sommet Center. Personally, I like the no frills Demos Steakhouse where you get a great tasting state for a very reasonable price. The brew pub at the end of the street has quality food. There are two BBQ joints adjacent to the arena and a solid Irish Pub about 4 blocks away as well.

Kevin Allen has some speculation about Schneider and Bobby Ryan heading to Atlanta in a salary deal that would see Ken Klee heading to Anaheim. I'd do that deal in a heartbeat. Schneider is likely just a one year addition who could then be traded at the deadline for more assets while Ryan is a decent prospect with size on the right wing (Thrashers seem to have more LW than any other franchise these days). But my guess is that the Atlanta would have to send Anaheim more than just Ken Klee. Still adding Ryan and Schneider and would dramatically improve the depth and quality of this team and make it more likely they could sneak into the playoffs.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nashville Rookie Game 2 Live Blog

Greetings everyone, we're back live from up high at the Sommet Center in downtown Nashville. I will try and supply a little hockey entertainment during your workday.

Warmups have concluded and the arena staff replaced the glass that broke behind the Predators defend end. Referees are circling below in advance of the players.

Nashville is doing a big promotion today to sell tickets and generate excitement for the team. One year ago things looked grim for the team as it seemed likely to be sold and moved. There was a large rally to sell tickets and the team appears to have a more stable future even some problems regarding one of their owners. The Predators goal is to sell 17,000 tickets today.

Players are now taking the ice.
Your ATL starters:

Opening scoring chance goes to NAS, Lewis can't reach puck in his feet and Predators get it loose for an outside slapper.

ATL Shorthanded.
Painchaud SH SOG then another by a Thrashers.

Looks like we have an arena announcer today unlike last night--although they have yet to announced the penalties.

Lewis knocks Carrozzi rebound out of the air to stuff out NAS pressure around the net.

NAS gets in behind Marchesi but Predator can't handle the puck cleanly.

Another penalty on ATL, Esposito who was banged hard in the corner-maybe he retaliated--didn't see it.

Predator PP goal from behind the net or at least below the goal line. There was a SOG from the point, deflects slightly off the ATL goalie hits the back board hard and comes right to an open Predator at the side of the net for a fairly easy score.

1-0 NAS

Denny with a big hit that takes out both him and the NAS guy.

Paquette bulldozes his way to the net and tries to curl the puck into the far corner and just misses.

Atlanta defender gets beat and takes a dumb holding call after the player misses the net. Shorthanded for the 3rd time in the 1st.

Lewis losses his stick while SH. 5 on 3.5 Siddall gives Lewis his stick. Siddall clears the zone.
Denny with a nice stop, not a huge hit but effective.

About 2 dozen school kids are screaming "Predators" during a stoppage in play.

Siddall in perfect position in front of the net but pass from behind the goal slightly off line.

Lewis showing his skating and puck skills dipsy-does into the offensive zone. Thrashers work it around the perimeter and Kulda fires a SOG

ATL GOAL pass from behind the net (Esposito I think) to Holzapfel at the left doorstep high glove side shot.

1-1 with just under 2 left in the 1st.

ATL on PK again. Anderson in the box.
Carrozzi fighting the puck on a save but makes the save.

Thrashers bust out of their zone and Kaip gets a SH partial breakaway--save.

Another ATL SH SOG off the faceoff-save

PK looking good, Lewis defects SOG and Riley blocks another and clears the zone.

Period ends 1-1

School children chants collapse into a muddle that I think is "let's go Predators" but it is hard to tell. Looks like about 3 buses worth of kids arrived during the period which I didn't notice while watching the game. Probably more school kids here now than adults. The Zamboni arrives much to the delight of the kids. Everyone love the Zamboni.

Intermission: I talked to David Poile (Preadators GM) before the game about the stability of the franchise. He indicated things were much better than a year ago, though some problems remain obviously. I mentioned that he regularly finishes at the top of the NHL in terms of getting the best "bang for the buck" with their payroll. He said they work hard to put a competitive team on the ice within their budget. I'm sure he doesn't remember it, but I spoke with him many years ago back when he was GM of Washington Capitals. Gordie Howe was in town signing autographs and David Poile was there and I think Brian Burke too (back then he was the NHL disciplinarian)

Nothing beats hearing 500 school children chanting along to "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

2nd period on.

Pospisil drives up the middle of NAS zone fires puck, Esposito gets rebound and fires but blocked by NAS player. Esposito, Pospisil Paquette line with good pressure.

Postma makes a BAD turnover right at his own blueline and NAS turns into a partial breakaway and and GOAL.

2-1 NAS.

Painchaud drives through the NAS crease but can't get it past the well positioned goalie.

Carrozzi with a save and a bit of luck, then immediately after there is a full on scrum and two players hugging but no genuine fighting. Marchesi in the box for ATL.

Painchaud with a partial breakaway, save but Chad takes out the net. Another scrum ensues. Tempers are really starting to flair now.

Sticks and elbows are getting raised. Guarantee there will be a fight soon if it keeps going this way. big hit along the glass in front of the school kids--which earned a big "oooh"

Carrozzi with a quality save off a scrambly NAS chance.

