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