Wales Profile: Atlanta Thrashers

In Hockey on December 7, 2009 at 3:37 am

As the 2009-10 season slowly unfolds, plenty of virtual and actual ink has been spilled extolling the virtues of the surprise teams of the NHL’s Western Conference; The Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes and the continued resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks. But I’ll leave those hosannas for Bill Duke to sing in the Campbell section of this humble slice of the net.

As I am here to focus on the Wales (Eastern) half of the NHL, I will start by pointing out the current top four spots in the conference are being held by the same four clubs who finished last year with one ice advantage in the 1st round o the playoffs – The Capitals, Penguins, Bruins and Devils (right now, in that order). Not much surprise there. The top three were selected to finish as such by Puck Prospectus in their pre-season preview, while the Devils were viewed as a very close 6th.

An interesting story lurks behind the at least temporary rise of the other four current playoff aspirants (although I haven’t yet thought up a suitable angle for the Sens), my most recent article truly brought to the forefront the heightened level of play by one of the league’s Southern contingent, the Atlanta Thrashers. With the league’s 6th most efficient power play and 2nd most effective penalty killing units, John Anderson’s Thrashers may be emerging the Eastern answer to the San Jose Sharks, with stellar play in all common situations. Their 9-2-1 road record helps them overcome a more lacklustre 6-6-2 home mark, a telling rejoinder when noting their 27th-placed ranking in the attendance front, prompting a meagre average attendance of 13,511 through their first 14 home contests. As far as percentage of capacity, that total indicates that the Phillips Arena is only 72.9% full, on average, a figure better only than the presumed lame-duck Phoenix Coyotes (56.2%).

So how are they doing it? Holding back for a moment that their most notable, and highly respected player, standard analytical thinking tells us that a team must be strong between the pipes. To that end, the Thrashers went into the season presuming that Kari Lehtonen, at one time the #2 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, would be their stalwart. Although Lehtonen underwent back surgery in mid-July, at the time, he was expected to be ready for training camp. But training camp came and went, as did the months of October and November, and Lehtonen’s presumed availability is still a matter of general dispute. Instead, the Thrashers have split the chores to a ratio approximating 3:2 between youngster Ondrej Pavelec and resurgent veteran Johan Hedberg. Last year, in more limited playing time, Pavelec and Hedberg were among the worst goalies in the game with cumulative Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT numbers of -5.8 and -13.3 respectively. A new lease on life has Hedberg stopping 93.2 percent of opposing shots, while Pavelec is more than respectable at 91.9%.

Hedberg in particular, is of plenty of socio-hockey-logical interest as a player who seemed to have just about used up all of the grace he had received after leading the 2000-2001 Penguins to the Conference finals as a rookie with only 9 games of NHL experience under his belt (similar to Semyon Varlamov’s emergence last spring). Hedberg followed up that spring with a workhorse 2001-02 season in which he led the league in losses with 34 with otherwise average peripheral numbers and performance. A second full season saw him split tending duties more evenly with the other organizational goalies (Sebastian Caron and JS Aubin) before beginning the journeyman/worst-regular-NHL-goalie phase of his career. Should he keep up this level of performance for another 25-30 games, or even a level approaching Pavelec’s, he may yet be able to continue his career beyond the current season.

Pavelec, on the other hand, was a highly touted youngster drafted in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft (the 3rd goalie selected after Carey Price and Tuukka Rask)out of the Kladno, Czech. Junior ranks. After 2 years tending goal in the QMJHL and two more seasons honing his professional chops with the AHL Chicago Wolves (including cameos with the parent club, Pavelec seems to be coming of age. Between the two of them, current speculation out of Atlanta has the club shopping Lehtonen when he is ready to return.

Moving on to the blueline, we can see the immediate effect of some of the changes made by Thrashers GM Don Waddell over the past two years. In trading out 3 pairing defender Garnet Exelby for Pavel Kubina, they have vastly upgraded their top-4 defenders. The NHL maturation of former 3rd overall pick, Zach Bogosian, alongside that of former 239th overall selection, Tobias Enstrom and the steady play of veteran Ron Hainsey leave the Thrashers with a top-4 that can stand up to nearly any top four in the game. Enstrom, in particular, is quietly blowing away all pre-season projections for his expected output, already compiling 20 points and a plus 10 along with along with an above-average relative plus-minus and facing a similar quality of opponent according to Gabriel Desjardins’ All NHL predictions must assume health, and this applies to the Thrashers blue-line as much as any single team component in the league. While their top-4 is very strong, and should rightly claim much of the credit stemming from improving team GAA from 3.36 last year (29th) to the current 2.73, the drop between them and the 5-7 defenders (Christoph Schubert, Mark Popovic and Anssi Salmela does not inspire the type of confidence that plays over 20 minutes per game.

On to the elephant in the room. In spite of their early success, most press space devoted to the Thrashers is centred on the contract status of franchise cornerstone and former #1 overall draft choice, Ilya Kovalchuk. Reports vary between an imminent signing with the Thrashers and talk of crazy money to return to Russia. Kovalchuk has averaged greater than a point-per-game since joining the NHL in immediately after being drafted with a high of 98 points (52 goals) in 2005-06. His current pace would match that career high if he does not miss any more games from here on out. I will not predict to know the mind of another man, but judging from his stated desire to play on a winning team, as well as enjoying playing for Atlanta makes me think that he’ll stick around.

Kovalchuk has been benefiting from playing with an imported first line, a union that is likely spurred to greater heights through the ease of communication between himself and fellow Russian Maxim Afinogenov playing the right wing, while Kazakhstan’s own Nik Antropov pivots them. Journeyman turned top-6 forward Rich Peverley has been producing at a pace (1 point-per-game) that overqualifies him for secondary scoring. Vyacheslav Kozlov continues to hold off the advances of time, while young phenom Evander Kane pushes his own clock forward with a solid rookie showing (13 points in 26 games with a +8 and relative +/- of 1.13). It is this author’s belief that retaining the services of Kovalchuk along with the continued emergence of Kane as a top line player might do wonders for the marketability of hockey in a city like Atlanta, combining both excitement and a sociological point of identification.

A somewhat promising point for analysis is the potential for the Thrashers offensive to improve from its current level of relative proficiency. Kovalchuk has missed 6 games so far, while Bryan Little, who broke out with 31 goals last year, has only 2 to this point. Little is still young enough – and talented enough – that we have good reason to believe that last year was not a fluke and finding his touch is only a matter of time, giving the Thrashers another potent scoring weapon.

Looking at their parts in isolation and in sum, I am ready to publicly declare my faith in their ability to finally make an encore trip to the NHL playoffs as long as two conditions are met. First, Kovalchuk should be signed. The sooner the better. Without a contract by the Olympic break would set a large cloud over the team, potentially forcing Waddell to consider trading the superstar for pennies on the dollar. Second, while injuries are an inevitable part of such a physical game like hockey, long-term hurts to any of Kovalchuk, Kubina, Bogosian, Enstrom, or Hainsey could derail any hope of sustained success this season. I think Kane is being handled judiciously enough that any hitting of the proverbial rookie wall should not be too prolonged, while Little will pick up his pace as the season moves forward.

People of Atlanta, it is time to jump on the Thrashers bandwagon.


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