Lewis bails out Thrashers after funny bounce turnover.

Thrashers had a nice opportunity where Esposito skated hard to the net without the puck and got a laser pass but it was too hot for him to handle.

Matt Anderson with another "never stops moving his feet" type shift. This guy will be a nice addition to the Wolves this season.

Paquette with a slapper from the blueline goes sky high into the stands.

Kulda with a big hit, some thought it borderline dirty.

Siddall attempts to redirect Lewis point shot but tip it wide.

ATL Goal SH Painchaud. Tie Game 2-2

Carrozzi with a quality save from right face off dot.


ATL almost lost offensive possession a couple of times but scrambled and kept the play alive. Holzapfel makes a nice cross zone pass for a SOG from the left side--save.

The Anderson-Stoesz-Paquette line with some solid pressure.

Another ATL PP
Painchaud just cleared it out of the NAS zone, ouch.
ATL just got away with an offside.

6 minutes and change to go in the game.

Observation: Esposito has shown me a lot more in these two NAS games than he did in the Traverse City tournament. He's still not NHL ready but I'm seeing fewer turnovers and bad plays out of him and more of his speed and skill be used for positive effect.

ATL SH Stoesz to the box.

Good defensive work by Esposito on the PK, he eliminated his man's stick to prevent a back door slam dunk opportunity.

Matt Anderson with SH breakaway--save. He tried to deke.

Observation ATL's PK unit is generating a lot of SH chances. You know what I like most about that? Most of the guys in this game are likely to end up as checkers rather than scorers so we need some quality PK guys coming up from the farm system.

Anderson with a shot in the high slot. (for all his fans that keep googling "Matt Anderson" he's having another good game).

Clock winding down on another 2-2 tie. Expecting a shootout next.

LOL, today we are going to play a 4 on 4 OT.

Esposito beats his defensemen and rings backhand shot off far post. Very close to winning the game.

NAS takes a penalty in OT!
Timeout NAS, there are 3 minutes left in the OT and the Thrashers look to have the man advantage for 2/3 of that.

Espo shot on goal. PP unit is Kulda, Lewis, Espo and Pospisil.
Nas gets a clear.

Wild scramble around the net!. Thrashers are able to feed it out front to Lewis but NAS goalie gets a glove on it. Very close to scoring again.

Denny with two slapper and two saves. PP expires. One minute left in OT.

Lehman hurt. He made a nice play in the neutral zone then was double teamed. I didn't see if he was slashed or maybe hit with a high stick. He's still down on the ice being attended to, getting up now. Used both legs so perhaps a blow to the head.

Shootout necessary
NAS #1 shot score. low stick side
ATL #1 Painchaud missed the net
NAS #2 save, five hold attempt I think
ATL #2 Esposito missed the net
NAS #3 score top stick side

Game over, NAS wins.

Edit: found out after the game they were asked not to fight because the school kids were there, which explains why there no fisticuffs when things got hot in the 2nd period.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Nashville Prospects Game 1 Live Blog

I'm up and running here in Nashville. The first period has just ended with a score of 0-0.

After a fast drive up from Atlanta after work, we arrived just as the game began. By the time we made our way through security and up to the press box I missed the first half of the 1st period (just 15 minutes for the prospects game).

It seemed to me that both teams youngsters were in a feeling out mode and were reluctant to risk big mistakes. Not a lot of scoring chances either way, although I would say the Thrasher had a slight edge with a late flurry of good puck possession in the NAS zone and decent shots on goal.

The line of Mahachek-Esposito and Pospisil had some great pressure with Grant Lewis and Arturs Kulda manning the points.

I have to say I rarely pay attention to invitees but Matt Anderson is going full out in this tilt playing with great energy and making some terrific hustle plays.

Line comobs so far:

2nd period is underway.

So far Esposito looks better to me than he did in T.C. making fewer turnovers adn he continues to try and help out on defense covering for a D man who pinched up in the play.

Kaip had a good shift bulldozing his the NAS net and then screening on a point shot.

Kulda with a gutsy hold at the blueline even though he knew he was going to take a hit--and he remained standing after the hit.

Predators getting much better chances this period than in the 1st


Paquette I think, just one replay on the scoreboard--typical of when the visitor puts one in the basket.

Nashville goal 1-1

Lewis hit his man behind the net but the guy made a pass to wide open man in the hash marks. Kulda slids into the picture too late.

Little offensive flow for ATL but Lehman can't handle the pass cleanly from Esposito.

Posta with a shift to forget. Almost gets beat at the blueline but recovers. Gets puck along endboards and makes a pass that looks like shot duck--and then gets hammered into the boards just after releasing the puck--but draws a power play.


Turple makes a SH save. The score is only 1-1 but Turple looks really shaky to me. No style points on any of his saves.

Observation: crowd is smaller than your typical Gladiator game.

ATL not getting much going on the PP so far.
Now they move the puck around well and Lehman gets a slapper from the right face off dot-saved.

Paquette gives someone a facewash along the wall-I was hoping a fight would break out.

