Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Esposito at the WJC

I've watched two of Team Canada's games at the World Juniors and I'm completely underwhelmed by Angelo Esposito so far. He started off the tournament on a line with uber-prospect John Tavares but did little to impress and was moved to a lower line. He missed on quite a few set up passes from Tavares.

I just finished watching the Canada/USA game and he was rather ineffectual again. The only time he seemed to have the puck is when he attempted Kovalchuk-esque 1 versus 3 offensive rushes while his linemates changed behind the play. He had one great play where he came down the side boards turned the corner on the defenseman and drove across the front of the crease but failed to score. That's pretty much the only thing exciting out of him in two games.

Gare Joyce wrote a book about scouting prospects during Esposito's draft year called "Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts." Esposito entered the year as the leading candidate to be the #1 overall pick after racking up huge point totals while playing along side Alexander Radulov in the Q. Joyce interviewed and watched Esposito multiple times over that draft year. His take is that Esposito seemed to just wilt under the pressure.

Esposito's stock fell during that season and on draft day he ended up falling to #20 where the Pittsburgh Penguins took him. The Thrashers didn't have a 1st rounder because of the Tkachuk trade, but if they probably would have drafted him if they had not dealt their pick. Later when they had the opportunity to acquire him in the Marian Hossa trade they did so. Don Waddell told Esposito "to relax and try to have some fun" in juniors.

Now there are two ways to look at a guy like Esposito. On the one hand, you could say that some 18 year old young men are simply not prepared to handle the scrutiny of being the "best player" in hockey mad Canada--with time Esposito might mature into a tougher individual and become a productive NHLer. On the other hand, the NHL is a pressure packed league and you need guys on your roster who can handle the intensity and bright spotlight of high leverage situations.

The thing that concerns me most about watching Esposito at the WJC so far is that the weight of Canada doesn't rest on his shoulders--John Tavares is carrying that particular cross. This is not his draft year and he's not facing the other team's best defensemen. Yet even with these lower expectations and lower pressure level he looks very ordinary matched up against other top hockey players in his age group.

He was always a high risk/high reward sort of prospect--right now I'm not terribly encouraged by what I see. The guy has skill but seems to really lack the mental composition needed to play versus top competition. He could still turn things around but right now his stock is continuing to fall in my opinion.

Big WJC Battle Tonight! USA v Canada!

Tonight is the most celebrated game of the World Junior Tournament prior to the medal playoffs. The game will be carried on the NHL Network live.

Here are the draft eligible players for each squad if you want to check on the talent that will be available at the draft this summer.

Team USA
Jordan Schroeder #19: Right handed forward from U. of Minnesota, ranked #6 on International Scouting Services most recent draft list.

Team Canada
John Tavares: #19: Potential NHL superstar who has who is battling Victor Hedman to be the #1 overall pick this summer. Right now ISS has Hedman ahead and Tavares #2.

Evander Kane #29: Forward from the Vancouver Giants. ISS had him ranked as a high first rounder (7th overall) and it seems he has lived up to the advance praise.

Ryan Ellis #8: Defenseman from Windsor Spitfires. A bit on the small side at 5'9" but ISS ranks him at a mid first rounder (16th overall).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tickermaster Hurting

While driving in the car this afternoon Clark Howard mentioned that Ticketmaster net income fell 76% in the last quarter and the organization has begun experimenting with surcharge free ticket sales.

Clark Howard has regularly ripped Ticketmaster for grotesque "surcharges" on tickets that only cost pennies to print and mail. In reality what Ticketmaster was doing was paying kickbacks to arenas and then charging even more to consumers once they became a monopoly supplier.

I'm one of those consumers who will go to significant lengths to avoid the extra changers. I always buy my Braves tickets at the box office and same with extra Thrasher tickets. I often buy my concert tickets at the box office as well to avoid paying the "monopoly" charges.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

PK Struggles: Defense or Goalies?

Last year the Thrashers were outscored by roughly 60 goals and they are on pace to almost exactly match that this year. The difference is that last year most of the damage was happening at Even Strength and this year the damage is happening on special teams. That league worst PK is hiding some of the improvements in the ES Offense. Tidy up the PK and this team is probably on pace for the 80 point season I expected out of them.

Why does the Thrashers PK stink so bad after adding Marty Reasoner in the off season? The biggest reason is in net I think. So far this season Hedberg has played in half of the Thrashers games. That a much higher percentage of games than in the two previous seasons. What does that have to do with the PK? Hedberg is one of the absolute worst goalies in the NHL while on the PK. Don't believe me, consider these rankings.

2008-09 PK Save Percentage
Ranked 34 out of 50 goalies Lehtonen
Ranked 50 out of 50 goalies Hedberg

2007-08 PK Save Percentage
Ranked 17 out of 44 goalies Lehtonen
Ranked 42 out of 44 goalies Hedberg

2006-07 PK Save Percentage
Ranked 18 out of 45 goalies Lehtonen
Ranked 44 out of 45 goalies Hedberg

When it comes to PK SV% Hedberg is ranked dead last, 2nd to dead last and 3rd to dead last over the last three seasons. Lehtonen and Hedberg play in front of the same PK units and yet Lehtonen is MUCH better on the PK than Hedberg--and Kari just missed two months and the Thrashers PK went into the toilet--coincidence? I'll let you make your own judgment.

Here's another way to look at it. What is the team PK% when each goalie is in the net?

75.4% Lehtonen
72.4% Hedberg
66.7% Pavelec

82.4% Lehtonen
76.5% Hedberg
63.2% Pavelec

Basically when Hedberg and Pavelec have been in netthe last two season the Thrashers PK has been incredibly bad. Pavelec in particular is curious case because his ES SV% wasn't so bad last season but his PK SV% is just brutal. Lehtonen has ranked ahead of both guys each season playing in behind the same defensemen. Pavelec has ranked worst in both seasons playing behind the same defense. How much blame goes to the D and how much to the goaltenders?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Waddell's Assesment of the Thrashers

I recently called on the ownership or management to speak out about the team and to his credit Don Waddell did a Q and A with beat writer Mike Knobler on the state of the team which was published on Christmas Day. I'd like to consider two points from this discussion.

Q. Your main focus last summer was to shore up the defense. Where do you think that stands?

A. Last year we were one of the bottom teams in points from our defensemen. We’re certainly generating a lot more. I think our defense is much better, we move the puck much better. That doesn’t explain why we are still among the bottom in giving up too many goals. I think that’s not just a defensemen chore. The forwards all have a responsibility in the defensive zone, and if you don’t work as a unit out there as five [skaters], that’s when things happen. That’s been the biggest disappointment, that we have given up so many goals.

I watch the team and I see a defense that is more mobile and passes better than perhaps any Thrasher defense in team history. And yet when I look at the stats here is what I see:
  • 26th Ranked Even Strength Defense (ranked 27th last season)
  • 30th Ranked Special Teams Defense (ranked 28th last season)
  • 30th Ranked Total Defense (ranked 30th last season)
So what is going on? They look better but don't rank any higher than last year's club?

The team is playing a more wide open style and the DEFENSEMEN are helping create offense in the absence. The improved defensive corps has boosted the team offense but not the team defense when combined with the new coaching regime.
  • 10th Ranked Even Strength Offense (up greatly from 21st last season)
  • 18th Ranked Special Teams Offense (up slightly from 21st last season)
  • 11th Ranked Total Offense (up greatly from 23rd last season)
A lot of fans are blaming Coach Anderson right now about his "style" but a candid examination of the facts shows that he took over a team ranked in the bottom third of the NHL in offense and his "style" pushed that offense from 23rd to 11th overall while subtracting Marian Hossa at the same time. That's quite a feat--and it is a feat that came at the price of allowing more high quality scoring chances and ultimately goals against.

If the Thrashers had selected a more defensive coach we'd all be complaining about the lack of offense. Without Anderson's style this team would struggle to score more than 2 goals most nights. The reality is that the Atlanta Thrashers don't have a bunch of All Star candidates on their roster and they had to pick their poison--they choose to go with a coach who emphasizes offense and prays for great saves. A different coach might have emphasized defense and prayed for goals.

