Friday, December 22, 2006

Outsourcing the Thrashers Analysis

Work and babycare duties have forced me to cut back on my sports consumption this winter and unfortunately, that's meant that I haven't been able to spend much time watching or thinking about the Thrashers (naturally when the team is finally good). Fortunately, my friend Ben is one year ahead of me on the propagation of children front and has been able to pay rapt attention to the local hockey collective this year. This is the first of what I hope is a regular feature on this page...


(My comments are interspersed in italics.)

I want to address the question you posed in your last e-mail first: is the Thrashers' 20-10-6 record a mirage because of their only +5 goal differential? (I read too much of the Baseball Prospectus and now I have to get all Pythogorean with the NHL.) Having watched just about all their games either live or on TV, I will say their record is not a mirage. In fact, they should be a touch better than their record. The goal differential matters a lot in the long run, and recently they have been a huge scoring slump (which I will get to later). Since the calendar flipped to December, they have been outscored by 12 goals, a fairly hefty number which has significantly reduced their differential. This has also coincided with their 5 game losing streak, and present 7 game streak in which the opposing team has taken at least 1 point from them. The points left on the table are obvious, Tampa on 11/24, and Washington on 12/5. In both of these games they allowed scores with fewer than two minutes to go. To sum up, goal differential is not all that bad considering what has happened in the past month. However, and there is always is a however, these losing streaks under Hartley are beginning to concern me. Three in the past calendar year of over 5 games.

My real concern is that the Thrashers have played well in October and November on a number of occasions (2000-1, 2003-4, and 2005-6) and then have been pegged back down to earth in embarrassing fashion when the rest of the league starts playing hard (not unlike Virginia Tech in the several years after Michael Vick when 7-0 would become 8-3 every November). I'm worried that the slumpy December is the real team and not the torrid October and November, but I don't watch every game, so take that with the salt in the Dead Sea.

I think there is one major problem on this team; lack of any support up the middle. Their centers are non-existent. Well maybe the exist, but the suck, and are very old. Mellanby is close to 40 and does not create chances for other players beyond the fore check. He is not a table setter. Holik and Rucchin are good defensive center men who win a ton of face-offs, but they also do not set up any easy goals for teammates. Kovy scores so many of his goals on the power play because he is set up at the point. I wish we had a center man who would do the same for him, otherwise I feel a funk developing. (As a side note, last year with Savard at center, Kovy had 52 goals, 27 on the power play with Savard setting him up there as well. This year he is only on pace for around 41 goals, and 21 on the power play, a significant decline). I don’t know if it is due to planning or frustration, but I have seen Kovulchuck carry the puck into the defensive zone much more recently. Granted he is much more under control than his younger years, but he is not having any success carrying the puck over the blue line and firing on goal from 40 feet with the net minder set in perfect position.

This implies that things aren't going to get a whole lot better as the season progresses unless the team trades for an offensive center who can play Adam Oates to Kovalchuk's Cam Neely or Petr Bondra. I don't really fault Don Waddell for this. The Thrashers' weakness throughout franchise history has been terrible defensive play and he's spent most of his picks and free agent money on improving that side of the ice. Now, the Thrashers are much better defensively with Lehtonen between the pipes and Sutton, Exelby, Havelid, Vishnevski, McCarthy, de Vries, and Coburn in front of him, the team doesn't ship goals by the bushel like they used to. The downside is that they spent their high picks on players like Lehtonen and Coburn and their cap space on a player like Vishnevski, so there wasn't money for Marc Savard. It seems impossible to put together a truly complete team in the NHL these days unless you absolutely rock in the Draft and/or find players who play far above their established value.

Hossa is having a great year, but if you watch, Kozlov is acting like a center for him, looking and finding him whenever they are on the ice together. I think we are getting shut down now because teams are getting accustomed to this and jumping all over him right when Slava has the puck. When the other teams' defensemen only have to concern themselves with two forwards on the Thrashers, stopping them is much easier. After his past two shootout performances, I really think Slava has a great shot and wish he would use it more, but then again, he is reduced to the role of the playmaker when Sim or Kapanen or Metropolit or Slater is on the same line as them.

Waddell has talked about making a move, and we have a few extra blue liners, so I hope he makes a move to get somebody, who is available, I have no idea what would work for the cap, but I would love one more dynamic offensive player, and then I will believe in our chances at winning the cup. In the meantime, I have seen our defensemen pinch a bit more the past few games in an attempt to keep up the fore-check and create offence. Coburn can do this because he is such a great skater, McCarthy is good as well. Look when they are paired and on the ice next time, they really jump into the play nicely. This style seems to really wind DeVries and Hnidy, so I hope they don’t have to keep doing it.

Sounds reasonable, but I worry about this style being dangerous at playoff time when the hockey is more defensive and the risks of pinching go up. Then again, just being able to discuss the Thrashers' style applying to the playoffs would be such a welcome treat that beggars can't be choosers.

For some reason, I have Mike Comrie in mind as a good addition to the team if he would fit under the cap. OK, I have him in mind because he's a Michigan guy, but he was the first player who popped into my head when I was thinking about a smallish, table-setting center to put alongside Kovalchuk and improve the Thrashers' scoring depth. He's currently toiling for the dreadful Coyotes, so he couldn't be that hard to acquire, could he? And we'd make Michigan grad Billy Jaffe happy...if only he was still the color guy for the radio feed. I loved watching Jeff Odgers fight and I treasure my Odgers bobblehead, but he doesn't exactly exude charisma over the air waves. And what happened to the sweet, bushy fu manchu?

Our schedule gets brutal pretty soon. We really need to win these next two because we go on the road for an extended period of time in January, come home for 7/8 and than go West for 7/9. The good news is that we finish with 11 out of 17 at home, so a final push sets up nicely if we can just get through the winter doldrums and not repeat last years Jan-Feb slide.

Having the last two Stanley Cup champs on the heavy rotation doesn't help, although Tampa is a shadow of their former selves without the Bulin Wall.

Here is what excites me about the Thrashers as a whole. The Hawks are not creating any kind of buzz, and with the huge blown lead this week, many fans are probably thinking same ol' Hawks, true or not. The Thrashers have a chance to capture this market and really build something. For all the talk about failure of hockey in this area, Carolina and Tampa have won big recently and they are both in the top half of the league in attendance, with Tampa at #3. The Thrashers have a real chance with the Falcons failure, and the Hawks mediocrity, to be front and center of the sport page every day with a little streak here. That is very exciting stuff. Now just get me a playmaker, and it will happen.

I totally agree with this. Although the Hawks are certainly a better story than they have been for the past couple years, if they don't string together some wins in the near future, they're going to be out of the playoff picture, such as it may be in the Eastern Conference, and mostly off the local sports radar. Once the Falcons' season ends with a loss in Philly, there's going to be a void that should be filled by the Thrashers. Tech basketball doesn't look terribly promising this year, and while the Georgia hoops team looks good, they've never moved the meter that much. Finally, the Braves' fan base isn't exactly geeked for the coming season with Time-Warner's complete non-chalance to improving the product, so the Braves aren't going to be a huge story in February and March.


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