Postma turnover leads to a scoring chance for NAS.


Esposito is on the right hand goal line makes a backhand pass into the slot where a wide open Painchaud buries it.

End of 2nd 2-1 Atlanta
Much more interesting period. More scoring chances, more mistakes and more plays.

On the replay of the NAS goal I'm going to say it was Lewis fault actually. Grant Lewis was going to pass it behind the net to Kulda who was dropping back for the pass. A Predator jumped in between stole the puck a d made a pass out front. Kulda was not there because he was expecting the Dto D pass from Lewis.

The replay of the Paquette goal shows he ripped a hard shot from close in and the goalie got a piece of it but it angled down and just caught the lower left corner of the net.

3rd period underway.

This game is sort of weird feeling. They are not announcing the goals and assists.
They didn't announce the penalty and they are not bothering to post the SOG on the scoreboard. All we have is video and the game score up there.

3>3 for Nashville Lewis takes his man and Esposito pulls a Kovalchuk in the neighborhood defense where he is around his guy but not really eliminating him. The Predator gets a wide open chance just 6 feet from the ATL goalie.

Lehman almost stumbles while skating backwards with a Predator bearing down on him.
ATL PK Siddal in the box I think.

SH chance for ATL. Painchaud makes cross ice pass to open Kaip who puts a hard shot on goal.

Kulda dump in nails NAS player up around the ear area, seems to be OK.

re: Postma. He has some raw skating talent and decent size but makes a lot of mental errors for a defensemen. He is still young and could iron out some of those rough spots, but he really needs to work on playing shut down defense in juniors this year.

2-2 Predators score.
Predator splits right between Postma and Marchesi and gets a nice pass--breakaway score on a backhand roof shot. Really ugly goal for both defensemen.

Only a few minutes left in a tie game. I'll have to pack up the laptop soon for the post-game stuff.

Turple makes a fantastic desperation glove save after NSH gets two quick shots on goal to preseve tie.

ATL PIM 1:36 remaining

Machacek with big clear.

NAS just hit the post. DING! denied.

2-2 End of 3rd.

They just put up 5 minutes up so it looks like OT and probably a SO if we got that far.

woops, going straight to shootout.
NAS guy fails to even hit the net.
Save on Esposito.
NAS #2 stick save.
ATL #2 Machacek--hits goalie in the logo.
NAS #3 razzle dazzle off to the left Turple is down but guy can't elevate over big leg pad
ATL #3 Paquette Miss
NAS #4 miss
ATL #4 Painchaud scores


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Live Blogging Monday and Tuesday

I'll be heading up to Nashville for the back-to-back Prospect Games between Atlanta and Nashville. If all going according to play and my cranky old laptop cooperates I'll post some live comments as the two games progress. The Monday game is in the evening and the Tuesday one is at noon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Traverse City Prospect Tournament

Thanks to the NHL Network I had the chance to watch three of the Thrashers four games way up north. (Traverse City is a great place to visit if you ever get the opportunity to go.) After watching the games here are my thoughts:

Spencer Machacek: Very nice looking two-way player. Effective on the PK, the PP and at Even Strength. He can score, he can check and and he can hit. What's not to like? Plays with intensity and drive. Looks more and more like a solid 3rd liner with perhaps some 2nd line potential if everything goes perfect in his development. One of his "goals" was a dump in from behind the center ice red line which was just luck. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure he redirected the shot on goal in the Dallas game which they credited to Bogosian.

Arturs Kulda: I just couldn't help noticing him in every game. His distinct bent knee style of skating makes him easy to pick out of a crowd. Sold defensive zone coverage, has some passing skills and can pop people. Not a silky smooth skater like Enstrom, but he increasingly looks like another late round steal out of Europe. He made some coverage errors but I like his moxie--this guy seems like he is always in the middle of the action in his own zone.

Zach Bogosian: I was hoping to see something spectacular but what I saw very solid. In the Red Wing game he made one terrific end-to-end rush with the puck and had some nice shots on goal. He also dished out a couple of hard checks. I think the most impressive thing about him in the tournament was his vision while on the power play. While under pressure he spotted open teammates and made clean passes to them. His defensive zone positioning was good but twice I noticed him getting out of his lane which led to chances for the opposition. In the Dallas game it was Bogosian's man who was alone in the slot and scored.

Rylan Kaip: It is very rare for a non-scoring player in college or juniors to make the NHL. To pull it off you have to be a perfect defensive player. Kaip might have a shot. He is almost always in the right spot and his PK work looked great to me.

Chad Denny: Had some big hits but pulled an Exelby and took himself out of the play and set up an odd man rush for the other team. Showed the slapper a couple of times.

Grant Lewis: Hurt early on. Incomplete information. Had a bad turnover in game one but was bailed out by an offsides call.

Paul Postma: Still needs to work on positioning and consistency. In the gold medal game he came across the net to hit a guy Chad Denny has already steered out of danger--leaving his man wide open to score. I'm not sure what is worse abandoning his man in the slot or failing to prevent the pass while going for the highlight reel hit. Not a very smart play, I'll bet Denny was thinking, "What the bleep are you doing over here? Take care of your own side!"