Thrashers Future Part 1: WJC Starts Today!

The Thrashers have a home game today, but realistically the outcome of that match is fairly immaterial because they have dug themselves such an enormous hole that the playoffs are now out of reach unless they reel off a 7 game winning steak...I'm not holding by breath for that to happen.

Perhaps the most important Thrashers related event taking place is up in Ottawa where the IIHF World Under 20 Championship (more commonly referred to as the "World Juniors" or "WJC") begins. All the US and Canada games will be broadcast on the NHL Network. .

Both Canada and USA have some elite prospects who will go very high in the 2009 NHL Draft this summer. The majority of Team Canada has already been drafted already, but they do feature Tavares who is in the running to be picked #1 or #2 overall this summer. Your Thrashers look to be in the running for the lottery that will determine who receives one of the top three picks.

Unfortunately US and Canada are in the same pool for round robin play which means we will not get to see Team Sweden or Team Russia until the playoff round (assuming they qualify). The other big name for the 2009 NHL Draft is Victor Hedman who plays for Team Sweden. Sweden is reputed to have a bumper crop of young talent this draft year so I'm expecting them to make the playoff round and face off against either the US or Canada which will put them on the NHL Network.

If you're watching feel free to post your impressions in the comments section. Sadly I'm traveling to a dark region of the USA where my relatives don't receive the NHL Network. I'm recording all the games and will catch up in a couple of days.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

500 Points for Kovlachuk!

He did it!

Perhaps the classiest part was that after getting the 500th point, he passed up a chance to score an empty net goal and dished off to Colby Armstrong who put it into the net.

Oystrick: A Bird or Defenseman?

The Islanders broadcaster last night seemed to struggle distinguishing a certain Thrasher player from a bird reputed to put its head in the sand. Let's see if you can tell the figure out which of the following pictures is an actual Atlanta Thrasher



Hopefully that college hockey expert Billy Jaffe can help the Islanders play-by-play guy with his "oystrick/ostrich" problem.

Luck and the NHL Standings

Luck happens.

In the NHL sometimes the puck hits on the inside portion of the post and it goes into the net and sometimes the puck hits the outside portion and it deflects wide. The adage is that the "bounces" even out in the long run. But is this true? What part of hockey is "luck" and what part is "skill" (a "skill" being a tendency that is repeated over time while "luck" is a tendency that does not repeat i.e. is random over time)

Tyler Dellow had an outstanding post that shed some light on distinguishing team "luck" from team "skill" in the NHL standings. He showed that any club that has a higher (or lower) than average Save Percentage or Shot Percentage at Even Strength can not repeat that pattern later in the season.

What does that mean in plain English? Teams can get hot shooting the puck in the short run but in the long run your ES offense is a product of getting shots on net--you can not count on having an above average ST% all season. The same is true for you team goaltending--a net minder might get hot for a while but basically if you're giving up a ton of shots eventually it is going to kick your GAA in the teeth--that hot net minder will return to Earth.

The bottom line is that shot ratios matter. Good teams out-shot their opponents at ES and bad teams don't--you can only avoid gravity for a short while. A team's SF/SA ratio is a strong predictor of their final ESGF/ESGA ratio.

In his post, Tyler put up a list of the luckiest to least lucky as of November 30th. I've updated what he did so that it is up to date through 12-22.

How is this information useful to you the fan? Well the teams at the top of this list are more likely to see a fall in the standings while the teams at the bottom of the list are due a few more positive bounces the rest of the way--assuming these teams ES Shots For/Shots Against ratio remain steady the rest of the season.

Luckiest NHL Clubs at Event Strength
1.14 BOS (don't hand them the Cup just yet)
1.12 PIT (they're good, but not quite that good)
1.11 DAL (yikes, look out below)
1.10 NJD
1.09 ATL (looking more like a lock for the Taveras/Hedman lottery)
1.08 VAN
1.08 CHI
1.05 ANA

Teams with little "luck" bias so far.
1.03 MTL
1.02 CBJ
1.01 PHI
1.01 NSH
1.01 WSH
1.00 TOR
1.00 SJS
0.99 FLA
0.99 STL
0.99 EDM
0.98 PHX
0.98 CGY
0.97 BUF

The most "unlucky" clubs so far:
0.96 COL
0.94 MIN
0.94 CAR
0.93 DET (scary thought)
0.92 LAK
0.91 TBL
0.89 NYR (better than they look)
0.88 OTT (will better luck be enough to get them back into the hunt?)
0.84 NYI

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Festivus of Turnovers

Last night at Philips Arena a young hockey team with a new head coach came and played with great determination. With young guys playing key positions and getting ice time in crucial situations, the young team played excellent defensive hockey and ran away with the game that should have been closer on paper. Unfortunately that team was the Toronto Maple Leafs, not the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers gifted the Toronto Maple Leafs numerous extra possessions with turnover after turnover. Not a single Thrasher defensemen had an acceptable game. Time after time the Thrashers made elementary mental errors such as passing the puck behind a man, passing too far in front of a man, passing the puck to the other team or passing the puck to one in particular (while on an odd man rush).

Do any of these players feel guilty for taking the organizations money after an effort like that? They ought to be donating the pay check for this game to charity because they certainly didn't earn it. They should thank their lucky stars that they don't play in Detroit, Toronto or Montreal because they would be getting ripped apart by the local media and fans on sports radio stations. Here they can tip-toe out of the locker room and finish up their Christmas shopping without worrying any embarrassing comments from fans at the mall.

Does anyone on this team ever hold his fellow teammates accountable? Because this was the sort of game that should have resulted in either a broken TV in the locker room, water bottles being throw across the room or somebody shouting in some one's face after the game. I can guarantee you that Mark Messier wouldn't just dress quietly and slip out the door after watching his team mail it in like that. If someone wants the "C" on their chest tonight was an opportunity to show that you deserved to be called a leader. In my book only Armstrong and the 4th line were the only Thrashers who looked like they came to play.

Kovalchuk has gone back to over-passing again. I ripped into him several weeks ago because he seemed to forget that he has perhaps the most dangerous shots in the NHL. Here is a man on the verge of his 500th point who has a shot that ranks up there with guys like Brett Hull and he keeps passing it off or waiting until after the defenseman closes off the shooting lane. Memo to Kovalchuk: you shoot when the lane is there, not when you "feel" like it. You can score from just inside the blueline--you don't need to skate into the top of the circle and let the defenseman block your shot or take away the lane--rip it higher in the zone!

The Little White Russian line was far too "euro" last night, they were content with making short passes on the periphery and passed up several chances to put the puck on net. They finally did manage to score a goal but the game was out of hand at that point.

The entire defense corps ought to be ashamed of themselves. In baseball they have a term "defensive indifference" which means that a runner advanced with no attempt by the defense to stop him. Well the official scorer for the Thrashers-Leafs game could have used that phrase on the first three Leafs goals. Go and watch the replay and you'll see one wide open Leaf goal scorer standing unmarked and unmolested time after time. Even the "crease clear" Valabik fails to mark a Toronto player who gets an easy tap in goal. Lehtonen had no protection what so ever.

Defensive Indifference? Who was on the ice when the Leafs Scored
Goal 1 Oystrick-Schnedier Kovalchuk-Reasoner-Thorburn
Goal 2 Enstrom Havelid Little-White-Kozlov
Goal 3 Hainsey Valabik Kovalchuk-Reasoner-Thorburn
Goal 4 Enstrom Havelid Perrin Reasoner (PPGA)
Goal 5 Oystrick Schnedier Kovalchuk-Reasoner-Thorburn
Goal 6 Oystrick SchnedierLittle-White-Kozlov Kovalchuk (ENGA)

Cumulative Damage: Players on the ice for
4 Against: Kovalchuk, Reasoner
3 Against: Oystrick, Schneider Thorburn
2 Against: Enstrom Havelid Little White Kozlov
1 Against: Hainsey Valabik Perrin
0 Against: Slater-Crabb-Boulton Williams Armstrong

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hockey Fans, Like Population, Move Southward

One point that I think people often forget when discussing the history of NHL expansion into the south is that the US population has made a rather dramatic shift southward since World War II. With the rise of modern air conditioning warm weather climates have grown MUCH faster than cold weather climates on average. In some cases the growth has been absolutely astounding. In 1960 the Atlanta metro area had less than 1 million people and in 2007 it has over 5 million. That's a gain of 4 million in about 40 years.