Angelo Esposito: He's still quite young. He has the raw materials of a star--flashy skater, slick moves--but he lacks hockey sense. Twice in one game he busted an offensive rush by going offside. He fails to get a shot on net while wide open shot in the slot area. He made a brutal pass from behind his own net that led to a scoring chance against his own team. In the championship game his team gets a power play while down 3-1 and with zero pressure on him he just loses the puck. Mental mistakes abound. For him to make the NHL he must produce many more quality shifts and many fewer wasted shifts than he is right now. To throw in one positive comment in a negative review--he seemed to be trying very hard to do his part on the defensive side of the puck and the coaches put him out on the PK unit. He had one terrific rush, but one great rush will not put you into the NHL when coupled with all the other errors.

Riley Holzapfel: Is this guy riding on his laurels? Seems to me that the effort level has tailed off a bit. He needs to crank up the intensity level if he wants to turn heads. I was very excited about his chances two summers ago but I'm less certain about him now.

I'll have more comments later next week after I head up to watch the Thrashers prospects take on the Predator prospects in Nashville.

What should we expect from Kozlov?

One of the pieces of news to emerge from the town hall meeting was that Slava Kozlov was injured for the final 2.5 months of the 2007-08 season. Don Waddell said he expected a bounce back season from Kozlov. How much was Kozlov's injury to blame for his poor season?

Now if Kozlov's injury was the primary cause of his down season and it happened somewhere around the mid-point for last season, I would expect to see that Kozlov was more productive in the first half and less productive in the second half. Let's take a look at Kozlov's points per game by month production:

2007-08 Season
.50 OCT
.58 NOV
.56 DEC
.38 JAN
.50 FEB
.47 MAR
.50 APR

What does the data show? Slava Kozlov was remarkably CONSISTENT from one month to the next in his production. He was right around half a point per game each month except for January when he struggled. In OCT-DEC Kozlov was on pace for 45 points and from JAN-APR he was on pace for 37 points. Kozlov finished with 41 points. If OCT-DEC is indicative of what a healthy 36 year old Kozlov is going to produce in 2008-09, then everyone should keep their expectations in check. A "good" season for Kozlov is probably 50 points at this point.

Personally, I think Father Time just caught up with a skilled guy. Kozlov is a small player who relies on terrific puck skills and pinpoint passing and a great sense of timing. I remember being shocked at how many times Hossa made a pass to Kozlov and he failed to receive it cleanly. Kozlov always had magic hands and the puck just stuck to his stick like he had a magnet in his blade. Sadly we didn't see that Kozlov even back in October.

Townhall Meeting: Getting Back on Track?

"Luck is the residue of design"

At last night's Thrasher Town Hall Meeting I asked one question of Don Waddell. Basically it was a paraphrase of what I have written on the blog. I said the following:

"I've been attending games since 1999 and in that time the Thrashers have finished as follows: bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, middle, bottom half. I look at the Thrashers management and I see the same Director of Player Personnel, the same Director of Scouting, the same General Manager and the same Asst. GM. When I look at the the Thrashers record of trades and free agent signing there have been more unpleasant surprises than pleasant surprises. Tell me why I as a paying customer I should expect things to be improve?"

Don Waddell sort of looked at the floor and mentioned that they evaluate every trade in the summer, they had made some management changes with Les Jackson and Jack Ferreria leaving, they had made coaching changes. "We've talked about this before, but I may have been too conservative." "If I never made any trades then they wouldn't be criticized, you have to take some risks." "We are working hard and trying to do our best." Basically it the same answer he gave when DucksThrashers asked him why he should still have a job this summer at Prospects Camp breakfast. (note: Les Jackson left before the lockout ended and Jack Ferreria two years ago--in both cases the Thrashers were left with less, not more NHL experience in their front office.)

That was not the answer I was hoping to hear. I was serious about the last part--is there a plan? Why should expect anything different? Has upper management learned anything from the recent past mistakes?

I would have been more optimistic about the Thrashers going forward if I knew that they were adding another hockey person to help evaluate trades and free agents. The Blackhawks just added Scotty Bowman (his son works for them) and the Thrashers could certainly stand to have another NHL veteran around in my opinion. I wrote this summer that the Thrashers management looks like an IHL alumni group and nothing has changed in that respect. Given the team's record in acquiring NHL talent I think it is a fair question to ask why they haven't upgraded their Director of Player Personnel position within the organization.

If the Thrashers are going forwards with the same people doing the same jobs--then I want to hear some solid reasons why things will be different this time. What did they learn from past mistakes? What is the plan this time and why will it work when the last one failed? If you look around pro sports some people do learn and improve. Take the Patriots coach Bill Belichick for example, he wasn't anything special in his first stint as coach in Cleveland but in New England he has been extremely impressive. Same person, different results--I'm assuming he learned a few things from his mistakes in Cleveland.