When the NHL began the Northeast and Midwest industrialized before the south and west and therefore that part of the US had the largest cities. That is no longer the case. People who grew up as NHL fans have relocated all across the sunbelt. Many of the people who rooted for Howe, Hull, Clarke, Esposito and Orr have moved to the south or their children have.

Let's take a look at shifts in the US metro population and the location of NHL franchises over time. Below are the top US cities circa 1960. The Original Six cities are colored green and as you can see the NHL had pretty decent coverage of the big cities--especially when you consider that SF and LA would have involved very long train rides in the pre-jet age.
Philadelphia was the most obvious omission as of 1960.



7.7 L.A.

5.0 PHI
3.3 SF/SJ
2.7 CLE
2.4 PIT

2.1 STL

2.1 WAS
1.8 BAL
1.7 DAL
1.6 MIN

1.5 HOU
1.5 CIN

From 1968-1979 the NHL expanded by 12 from 6 teams to 18 teams. The Seals/Barons franchise was contracted and four WHA franchises were absorbed (mostly based in Canada: QUE, EDM, WIN, HART) bringing the NHL to 21 teams at the end of the first expansion era in 1979 (I have colored the 1st expansion teams Blue below).

By 1980 the NHL had effectively covered almost every frost belt metro area. Cleveland was the biggest exception and even that city had the failed Barons franchise for a few years. The NHL even included two rather small markets in Buffalo and Hartford.

1980 TOP US METRO AREAS OVER 1.5 million


11.5 LA (KINGS)



4.5 SF/SJ
3.1 HOU


3.0 DAL

2.8 CLE
2.2 BAL


2.1 SEA
2.0 ATL (FLAMES) moved to CGY
1.9 S.D.

1.7 CIN

1.6 MIA
moved to NJ
1.6 MIL

1.6 TAM
1.6 RVS
1.5 PHX




The 2nd expansion of the NHL took place in the 1990s as the league expanded from 21 to 30 franchises most of which were located in non-traditional sunbelt markets. Several franchises were also relocated from the smaller Canadian metro areas to the US during this same time period. This resulted in a NHL covering the booming sunbelt cities where millions of Americans were moving to over time. By 2000 the NHL had covered every top 10 US market with the exception of Houston. Expansion and franchise relocation covered rapidly growing cities like Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami.

12.4 L.A. (KINGS,

5.1 DAL (STARS) moved from MIN

4.7 HOU


3.2 Riverside, CA
moved from WIN
3.0 SEA
3.0 MIN (WILD)

2.8 S.D.

2.5 BAL
moved from QUE
2.1 CLE
2.0 CIN
1.9 POR

1.8 KC
1.8 SAC
1.7 S.A.

1.6 ORL


1.6 Prov. RI

1.6 Nor. VA

1.5 IND

1.5 MIL



0.8 RAL (HURRICANES) moved from Hart

Today the league has good coverage of the growth centers within the United States. Are all of these cities sustainable over the long run? The three cities that concern me the most are the smallest markets. Nashville, Buffalo and Raleigh. Buffalo has an extraordinary level among of support among the community and will probably make it--especially if the Bills were to depart that market.

On the other hand, I'm less optimistic about Nashville and Raleigh. Both are fairly well managed teams which have put a decent hockey product out there most years. They have some very passionate fans in those cities--the question is whether than fan base is large enough to get them through the down periods. I'm not going to say it is impossible for those teams to flourish--it is simply more challenging than it would be if they were located in Houston or Seattle cities that are double or triple their size. Nashville in particular was hurt by the arrival of the NFL in that city. If they had remained the only pro sports team I would be more optimistic about the long term prospects.

Conclusion: The United States population is in one of the great long term migrations (the other two being the westward frontier and the Great Migration of black people out of the south between 1870-1950.) This long running shift from the north to the southern part of the nation is unlikely to end and the NHL is adjusted to these population trends. Migrants from the north form the base of the NHL fan community in each city and the task for the league is to win over more of the naive population to hockey.

Friday, December 19, 2008

How To Price Tickets When Times Are Tough

David Shoalts has been writing a series of articles about the effect of the fiscal crisis on the NHL. The Thrashers are one of the teams featured in his most recent article about discounting tickets. It is fairly informative and reasonable and I encourage you to read it (click here).

The persons interviewed in the article suggest that discounting tickets in a recession is a big mistake and that teams ought to offer more "service" or "add value" to the package by giving free parking rather than cutting prices. The Thrashers attempted to do exactly this by advertising major new "value" additions this summer (I still have my sheet somewhere around the house). But it didn't stop the sharp decline in sales--you can only hide a poor product behind bells and whistles so long.

Here is a key quote:

"I'm terrified of giving away product," said Mike Veeck, who owns and promotes six minor-league baseball franchises and is the son of the first promotional genius in that sport, the late Bill Veeck.

"If people are cutting prices, then maybe something is wrong with their original pricing structure," Veeck said. "Fans get used to paying your discount in about 12 seconds. Then that becomes the norm and you have to pay tremendously to get them back."

Now I hear what Veeck is saying but he is partially right and partially wrong. The NHL has a VERY different customer base than minor baseball. In the NHL you have corporate clients who have fairly inelastic demand (they buy tickets regardless of the team's performance) and well off individuals for whom price is also fairly inconsequential. Then you have the rest of the fan base where demand is elastic (varies depending upon the quality of the team). In the case of Mike Veeck's six minor league baseball teams almost all of his customers fall into the latter category. They are local families who pay with the expectation of a reasonably entertaining baseball experience. Not too many corporations buy up rows of seats at minor league baseball parks.

What NHL teams like the Thrashers and Panthers have done is essentially created a two tier pricing structure. The listed "ticket prices" are essentially only paid by corporate clients and people for whom price or quality is not a major issue. Virtually everyone else who buys tickets get a discount (very heavy this year) on the nominal price of the tickets. This is in part a concession to the reality that there is weak demand for a poor on-ice product. Mike Veeck doesn't have Home Deport, Delta Airlines or Coke buying up luxury boxes and rows of seats at full price--the Atlanta Thrashers do have that. If they lowered all face value prices they would be throwing away the money from the inelastic consumers. If they don't lower the prices for the elastic demand consumers they leave that money on the table.

In the short run, a two tiered pricing structure is logical--but you can only get away with it for so long. The more consumers become aware of it the less effective it is. And that's the rub. I'm one of those people who always bought season tickets and I stopped this year because I realized what was happening--virtually any single game ticket could be had at below face price if I was patient. In the long run this is not a sustainable approach because consumers learn and change their purchasing behavior. In this sense, Mike Veeck is right that giving away the product is a self defeating strategy in the long run.

The Thrashers cannot heavily discount single game tickets forever. Eventually the club must offer a compelling product that will allow them to end heavy discounts on all tickets. That is the only way they can reduce the red ink associated with owning this franchise. It turns out that the NHL in the south is like most other business--price is linked to the quality of the product you are selling. If you're an owner in Montreal or Toronto this might not be true. But even in original six cities like Detroit, Boston and Chicago long stretches of disappointing teams have resulted in rows and rows of empty seats. Even in the "Traditional Markets" the product matters. Montreal and Toronto are the only markets I know of where you could put a lipstick on a pig then hang a NHL jersey over it and charge the locals $70 to watch it. (I'm not sure that having a market where people buy hockey regardless of the quality of the product should be a point of pride.)

This is not Toronto or Montreal. When the team qualified for the playoffs they saw major increases in ticket sales and when the team failed miserably they saw a major collapse in sales. How would you try and sell a decade with no playoff victories? There are many times where I genuinely fell bad for the Sales and Marketing people who work for the Atlanta Thrashers. They try hard but they have faced a nearly impossible task for 10 years. You can only sell "NHL excitement" so long before the losses take their toll on consumer demand.