Instead of hearing about lessons learned by the Thrashers I was told that they try hard. I have no doubt that the statement is true--they all seem like decent human beings and I have no doubt that they put in long hours and give it their best. I try hard in my job too, but if I perform poorly my annual contract will not be renewed. This is the NHL, not grade school--nobody gets credit for "effort" anymore.

Much of that effort is likely wasted unless it is focused. At the top I put the quote "luck is the residue of design" which essentially means that those who follow a plan are more likely to get the breaks than those that don't. What appears to be "luck" is in fact a by product of an intentional strategy. One of the most troubling things about the meeting last night is that Coach Anderson and Ron Hainsey seemed to grasp this point more than the GM.

When Anderson walked out he basically said "I have a plan, we're going to do x and y and z." Hainsey mentioned that both Anaheim and Detroit won the Cup because they were all committed to using the same system--it wasn't so much that one system was better than another--but that everyone was on the same page. Don Waddell never laid out any master plan of strategy but just sort of rambled through the roster and who he expected to play better this year.

I've been listening to Don Waddell for close to a decade and he often talks about the Thrashers in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way. I believe that reflects his seat-of-the-pants management style. But I'm afraid that catch-as-catch-can is an insufficient way to run a NHL team. You need a plan, a strategy, a design and you need to execute that to the best of your ability. Over the years I've heard Waddell talk about becoming a uptempo western style team, adding toughness, adding character, getting bigger, getting faster, etc. All of those are goals--none of those reflect an overarching strategy.

Let's face facts, the Thrashers face big obstacles compared to many NHL markets. They have put forward a poor product for years. They need to break through and draw attention in a crowded sports marketplace. They have low team revenues. They have incredibly low TV ratings. In order for this club to win they need a plan and they need a path to get there. They cannot afford to miss opportunties by lurching from one objective to another. They need to exploit every advantage that they can exploit. Coach Anderson has his plan, but I'm not so sure the same can be said about the Thrashers management.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thrashers Should Claim Schneider

It is being reported by multiple sources that Anaheim Ducks are waiving defensemen Mathieu Schneider. The Atlanta Thrashers have the 3rd waiver position courtesy of finishing 28th in a 30 team league last season.

Essentially the Thrashers can add an old but high quality defensemen with a one year contract for nothing other than his roughly $6 million salary. In my opinion this is a no brainer--you claim him--in fact I would have offered a low draft pick for him before the Ducks dropped him to waivers.

The downsides:
  1. Schneider is old and will not be around when the Thrashers become a Cup contender.
  2. Schneider might not be happy to come to a non-contender.
  3. His skills may be eroding with age.
  4. If claimed from waivers the Thrashers are not permitted to trade him at the deadline.
The upside:
  1. The Thrashers must add salary because Bogosian will not hit all his bonus clauses and therefore the Thrashers will finish below the salary floor by the end of the season.
  2. Schneider could serve as an elite level mentor the Thrashers young defensemen like Enstrom and Bogosian.
  3. Schneider is not Alexei Zhitnik. Mathieu Schneider is an elite level player even at his age.
  4. Schneider is BETTER at playing the point than anyone in Thrashers history including Ilya Kovlachuk. Schneider is a better offensive defensemen and ANYONE in Thrashers entire history.
I can't stress this last point enough. Below I have created a table that shows the power play effectiveness of players who have served or could serve on the Thrashers power play unit over the last two years.

Defensemen only play about 15-25% of their ice time on the power play, so a couple of fortunate bounces or unfortunate bounces loom much larger. Therefore, PP scoring rates can jump around a fair amount. Schneider has consistently ranked among the elite in PP scoring with last season being his worst year in quite a while. But here's the kicker, even in his "bad" season on the power play last year, Schneider was better than Enstrom and Kovalchk who manned the points all of last year for the Thrashers PP unit. In his "bad" year Schneider ranked 75% among all NHL defensemen in PP scoring while Enstrom ranked 71% and Kovalchuk ranked just 66%.

Both Kovalchuk and Enstrom rack up points because they get tons of ice time--neither are elite in their use of that ice time. Mathieu Schneider is elite in how he uses his PP ice time. How elite is he? Here are his percentile rankings among all NHL defensemen the last seven seasons: 87%, 93%, 94%, 90%, 92%, 95%, 75%. That is very impressive. Most seasons Schneider has been in very top 10% of all NHL defensemen on the Power Play.

PP Effectiveness (PP Scoring per 60 minutes)
5.14 95% 2006-07 Schneider
4.62 90% 2006-07 Hainsey
3.95 82% 2007-08 Hainsey
3.54 75% 2007-08 Schneider
3.32 71% 2007-08 Enstrom
3.98 66% 2007-08 Kovalchuk
2.64 55% 2006-07 Zhitnik
3.54 53% 2006-07 Kovalchuk
1.90 47% 2007-08 Zhitnik
1.79 40% 2006-07 Havelid
0.00 20% 2007-08 Havelid

Because PP scoring rates are less consistent due to small sample size issues, another way to compare Schneider's offensive prowess is to look at Even Strength scoring compared to recent or current Thrashers defensemen. Below is the ES point scoring per 60 minutes of ice time for the last two seasons.