Winning is the ONLY long term solution if the team is to stay in Atlanta and hold down losses. In this sense the interests of ownership and fans are linked. We want to see some exciting playoff victories and they need those victories to make money (or at least not lose their shirt). To my mind this is the best part of being a gate driven league--the pressure is always on to win.

In the NBA the Hawks were brutal for years but the TV money made the financial consequences of being terrible more palatable for ownership. In the NFL you see teams like the Bengals who field a sub-par team every year and walk away with profits because of the TV rights money. In the NHL you must win at least every so often. That ultimately is why there are discounted tickets in most of the markets who have struggled on the ice in recent years. Winners get paid and losers don't.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scott Lehman Makes NHL Debut

In one of the more surprising player personnel moves of the season the Thrashers called up Scott Lehman from the AHL to fill in for an injured Exelby. The Lehman choice was unexpected because there are other players in the Thrashers system who are brighter prospects. But both Arturs Kulda and Grant Lewis have been felled by injuries lately. Kulda was not dressed in the Wolves AHL game and Lewis had played just one game after being out of for weeks.

The call-up of Lehman brought back memories of the surprising one NHL game for Luke Sellars who was playing in the ECHL for Greenville at the time. The Chicago Wolves were way out west in Salt Lake City and a late injury made it impossible to get connecting flights, so Sellars drove down from Greenville and played less than 5 minutes. Not a long NHL career, but at least he got his name in the NHL record books. Lehman too now has his name in the NHL record book. Lehman played even less than Sellars 3:30 coming in at 3:03 for the game.

With Lehman playing just 3 minutes who received more ice time? Below I have each Thrashers defenseman's average TOI (Time On Ice) for the season and their ice time last night.
Usual/Pens Game
23:32/25:52 Hainsey
16:29/20:10 Oystrick
23:05/23:24 Enstrom
20:51/22:42 Havelid
13:42/16:20 Valabik
N.A./3:03 Lehman

Comment: I had expected to see Hainsey or Enstrom play 27 minute but the Atlanta coaching staff chose to give the 3rd pairing guys more ice time versus the Penguins. So Oystrick broke 20 minute mark (probably for the 1st time all season) and Valabik broke 15 minutes (likely a personal best as well).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The End of Print Newspapers Draws Closer

As a kid I grew up reading the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. I can still remember the NHL beat writers (Keith Gave and Cynthia Lambert) and I looked forward to reading their daily updates. I used to save some of the better photographs and put them up on my wall. I very much enjoy reading a physical copy of the NY Times or Washington Post (when I lived in DC). A newspaper makes a fine way to pass the time while eating your lunch.

Both Detroit papers just announced they are cutting back home delivery to just three days a week. Print newspapers have been steadily reducing their staff for several years now as advertisers shift more to the internet and costs rise and subscribers die (newspaper reads are much older than the general population). I see no reason to think this trend will reverse and the current recession will only intensify pressures. The Tribune company declared bankruptcy this month as well. Cox Communications (which publishes the AJC) will close their Washington D.C. bureau office to save costs. Newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur, the only question is who soon and how will the new digital media world function.

Clearly the future is online content, but right now most papers allow free access to their sites. There is simply not enough money in online advertising to make that sustainable in the long run. It seems to me that the newspaper industry ought to create an industry standard pay-per-story system in which readers have something like a paypal account and they are charged .05 for each article that they view. If the entire industry adopted an easy mechanism and the cost per view remained small I think consumers would accept it after some grumbling.

What would sell in a pay per view environment? Certainly a beat writer covering major professional sports would receive regular hits by fans of a team. There will always be a need for game stories and practice updates--fans want to know who is on what line and when so and so is going to return.

On the other hand when it comes to opinion content, would you pay .05 to read columns by Mark Bradley or Jeff Schultz? Personally, I think Schultz is lazy and Mark Bradley simply doesn't pay enough attention to hockey to have much interesting to say. Or would you choose to read Rawhide, the guys at Blueland Chronicle, Thrashers Talons or the other blogs that are out there?

What if the simply stopped covering the Atlanta Thrashers? There was talk last season about the paper cutting back on money for travel. Some newspapers in New York and Los Angeles have chosen to just run AP stories and save money on travel.

The Washington Captials have responded to low newspaper coverage by their two major daily papers by embracing bloggers and fan created digital media. The other thing the Capitals have done include sending some of their local bloggers to cover an international tournament ignored by the local papers.

If the stops covering the Thrashers how would they respond? My guess is that they would take Ben Wright on the road and have him act as an in-house beat reporter. Would they open the door of the massive and mostly empty press box? I have my doubts. When it comes to media coverage the Thrashers are fairly risk averse.

Despite receiving minimal attention from local print, TV and radio they have held bloggers at arms length. There have been exactly two blogger events in franchise history. One game where we were allowed to sit up in the press box and observe the post-game news conference (but not ask any questions). The other event was a roundtable with Coach Anderson at camp this year. They've let us see what it is like to be treated like media, but they don't treat us like media.

At this point I've been credentialed a couple of times up in Nashville by the Predators organization. If I ever go to a game in Washington I will be credentialed there as well. It was interesting to attend a game as press. The stats updates mid-game were nice for a stats guy like me. The post-game interviews are very quick and you must have your question formed ahead of time or the whole thing will be over before you know it. I know some bloggers take the position that they don't care about access, but I disagree. There are subtle things such as body language that you can pick up in person and you can ask the question on your mind instead of just hoping someone else asks the question as you watch on a webcast.

So the future of digital media draws a step closer this week. Print newspapers are not going to recover or rebound. The largest print advertiser in the USA are automotive companies and they are hanging by a thread and will be looking to cut costs. Classified ads have shifted to Craig's List or Ebay and they're not coming back. In the new digital press, part-time bloggers like myself will be competing with the columnists like Mark Bradley and Jeff Schultz--and I welcome that contest.

Who Moves the Puck? Update

I seem to have moved past the "anger" phase in the stages of grief as I mourn the death of the Thrashers playoffs hopes (I didn't expect them to make it, but I did expect them to hang around in the race longer than this.)

Back on December 2nd I posted about "zone shift" statistic. Using Vic Ferrari's great website Time On Ice you can see which players come off the ice after a ES whistle and which players go onto the ice for the faceoff. Using this data you can see which players move the puck into the offensive zone from their own end (positive rating below) and which players are more likely to lose ground and end up coming off the ice with puck back in their defensive zone. Well here are the updated "zone shift" rankings for the 2008 Thrashers.

+9 Lehtonen
+1 Pavelec
-93 Hedberg

G Comments: I find that the goalie stats startling for several reasons. The team has a huge negative number when Hedberg starts but is almost even when the other goalies are in net. Hedberg is the best puckhandler of the three and sometimes clears the zone himself but those puck skills are not showing up in the zone shift metric.

I'm been arguing for a while that Hedberg is just not that great of a goalie and the Thrashers would benefit from an upgrade (his SV% ranks near the bottom every season). Others have pointed to his winning percentage and argued that the Thrashers play harder for him.

Personally, I think he's just been lucky to be in net on nights when the Thrashers offense clicks--much like a baseball pitcher who wins extra games because of high run support. I'm not going to declare a victory just yet, but the zone shift stat certainly casts doubt on the idea that the Thrashers play harder for Hedberg--if that were true why do they end up with so many more faceoffs in their defensive zone? I see this is more evidence that Hedberg is benefiting from offensive good fortune.

+12 Oystrick
+10 Bogosian
+9 Enstrom
+6 Schneider
+4 Valabik
-5 Hainsey
-18 Exelby
-26 Havelid

D Comments: Recently the coaching staff has taken to pairing Oystrick and Valabik with Enstrom and Havelid. This mixing and matching of defensemen is pretty cool in that we can see how Enstrom and Havelid perform when they are apart. Since December 2nd Enstrom has gone from a +5 to a +9. The good news is that Enstrom seems to have righted the ship after a rough start and he is now the leader in the zone shift metric among the defensemen receiving top four ice time. When Enstrom is on the ice his passing and skating skills help move the play away from his own net.