Again we see that Schneider is head and shoulders above players who have put on a Thrashers uniform. The only season comparable to Schneider's is the one Zhitnik put up the year the Thrashers acquired him. Zhitnik had a solid 2006-07 where he ranked 85% among all NHL defensemen in ES scoring only to see him absolutely collapse in 2007-08 where he fell to the bottom 8% of the league.

Is there a risk that Schneider could also see a collapse? Yes, of course there is. But Schneider's skills can be had for almost nothing. The Thrashers moved Coburn to get Zhitnik--a gamble that failed badly as they had to buy out the final year of his contract. In this case the Thrashers can have Schneider for nothing other than his salary and he is an UFA next season. Is that a reasonable risk to take? Yes, in my view.

ES Scoring per 60 minutes
1.22 96% 2007-08 Schneider
1.06 85% 2006-07 Zhitnik
1.07 76% 2006-07 Schneider
0.59 42% 2007-08 Havelid
0.56 37% 2007-08 Enstrom
0.54 26% 2006-07 Havelid
0.53 56% 2006-07 Hainsey
0.37 66% 2007-08 Hainsey
0.28 08% 2007-08 Zhitnik

Click over to Battle of California for more blow by blow details of today's developments and plus a hilarious cartoon of Mathieu Schneider as Super Man. It seems that the Kings might pass on him which means that the crazy Lightning ownership are on deck.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thrashers Prospects on TV Tonight

If you have the NHL Network don't forget to watch Bogosian and company take on Tampa's younglings at 8pm.

What Sort of Career Will These Thrashers Have?

One of my dreams is to complete a player forecasting program along the lines of Nate Silver's PECOTA for baseball players. In the PECOTA system you compare a player's performance at a particular age, let's say Tobias Enstrom at age 23. Next you find the defensemen who put up similar numbers at the same age. Then you can see what these "comparable" players did in the next year of their career.

A similar idea is used by the National Weather Service to forecast where hurricanes will travel. They look at past storm tracks, water temperature and wind direction and they are able to produce a prediction. Those predictions are not always right but they reduce the uncertainty about where the storm is likely to travel.

So our question here is this: what NHL players are most comparable to Enstrom, Armstrong, Christensen and Little based on their last 2007-08 seasons? I came up with a list of the following statistics for comparison 1) Even Strength Scoring Rate per hour; 2) Power Play Scoring Rate per hour; 3) Total Scoring Rate per hour; 4) Even Strength Time on Ice; 5) Power Play Time on Ice; 6) Short Handed Time on Ice. Finally I averaged all six categories to produce an overall "most comparable player" for each. Let's get to the results.

Enstrom, Age 23 Season
Most Comparable Player: A. Markov and J-M Liles
ES Scoring Rate: Mattias Ohlund
PP Scoring Rate: Dimitri Kalinin
Total Scoring Rate: Martin Skoula
ES TOI: Sergei Gonchar
PP TOI: Ryan Whitney
SH TOI: Redden, Kalinin

Comments: Enstrom received huge amounts of ice time so if we look at his usage stats his Age-23 comparable players are all very solid defensemen. Enstrom probably received more ice time than he would have on a stronger team, but you might be able to say the same thing about a couple of these guys during their age 23 season. When we look at his scoring rate comparable players we mostly see mostly 2nd tier offensive defensemen. Enstrom's numbers are a bit inflated due to all his ice time so I don't expect him to end up being quite as offensive as say Gonchar, but if his career ends up looking like those of Ohlund, Kalinin and Skoula that's not bad at all for an 8th round pick.

Colby Armstrong, Age 25 Season
Most Comparable Player: Malhotra
ES Scoring Rate: Jason Williams
PP Scoring Rate: Rene Bourque
Total Scoring Rate: Andrew Brunette, Kris Beech
ES TOI: Brendan Morrison
PP TOI: Erik Rasmussen
SH TOI: Brett McLean

Comments: Armstrong's comparable players are a real mixed bag of offensive and defensive players. His upside includes top six players like Brendan Morrison, Jason Williams and Andrew Brunette and his downside comparables include checking line guys like Rasmussen, Brett McLean and Malhotra. Virtually all of comparables have had solid NHL careers--the big question is whether Armstrong will be a 2nd or 3rd line sort of guy going forward from this point.

Erik Christensen, Age 24 Season
Most Comparable Player: Raffi Torres
ES Scoring Rate: Stacey Roest
PP Scoring Rate: Andreas Karlsson
Total Scoring Rate: Tomas Surovy
ES TOI: Oleg Kvasha
PP TOI: Pavel Datsyuk
SH TOI: Kyle Calder

Comments: There's no way to put a pretty face on this one. So far in his career Christensen has been considered a bit of a disappointment and his chief comparable--Raffi Torres--is also a disappointment in his NHL career. The thing that concerns me the most is that Christensen has received a decent amount of ES and PP ice time but put up a rather poor scoring rate in that ice time--so far he has shown the skill you typically see from checking line players. This is probably make or break season for Christensen in terms of securing a career as a scoring line player.