The bad news is that Nic Havelid's zone shift number keeps getting worse, falling from a -19 to a -26 in the last two weeks. I've really enjoyed watching Havelid work hard every night, but he should not be re-signed when his contract expires. The warning signs are everywhere that he is ceasing to be an effective top four NHL defensemen (assuming he's not playing hurt like Kozlov was all last year). I'm afraid the Thrahsers will re-sign him and then be "surprised" that he's not as good as he once was.

The other defense paring that regularly plays together --Hainsey and Exelby--also has a sizable gap as well, with Hainsey a slight negative and Exelby the 2nd worst on the club. I've harped on Exelby's lack of outlet passing and his tendency to just dump the puck many times. If Hainsey were paired with someone who had more skill I suspect he might have a positive zone shift number.

Probably the best news here is that the Thrashers youngest D (Bogosian, Enstrom, Oystrick) all have positive zone shift numbers and these guys will be here for the long haul. Throw in the fact that Hainsey might have a positive number if paired with a better partner and there some reason for long term optimism on the blueline.

+31 Reasoner
+30 Armstrong
+9 Thorburn
+6 Williams
+6 Christensen
+5 Kozlov
0 Perrin
-1 Little
-3 Crabb
-7 Kovalchuk
-20 White
-23 Boulton
-28 Slater

Here's the good news. The Thrashers have a 3rd line worthy of a playoff team: Armstrong-Reasoner-Thorburn were terrific together at taking the puck and playing in the offensive zone while being matched up against the other team's scoring line. The bad news is that the Thrashers lack a 1st, 2nd and 4th line that is worthy of a playoff team.

4th liners Boulton, Slater and Thorburn were steadily losing ground in the battle for puck position. Since Joey Crabb arrived he appears to have helped stop the bleeding on the 4th line. Only time will tell if Crabb can keep this line even or if they fall back into their retreating habits.

The "Mixed Drink Line" of Little-White-Russian is a mixed bag. Kozlov is a net positive, Little even and White a big minus. Much of White's ugliness came while centering Kovalchuk--but the whole line has lost ground in the month of December. Together the Little-White-Russian line seems to break even--but on a playoff caliber team your 2nd line must do better than just break even.

The worst news comes when you look at the Thrashers candidates for the #1 line. Kovalchuk has had three different centers so far this season. The Kovalchuk-White combo at the start of the season was nothing short of a disaster using the zone shift metric. Then we saw the Kovalchuk-Williams combo and that too was pretty much a disaster in terms of territory lost. Finally Kovalchk was paired with the team's best territorial centerman and the bleeding has stopped. Kovalchuk's zone rating has improved since 12-2 and Reasoner has been a slight positive since that point.

The good news is that our #1 line no longer is retreat game after game. The bad news is that our awesome checking line has been broken up. The new Armstrong-Williams-Perrin combo has been roughly break even.

NHL hockey is very fast. There a lot of things happening all at once out there and the human brain can't possibly comprehend it all. That's one reason I really like this zone shift stat because it provides a handy little indicators for one of the most basic aspects of the game--is the team advancing or retreating when a player is out there on the ice at Even Strength?

This week the Thrashers were de facto eliminated from the playoff race. Turning our attention to next season and beyond the central question is what is causing this team to languish in the standings and who should be back next year? Using zone shift as a guide I would not re-sign Havelid and I would try very hard to re-sign Reasoner. Slater is a RFA and I would let him walk. Todd White has two more years and $5 million owed to him--is it possible to find a trading partner for him? I have no idea why Don Waddell felt the need to give Eric Boulton a two year deal but he's another UFA mistake signing that should be moved if possible. There are better checkers available every off season and with Valabik on the roster he's not even the scariest fighter on the team anymore.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Esposito Makes Team Canada for WJC

Angelo Esposito made the cut for Team Canade after coming up short on three previous attempts. Other Thrashers in the tournament include Lasu who will play for Team Sweden and Lucenius was invited to Team Finland's camp.

The Thrashers seem very likely to have a top three pick. You can scout the top guys yourself as Tavares will play for Canada and Hedman will play for Sweden. Here is a list of Kyle Woodlief's Top 10 for the 2008 Draft. The Thrashers pick is likely to be one of the guys on this list.

D Victor Hedman
C John Tavares
D Jared Cowen
D Matt Duchesne
C Braydon Schenn
RW Magnus Pjrvi-Svensson
C Evander Kane
D Oliver Ekman-Larsson
LW Jeremy Morin
C Nazem Kadri

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Thrashers Steadily Destroying Their Own Brand

The Thrashers are headed for their 11th entry draft next summer. For 10 of those 11 years the Thrashers have sat in the first row of tables (reserved for those teams with the lowest points the prior season). Slowly, year-by-year and step-by-step the appetite for NHL hockey is being killed off in this city.

Atlanta has 5 million people, almost 1 million of them were born up in cold weather states (Atlanta has nearly as many Yankee-born as the Buffalo area). Many of these Yankee-born people know and like hockey. Many of the transplants grew up rooting for other teams (for me it was the Red Wings). In a city filled with transplants you have to give the locals a compelling reason to get excited about the local product. Year after year the Thrashers have branded themselves as losers.

But nobody is coming to games anymore.

Heck, even I'm not going to all the home games anymore. It used to take something like the Black Death to keep me away, but this year I've missed four home dates already. I'm probably one of the biggest die hard fans around, but increasingly I have to push myself to care about yet another losing season. I skipped both home games this week to go play ice hockey -- and I don't regret it.

I don't care what the announced attendance is -- just look at your television and you can see row after row with big swatches of empty seats. Weeknights have always been tough in a city like Atlanta. The urban sprawl makes for a hellish commute for many people (yet the Thrashers moved the games up to 7:00 from 7:30 on weeknights). But now even weekend games are not that full.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Thrashers gave away kids jerseys at a matinee game versus the Blues. Usually weekend games + holiday weekend + great giveaway = sellout. Not this time. I walked into the game right before puck drop and they still had boxes of kids jerseys available. Just two hours before game time, a season ticket holder friend of mine called up and offered me four lower bowl seats. I had already purchased a $10 single, but I took him up on his offer and found three people to join me. I ended up giving away the single to a stranger because a $10 ticket has zero resale value.

My friend said "they just comped me four tickets for some reason." I suspect that the reason was advance sales were "not good" and they figured getting a few more bodies in the building and would at least net them some concession money.

The prices keep getting cheaper and cheaper for tickets. For five years I purchased full season tickets. In most years it was my primary entertainment expenditure. To have NHL season tickets was a dream of mine since I was a 15-year-old kid envious of those ticket holders in Joe Louis Arena in Michigan.

The Thrashers were bad when I first bought, but I was patient and the tickets were cheap. I rejoiced in the victories and sorrowed in the many many losses. But I figured better days were ahead and we would someday have great seats for playoff games. But the good days never arrived and every year we had to deal with drunk college students with discounted tickets in front of us standing up in the middle of the play like they were at a Braves game and the pitcher was up to bat. Every year the people sitting around us paid less than what we had.

Last year was the final straw as a friend of mine was able to get discounted tickets for almost every game including weekends. I decided that if the franchise was offering a better deal for single tickets I would take that route. I'd rather be the savvy consumer than feel like a sucker 10 games into the season. (Note: I have no problem paying more money for a better hockey product, I just have a problem with paying more money that others for the same hockey product.)

So far it has worked out great. I have yet to pay more than $25 for a game. I've received numerous free tickets, bought them for less than half price on the secondary market. When that fails ordered them through the local hockey league which offers heavy discounts.

Yet even despite the cheap de facto prices, nobody is coming to games. If you're a NHL owner you look at home dates with the Red Wings and Penguins as money makers because you expect a full house. But not even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could sell out Philips Arena on a Thursday evening in November. The Penguins are returning this Thursday and I just received an special offering price cuts for this game as well.