Bryan Little, Age 20 Season
Most Comparable Player: Marcus Nilson
ES Scoring Rate: Marcus Nilson
PP Scoring Rate: Alexei Morozov
Total Scoring Rate: Rotislav Olesz
ES TOI: Daniel Cleary
PP TOI: Marian Hossa
SH TOI: Josef Vasicek

Comments: The fact that Little made the NHL at age 20 and held his own suggests he will have a decent NHL career. What type of career it will be is still up in the air. His scoring rate comparables are not All-Star caliber, at the moment the forecast puts him on the border between a 2nd and 3rd liner. Little played the fewest NHL games of the four I considered and so he might suffer from small sample size issues. The defensive game is already there for Little the question is to what degree we see his offensive side develop in the NHL.

Conclusion: I hope you enjoyed this. This is basically a crude attempt at a more systematic comparison I hope to do in the future. For this exercise I only used a single season's worth of comparables, in the future I hope to set it up to use three seasons worth. Hopefully the larger sample size will narrow down the range of possible career outcomes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Will Derek Meech Become a Thrasher?

The Thrashers are lacking in depth at defense right now. A single injury on the blueline would result in Nathan Oystrick or Grant Lewis getting a call up. Both are prospects with no NHL experience so far. Last year the team carried Kwiatkowski as their insurance policy in the case of long term injury on the blueline.

I was already thinking the Thrashers might be in the market to pick up depth defensemen and then Kevin Allen writes that the Thrashers "hope to land another defensemen, possibly even unrestricted free agent Marek Malik, although they are considering other options."

Now this might seem like idle speculation, but past history indicates that Kevin Allen and Don Waddell are on good terms and speak frequently, so I'm thinking he got this straight from the GM himself. Allen goes on to highlight players expected to be moved during NHL training camp: Ducks D Mathieu Schneider and Sharks D Kyle McLaren and also includes center Robert Lang.

I'd like to toss out another name that does not appear in Allen's article, Red Wings D Derek Meech. The Wings have re-signed Chelios which now gives them 8 NHL defensemen who must clear waivers. Now it is likely they will carry 7 out of camp, and there is some chatter that Meech might be dealt to get them down to that number.

Will the Thrashers make that deal? Personally I'd rather see them go after a youngish defensemen like Meech and see if he flourishes with more ice time in Atlanta than Malik who is getting up there. According to Ranger fans, Malik's play slipped badly last season, although a number of stats still show him as being effective.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Is Sarah Palin the Tyson Nash of Politics?

I never talk politics here on the blog, but this is hockey related. I came across this post from (538 is the total number of Electoral College members) which argues that we shouldn't think of Sarah Palin as a hockey mom so much as a checking line agitator. The analogy is that her job is to mix things up and rile both the opposition and her own team. Even if she cross a line now and then-the aggressor tends to benefit most often in hockey--and perhaps in politics too.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Predicting the 2008-09 Season, Part 2

In Part One, I discussed the four team attributes that are most likely to carry over from one season to another.

Sara asked a good question, which is why those team tendencies discussed in Part One were slow to change. To be honest I don't have an easy answer to this question. I will point out that three of the four items are linked to the quality (or lack thereof) of a team's defense. Most NHL teams do not make wholesale changes to their blueline during the off season. Change tends to happen more slowly there.

I also believe (again, no data here just a belief) that really good defensemen are more consistent year-to-year than really good forwards. Were I a NHL general manager I'd lean towards investing more money into my defense than my forwards. (note: In 2005-06 the Thrashers spent more money on forwards than all the other NHL teams.) I think that the NHL undervalues star defensemen to some degree. Defensemen also play more minutes than forwards do and have more opportunity to effect the outcome of the game.

In the rest of this post we will take a look at the other end of the spectrum--four areas that rarely remain the same from one season to antoher. If your team is strong (or weak) in one these areas don't count on this continuing into the future!

Least Consistent Team Attributes

1. Overtime and Shootout extra points.
  • In 2005-06 the Dallas Stars were red hot in the shootout.
  • In 2006-07 Slava Kozlov almost never missed in the shootout.
  • In 2007-08 the Edmonton Oilers won a crazy amount of bonus.
All of these moments were very exciting for the hometown fans, but the truth is that these points are almost entirely the product of luck. The correlation between SOW/OTL points from one season to the next is essentially zero. That means that there is no consistent relationship league wide in this area. A team that stunk it up in SOW/OTL is just as likely to finish at the very top of that category next season. Any GM that counts on excelling in this area is building his house on the sand with a hurricane bearing down on him.

2008 Bonus Point Leaders: EDM, NJD, ATL
2008 Bonus Point Trailers: STL, TBL, CBJ
Thrashers Rank: 3rd

2. Penalty Kill Percentage
Both the Penalty Kill and Power Play are fairly inconsistent from one season to the next. Why? Part of it is a small sample size--teams spend 3/4 of the game playing 5 on 5 and only about 1/4 in special teams situations. In that small amount of time luck matters more than it does at even strength. Some years a team gets more bad breaks--the puck goes in off the post, a stick breaks on the PK and the opposition scores, a puck makes two deflections and eludes the netminder.