What will happen next to NHL hockey in this city? Consider the following:
  • The New Jersey Devils were absolutely terrible for years and then they hired Lou Lamoriello and they became a contender.
  • The Washington Capitals were shockingly bad for years before they hired David Poile and Bryan Murray and became a perennial playoff club.
  • The Tampa Lightning were brutal for years until they fired GM Phil Esposito and hired some more competent management.
Will the Thrashers ownership make the major changes that are required. Will they recruit away the Sharks Director of Scouting? Will they find a new GM who has more than IHL experience to run a NHL team?

Or will the Atlanta Thrashers join the ranks of the Oakland Seals--a terribly managed franchise that eventually left that city and finally disbanded in Cleveland? The truth is that the franchise is certainly losing millions of dollars. Those loses will become even larger next season because the Thrashers have zero chance of hitting their revenue sharing goals and therefore they will receive less money from other clubs. Whoever wins the ownership lawsuit could easily blame the fans and complain that "hockey just didn't sell in Atlanta" and try to move the team. But the truth is Atlanta is just as capable of supporting a NHL team as Dallas or Tampa--but you have to win some games to draw people in.

As a fan, there is nothing I can do but wait for ownership to make the HUGE changes that will reinvigorate the NHL in this city. People are tired of losing and they're not coming back until there is a team worth spending their money on.

I can rant and rave but ultimately leadership must come from the top. If ownership intends to compete and win a Stanley Cup someday, they ought to speak about their plan for the future. If folks over at the team headquarters read this, I'm sure they would dispute the charge that there is no plan--but they need to TELL US what they are doing. (And "I'm working as hard as I can every day" does not constitute a plan--that's just a good work ethic.)

Last year Bruce Levenson was a very vocal (some would say too vocal) presence around Philips Arena. This year we've heard almost nothing from management and ownership about their plans for the future. The lack of communication leaves us fans confused and discouraged--and increasingly--absent.

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." Proverbs 29:18

Friday, December 12, 2008

McDavid Intended to Sell Off Thrashers

Just in case you didn't already see this, in Jeff Schultz's interview with David McDavid he explains that he had on the table an offer to sell off the Thrashers to another person after obtaining the teams from AOL/Time-Warner.

To consider an offer from an undisclosed party who wanted to buy the Thrashers for “what we were paying for everything” and keep the team in Atlanta. “I don’t know if we would’ve done it but it would’ve immediately wiped out all of our debt.”

The identity of that person is unclear, but what is clear is that owning a NHL team was not a high priority for McDavid.

Ilya Nikulin an All-Star Starter?

Way back in 2000 NHL Draft the Thrashers used their 2nd round pick on a Russian defenseman named Ilya Nikulin. In the ensuing years there have been several summer time flirtations with the NHL where it seemed he might make the transition across the Atlantic. Of course, he never did come to play in the NHL, but it does seem that the Thrashers selected a good player. According to James Mirtle he is currently in 4th place in balloting for Team Russia for the KHL All-Star Game which will use a Russia versus the World format.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rangers Game

A very entertaining game even if the OT result was not what I had hoped for. The team played a terrific looking 1st period. Darren Eliot was praising them big time on the TV broadcast and I concur. Eliot mentioned the strong puck support and more defensive posture. The thing I noticed is just how fluid the team looked out there on the ice. Unfortunately, they seemed to fall back into some bad habits later in the game, but if what we saw in that 1st period is the future style of the Alanta Thrashers I endorse it.

Corsi Boxscore (net shots fired, a minus 7 means the Rangers fired 7 more shots than the Thrashers did while that player was on the ice at Even Strength)

-7 Hedberg
"It was the best of times it was the worst of times" He made a couple of highway robbery saves and then badly mishandled the puck on 2 of the 3 goals. How do you score that kind of game?

-3 Kovalchuk
-3 Reasoner
+3 Thorburn
We had the angry passionate Ilya last night and he had a pretty good game despite getting owned by Gomez in the fight. This line seems to be some developing some chemistry. Reasoner and Thorburn are able to work the puck in the corner and that gets Kovalchuk a bit more space at times. The problem though is that neither Reasoner nor Thorburn have great hands and Reasoner missed on a pretty good looking chance last night.

Kovalchuk had a costly mistake on the SH goal. He skated backwards and had body position on Callahan but then let Callahan go right around him just in time to have it bounce of the Ranger player's body and into the net for a goal. You can't give up body position that easily.

0 Little
+4 White
+1 Kozlov
The usual good stick, good stake. No goals tonight but some pressure.

-3 Armstrong
-2 Williams
-5 Perrin
This line was not good. Perrin was knocked off the puck multiple times. When you're that small sometimes you need to dump the puck deeper before you are hit so your team doesn't lose control of the situation. On TV Darren Eliot highlighted Williams lackadasical defensive zone coverage that led to a great scoring chance for New York.

-8 Crabb
-2 Slater
-4 Boulton
The Thrashers were badly outshot when Crabb was on the ice, but he scored and had a couple of nice dishes. To be honest, I'm surprised to see his Corsi Number is that ugly because he seemed to be doing good things out on the ice.

-6 Enstrom
-11 Havelid
Entrom made a bad decision at the offensive blueline that led to a 2>1 break for the Rangers (Hedberg) bailed them out. Havelid's -11 is another data point that suggests he might not be able to handle top pairing duties anymore.

+2 Exelby
+3 Hainsey
Only plus pairing in the game. Exelby made a smart clear after Hedberg was down and out after making the initial save.

-2 Oystrick
-2 Valabik
Oystrick was involved in the scoring both ways. He made a great pass to spring Crabb for his breakaway goal. He failed to get the puck out when he had the chance and the Rangers then scored after he fumbled around with a loss puck near Hedberg.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thrashers Update and Rangers Preview

I don't think I've every done a game preview for a regular season game here on Thrashers Talons so today's post is a bit of an experiment. Perhaps you will find it useful, perhaps not. If you like it and want me to do more please post a comment.

Breaking Down the Thrashers and Rangers Before I get to the individuals a short explanation of what I'm doing here. (If you're a regular reader this is probably somewhat familiar to you.)

What leads to winning hockey games?
The emerging model of quantitative hockey suggests over the long run winning teams play more in the offensive zone than in their own defensive zone. The idea is that an advantage in puck location leads to an advantage in shots and finally an advantage in goals scored. Again this pattern holds in the long run, in any single game one crucial mistake or one funny bounce can break the pattern--but over the course of the season those odd luck elements are even (i.e. randomly distributed across teams)

Which players play in the other team's end?
There are two ways to measure this 1) faceoffs at the end of shifts or 2) shots fired while a player is on the ice (aka Corsi Numbers). In the long run shift end location and Corsi numbers are correlated with Even Strength Plus/Minus.

How is this stuff useful when thinking about the next game?
Good hockey teams match their best hockey players against the other team's best players in an attempt to gain an advantage. Good hockey teams give more ice time to difference makers and hide their weak guys from the opposition team's strong team. When the Thrashers are at home they have the last change and a much greater chance to obtain favorable matchups. What I'm trying to do in this preview is identify who are the strong and weak lines for each club.

Difference Makers for the Thrashers
Column 1: Where the puck is (measured by end of shift faceoffs)
Column 2: Team shot advantage (measured as net shot attempts, Corsi)
Column 3: Team Scoring advantage (measured as net GF/GA)
All stats are ONLY for Even Strength Situations.
(Players are grouped according to the lines in the last game)

1st Line

-34 -57 +1 Kovalchuk
-9 +4 +4 Reasoner
-8 -27 -2 Thorburn
The old 3rd line of Armstrong-Reasoner-Throburn was the best line at playing in the other team's end of the ice. I'm interested in seeing more of Kovalchuk on this line.

2nd Line

-26 -63 +9 Little
-37 -61 +4 White
-26 -31 +1 Kozlov
This line has an unsustainable ES ST% rate. Their plus/minus numbers will suffer as they get more unlucky bounces in the future. They need to play more at the other end of the ice.

3rd Line

-2 +21 -2 Armstrong
-37 -60 -7 Williams
-16 -30 -4 Perrin
A mish-mash line recently created by Coach Anderson. When Armstrong was paired with Reasoner they were extremely effective at playing in the other end (compared to other Thrashers). It will be interesting to see if Reasoner and Armstrong are able to help their new line mates or will be dragged down by them.

4th Line

-20 -32 -2 Slater
-8 -4 +2 Crabb
-15 -46 -2 Boulton
Crabb has been a pleasant surprise, but this forth line has been fortunate not to be scored on more considering how badly they're being outplayed in limited minutes.
-22 -18 -8 Christensen (bench)

1st Pairing
-25 -54 +2 Enstrom
-69 -101 +4 Havelid
According to practice reports the Swedish D Duo will be split up. They usually get the toughtest assignments at ES. So far they were fortunate to be plus on the season given how much time they have spent in their own end. I'm curious to see how a Enstrom-Oystick pairing looks out there. I fear that Nic Havelid might be wearing down as he gets older.

2nd Pairing

-38 -56 -3 Hainsey
-55 -102 -4 Exelby
I suspect Hainsey's numbers would look a lot better if he spent less time paired with Exelby. The lack of efficient outlet passing from that side of the duo means more time spent defending in the Thrashers end of the ice.

3rd Pairing

Ev -2 -5 Schneider (IND)
+8 +17 E Oystrick
-19 -9 +1 Valabik
Schneider gets a ton of crap from fans but when he's out there the team plays in the other end of the ice as much as it does in his own zone. Schneids gets the puck out. Oystrick has been nothing short of amazing in my view. He looked brutal in the 2007 camp. He didn't look all that impressive in pre-season. He gave up a bad breakaway goal in his first game. Since all that he's settled down and played MUCH better hockey. He and Bogosian have both done a good job of playing in the other team's end of the ice. Oystrick's been a bit sheltered in terms of not facing the opposition's best player--if he is paired with Enstrom in the Ranger game it will be interesting to see how he does with tougher minutes.

-76 -81 +4 Hedberg
-4 -31 -4 Pavelec
-14 -28 -5 Lehtonen
I don't think Goalies have much impact on net shots of territorial advantage but here they are anyway. Hedberg's ES SV% is unsustainable. He's had some incredible good luck and there's a wicked payment due to the devil later this season.

Team Numbers
??? -116 -3 TEAM ESSV% .914 ESST% 10.0

Thrashers Comments: Given how much time they spend in their own end the Thrashers have been lucky that they have only been outscored by 3 goals (excluding EN goals) at ES so far this year. Something's got to give. Odds are they 're going to start giving up more at ES which makes it that much more imperative to fix the PK unit.

Rangers Comments: The Rangers have incredibly unlucky at ES so far this year. They're doing all the right things--like playing in the offensive zone and piling up shots--they puck just hasn't gone in the net for them. It is a long season and they're due some friendly bounces. This is a better ES team than the ES GF/GA would indicate.

Difference Makers for the Rangers
Column 1: Where the puck is (measured by end of shift faceoffs)
Column 2: Team shot advantage (measured as net shot attempts, Corsi)
Column 3: Team Scoring advantage (measured as net GF/GA)
All stats are ONLY for Even Strength Situations.
(Players are grouped according to the lines in the last game)

1st Line

+41 +7 +5 Drury
+54 +96 -4 Naslund
+1 +20 -1 Prucha
2nd line
+29 +102 +8 Zherdev
+22 +91 E Dubinsky
+22 +61 +2 Voros
3rd line
+42 +101 -6 Gomez
E -37 -3 Korpikoski
+69 +66 -5 Callahan
4th line
+14 -20 -5 Orr
-1 -1 -5 Sjostrom
+17 -6 -2 Betts

+18 +27 +3 Dawes (bench)
+6 -23 -2 Fritsche (bench)

Defense 1st pairing
+51 +61 -5 Rozsival
+23 +37 +3 Staal
2nd pairing
+46 +93 -1 Girardi
+26 +24 -1 Mara
3rd pairing
+8 +4 -5 Kalinin
-4 +2 -1 Potter

+66 +83 -1 Redden (out)

+85 +147 -6 Lundqvist
+25 +10 -4 Valiquette

??? +77 -7 TEAM ESSV% .920 ESST% 6.0

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Garrioch Says Kovalchuk Trade Talk Heating Up

Thrashers Prospect Annex pointed me to what Bruce Garroich wrote on Sunday:

"Multiple NHL sources told Sun Media yesterday that Thrashers GM Don Waddell has held serious talks with several teams about the possibility of moving the high-scoring winger, who makes $7.5 million (all terms US) and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2009-10 season."

Garroich points to Montreal as a possible trading partner--one that has some expiring contracts which could be dealt to free up cap room and a team that has a bevy of young prospects which the Thrashers would want as part of a major rebuilding process. Personally, I wouldn't be shocked if Edmonton was another possible partner. They have a lot of young talent and they have struggled to score so far this season.

Before we get into the thinking about who could be potentially be traded to Atlanta in a blockbuster deal, let's take a moment to look a hypothetical roster of the 2010 Thrashers and their ages. I'm also going to assume that without Kovalchuk they finish last and get Tavares.

Hypothetical 2010 Atlanta Thrashers
Sterling 26-Tavares 20-Little 22
Machacek 22-Esposito 21-
J. Albert 21
LaVallee 24-Holzafel 22-Armstrong 27
Thorburn 27-Slater 27-
Crabb 27
Christensen 26

Bogosian 20-Hainsey 29
Enstrom 25-
Kulda 22
Zubarev 23-Valabik 24
Oystrick 27

Pavelec 22-Lehtonen 26

Of course not all those prospects are going to become NHL players. But I did this just as a sort of thought experiment to see what the core would look like just by itself. Now to this core you would add the NHL players that would come as part of a Kovalchuk trade (perhaps Chris Higgins and McDonagh or the Koististyn brothers) and the draft picks as well. If the Thrashers also trade Lehtonen and keep Pavelec and Hedberg as their goaltending duo, then you can add another player or pick there.

Furthermore, there would be free agent additions added in the summer of 2009 or summer of 2010. If the NHL salary cap stays flat (which looks increasingly likely) or even declines the Thrashers will have more cap room than nearly any other NHL club. Some free agents might come here simply because Atlanta is in a position to offer them more money.

Would that make the 2010 Thrashers a cup contender? The future is hard to tell but moving Kovalchuk and Lehtonen for more young talent would broaden the base of inexpensive young talent (see Chicago Blackhawks) to which you could add a couple of pricey free agents and suddenly you could have a very impressive squad playing in Philips Arena.

Finally, at the end of his column he makes this less than surprising comment:

"The Thrashers are expected to move D Mathieu Schneider by the March 4 trade deadline. It's believed Waddell has been getting plenty of calls."

If the Thrashers play their cards right they could engage in a genuine rebuild and get quite a haul by dealing Kovalchuk, Lehtonen and Schneider this year. As I've said before, my #1 priority is seeing a Stanley Cup contender in Atlanta. This team will never be able to afford the cap maximum--so any shot at the Cup requires assembling a young squad of players that can contend before too many of the players get expensive. You have to get the maximum return on your investment in player payroll and young talent provides the best route to contending.

Islander Game

I'm rather busy with my day job at the moment and my enthusiasm for all things Thrashers is low, so I'll keep this short and sweet.

Positives: Nice win over the Islanders on Saturday. Good intensity, clutch shooting, Crabb playing well. Kovalchuk played like a superstar: he was more efficient with few turnovers, he scored three points AND did the post-game interview! We need this Kovy more often. Hedberg with a couple of high way robbery saves. Exelby with a nice offensive play to set up Little's goal.

Negatives: The Islanders are a pretty bad team. That's one good game out of three on the road trip--I'm going to hold off on any celebrations until I see them string together multiple strong efforts in a row.

Special teams were not-so-special. The PP looked disorganized and the PK allowed yet another goal against. Scary Fact: Number of Games in Which the Thrashers PK unit was perfect (no PPGA):
  • October: 1 game
  • November: 3 games
  • December: 0 games

That's right just 4 games out of 26 games has the PK unit keep the opposition from scoring with the extra man.