For Thrasher fans looking for some positive news here it is-->our PK% was so poor last year that we are almost bound to have some better luck and rebound a bit in 2008-09. Regression to the mean baby!

2008 PK% Leaders: SJS, DAL, NAS
2008 PK% Trailers: TOR, LAK, BOS
Thrashers Rank: 27th

3. Shot Percentage (Share of Shots that become Goals) The ability of a team to convert shots into goals runs hot and cold. Few teams can stay "hot" or maintain a high ST% from one season to the next. The ability to prevent shots is fairly consistent, the ability to generate shots is less consistent and the ability to convert shots (at the team level) is very inconsistent.

The Thrashers were above average in shooting percentage last year. Ilya Kovalchuk's red hot start had a lot to do with that. Can he be as accurate in 2008-09 as he was in 2007-08? I hate to doubt Ilya, but the stats suggest he might slip back towards the rest of the NHL a bit.

2008 ST% Leaders: MON, DAL, PIT
2008 ST% Trailers: NYI, NYR, CBJ
Thrashers Rank: 11th

4. Power Play Percentage. The fact that the Montreal Canadians finshed #1 overall in consecutive seasons is what we call an "outlier" or a highly unusual data point. In general it would be unwise for a NHL GM or Coach to assume that their Power Play will be exactly the same as last season. Power Play units--much like goalies--can get red hot or ice cold for significant stretches of time. Consistency on the power play is something eludes many quality hockey clubs.

The Canadians, Flyers and Red Wings are all unlikely to stay on top next season--however each of those clubs boast strong Even Strength scoring talents which should keep them in contention even if the PP cools off.

2008 PP% Leaders: MON, PHI, DET
2008 PP% Trailers: STL, NYI, COL
Thrashers Rank: 23rd

There are four fairly random (i.e. least likely to repeat) team statistics mentioned above. The Thrashers were good in two of them (shooting percentage and bonus points) and bad in the other two (PP% and PK%). Since change in this area is fairly random I will not be making any predictions other than wait and see.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

New Top 20 Prospects at HF

We are still in the really slow news period before camps open, but we have some new Thrashers related content to discuss today. Hockey's Future writer Holly Gunning has posted a new Top 20 Prospects. The list looks pretty accurate to me--I might move a couple of guys up or down a spot on that list--but overall it correct. Arturs Kulda is one guy who could be ranked higher based upon his performance last season.

Maybe it is just wishful thinking on my part, but I can actually imagine the entire top 7 wearing a Thrashers jersey on a regular basis without too much "wish casting" (as opposed to "forecasting" which considers potential negative outcomes). After the top 7, I can think of reasons why the rest might not stick in the big league. The two guys at #8 and #9 (Esposito and Leveille) are both are high risk/high reward sort of players who might flame out.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the whole article is towards the end. In the section about Jordan LaVallee you read the quote from Wolves/Thrashers Skating Coach Kenny McCudden very carefully. In a very nice way McCudden exposes several holes in Jordan's game. I was hopeful LaVallee might become a 4th liner on the Thrashers out of camp, but after reading this it sounds like he needs another year in Chicago to iron out some consistency issues. The good news for him is that he is just 22 and checking line guys often don't reach the NHL until they are 24/25 years old, so he has some time left.

The same can not be said for prospect Nathan Oystrick who turns 26 and had a brutal NHL camp last fall. He's not young anymore and appeared to be carrying some extra pounds last fall. This is professional hockey not beer league hockey!

I'll never understand why some prospects don't bite the bullet and hire a professional trainer in the off-season. For example, I still believe that Norm Maracle had NHL talent--but he simply lacked the will power to get in shape over the summer. It seems to me that if you're short on will power, you should hire someone to kick your butt in gym all summer. Think about it prospects--if you make the NHL you'll be making $500,000 a year at a minimum! Spend the money in the off season on a trainer and you could have a huge payoff if you make the big leagues. (OK rant over.)

I've mentioned before that the Thrashers seem to have done better in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 drafts and those players are now peculating up through the system.

Lastly, I want to say that Zach Bogosian could turn out to be an amazing NHL player. Regular readers know I usually try and keep expectations in check but I'm almost giddy when I think about this kid's potential. He was young for his draft year and yet he was an OHL star as a 17 year old playing against mostly older guys. He is physically ready to step into the NHL at 18--this is extremely rare in NHL history. (There are many star defensemen who couldn't make the NHL until they were 20 or 21 years old). He has both a physical side and the ability to handle the puck and contribute to the offense. Some have compared his style to Ray Bourque or Chris Pronger. He may not put up as much offense as Bourque or have the reach Pronger, but that still leaves a tremendous defensive player. It is still VERY early, but it is possible that the Thrashers have a landed the franchise defenseman they always lacked as a result of their poor 2007-08 regular season. If the team can re-sign Ilya next summer the Kovalchuk-Bogosian-Pavelec/Lehtonen combo might be the core of an eventual Stanley Cup contending team (and they're all under 26 right now).

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