Going back to November the Thrashers have allowed 18 Power Play Goals Against in just 16 Games Played.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

No Pressure in Atlanta

The Thrashers GM, Coach and all the players ought to be thankful today that they play in Atlanta and not Toronto, Montreal or Detroit. After a brutal stretch, the team has tumbled down to 30th place in a 30 team league. The best thing about playing in Atlanta is that you can screw things up badly and few will notice. You can just be real quiet and maybe nobody will comment on a decade of sub-mediocrity.

If this was a big time hockey town the press would dialing up the owners number to get a comment on the GM's job security. There would be the obligatory "vote of confidence" statement from an owner. Yet here, nothing happens because the Thrashers are simply not a very high priority for the local sports media.

If this was a big time hockey city people would be questioning Coach Anderson's strategies, line combinations and defense pairings daily in the paper. But that mostly happens on message boards and blogs.

If this a big time hockey city players would have to face TV cameras, microphones and reporters with note pads asking questions like "why is this team struggling?" or "why haven't you scored in a month?" or "why was the effort so poor?" But instead players can slip in and out of practice without too many people making them feel guilty. Sure they'd like to win like teams in other cities, but those half million plus pay checks can cushion the blow of playing NHL hockey in Georgia. They don't even have to fear turning on the local sports radio (a medium that thrives on bashing people when they're down) because nobody is ripping them there either, the team is only mentioned on the half hour score updates.

But there's no pressure on this team in this team, there's no accountability from what I can see. The media ignores them and when the team plays brutal everybody clams up. We don't hear much from anyone. What is the master plan from the GM now? Where is the coaching staff going to do about the PK? When are certain players going to get into the season? Usually when people reach the very top of their chosen profession the job comes with a tradeoff; they receive both high pay and a high level of scrutiny, but here we just have the high pay and very little scrutiny.

In big time hockey cities there is constant pressure to play well. That is not the case here. If this franchise is ever going to succeed the pressure has to come from inside the organization. It must either come from an owner who will cease accepting poor performances or it must come from the players themselves or perhaps a star player getting in the face of slacking teammates. Has anyone every broken a $400 TV in the locker room after a stupid loss? If I were an owner I'd happily replace a few broken TVs if it meant getting a better return on my $45,000,000 investment in player payroll. If Ilya Kovalchuk wants the captain job he can earn it by loudly demanding more of himself and his teammates right now.

Some people play hard because they love to win. Some people play hard because someone else puts pressure on them. The media will never be the enforcer in this town, who will demand more of this team?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Who Plays Best with Kovalchuk?

Players with at least 30 minutes of shared ice time with Ilya Kovalchuk.

GF/20 minutes
1.838 Little
1.242 White
1.085 Christensen
0.926 Perrin
0.879 Williams

If you want to see more information head over to Hockey and you can compare every Thrashers player when they on the ice with any other Thrasher player. Pretty cool stuff.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I Detect A Trend

Atlanta Players on the ice for Ottawa Goals
2 6 11 14 20
2 6 11 19 (PK)
2 6 17 19 27
2 6 23 42 (PK)
2 28 23 36 42

I'm glad I was busy at hockey practice and didn't throw away 3 hours watching this.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How Many Years Must Atlanta Wait?

How many years must Atlanta wait for a Stanley Cup Contender?

1999-2000 Payroll Rank: 27 Standings Rank: 30
2000-2001 Payroll Rank: 28 Standings Rank: 28
2001-2002 Payroll Rank: 28 Standings Rank: 30
2002-2003 Payroll Rank: 28 Standings Rank: 23
2003-2004 Payroll Rank: 26 Standings Rank: 21
2004-2005 Lockout: no season
2005-2006 Payroll Rank: 2 Standings Rank: 20
2006-2007 Payroll Rank: 17 Standings Rank: 12
2007-2008 Payroll Rank: 23 Standings Rank: 27
2008-2009 Payroll Rank: 29 Standings Rank: 30

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Erik Christensen This Your NHL Career

Who Moves The Puck?

Tom Benjamin had a good post last year correcting a common mis-statement. People often refer to the Red Wings as a "puck-possession" team, but Benjamin argued that good hockey isn't so much "puck possession" but "puck position". Even the Red Wings will dump the puck into the Offensive Zone at times. There are many times in a game where a player will trade possession of the puck in order to move it much farther from his own goal.

OK how does this relate to the Thrashers and their struggles? Well last year the NHL started publishing play by play game sheets that list which players are on the ice at each stoppage of play. Vic Ferrari created a nice little program that scraps the data off so that we can see who comes off the ice after a stoppage and who goes onto the ice. This gives us a picture of "puck possession" on a player by player basis. Great hockey players (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Ovechkin) move the puck down the ice from their Defensize Zone (DZ) to the Offensive Zone (OZ)

Why does this territorial aspect of hockey matter so much? Research by a number of Edmonton bloggers shows that teams that have the puck in the opposition end are more likely to out-shot the opposition and ultimately more likely to win the game. In summary, playing in the opposition end produces a shot advantage and shot advantage produces a goal advantage which produces a standing point advantage. Why do the Thrashers lose so many games? Because they get out chanced. Why do they get out chanced? Because they spend more of the game in their own end. You want to win more hockey games--play in the Offensive Zone.

So who is winning or losing the territorial game for the Atlanta Thrashers? To answer that question I compared the data start-of-shift data to the end-of-shift data. Specifically, I contrast puck location (the ratio of OZ/DZ) at the beginning of shift to the puck location (OZ/DZ) at the end of shifts. This gives us a measure of which players tended to move the puck down the ice from the Defensive Zone to the Offensive Zone.

Forwards Who Move The Puck Into the Opposition End at ES
+26 Reasoner
+26 Armstrong
+9 Kozlov
+7 Christensen
+4 Little
+3 Perrin
+3 Williams
+0 Sterling
-6 Thorburn
-16 White
-17 Boulton
-17 Kovlachuk
-26 Slater

Both the 3rd and 4th line are supposed to be able to play tough minutes against the other club's scoring lines. The 3rd line of Armstrong-Reasoner combo has been outstanding in terms of territory but the 4th line combo of Boulton and Slater are getting demolished. The puck is ending up back in the Thrashers zone a lot.

Among the scoring forwards the Kozlov-Little pairing is moving the puck down the ice, while White has some ugly numbers (which must have come before he was put together with Kozlov and Little).

When Kovalchuk has stepped onto the ice the Thrashers have been in their own end 110 times and in the opposition end 95 times. So at the start of shits he began in the "bad end" 15 times more than in the "good" end of the ice. At the end of Kovalchuk's shifts he was in the offensive zone just 81 times and in his own zone 113 times for a net difference of -32. So he started off in the hole 15 times and ended up in the hole 32 times. In other words on the puck is going the wrong direction. (Remember that puck location is the best predictor Winning!)

Again this is one example of why I don't consider Kovalchuk to be on the same plane as other superstars--his poor defense and carelessness with the puck hurts the team and hurts their chance of winning the game. The best players play in the other end because they make smart passes and put the puck in a position where their team is going to have success.

Here's another data point. Last year Hossa started out in the "bad" end of the ice 280 times more often than the "good" end, but at the end of shifts Hossa was only -72 which means he moved the puck from the Defensive Zone to the Offensive Zone +208. In contrast, Kovalchuk began in the "bad" more a net -28 times but by the end of his shift the puck was in the defensive zone -111 times, which means a net backwards shift of -83. When Hossa was out there the puck typically moved forward and when Kovalchuk was out the puck came backwards.

Defensemen Who Move the Puck to the Opposition End at ES
+10 Bogosian
+6 Schneider
+5 Enstrom
+3 Oystrick
-1 Valabik
-6 Hainsey
-13 Exelby
-19 Havelid

On defense we see that the much maligned Mathieu Schneider has been doing a decent job of getting the puck out of his end compared to other Thrashers defensemen. Exelby and Havelid have struggled. I'm always liked Nic Havelid but his recent struggles on the PK and suggest to me that the Thrashers should not offer him another multi-year deal after this season as he is now closer to age 40 than he is to 30.

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