Somewhere over the course of the last year or so, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell seems to have bought into the theory that bigger is better when it comes to an NHL team’s defensive corps. Since opening night last fall, the D-line has indeed seen considerable growth in its physical size and weight. When the Thrashers handed the Capitals a 7-4 defeat to open last year’s campaign, the six defenders wearing blue that night were Nic Havelid, Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian, Garnet Exelby, Tobias Enstrom and Mathieu Schneider. Two of those players were under six-feet tall…Enstrom, (5′-10″) and Schneider, (5′-11″)… and that unit averaged 6′-0 1/2″ and 199.17 pounds. The man in the press box that night, Nathan Oystrick, goes at 6′-0″ and 210 pounds.
Even though we celebrated John Anderson’s first ever NHL victory that evening, the defense surrendered 4 goals and 43 shots. That’s right…forty-frickin’-three.
By the time early January rolled around, Atlanta’s defense was allowing teams an average of 32.6 shots on goal and 3.65 goals per game. One of the main problems was that the lack of size on the blueline was allowing opposing team’s players to camp out in front of the net and many close-range shots were being taken.
It also didn’t help matters that the 6′-2″, 200 pound Zach Bogosian was out for most of that time with a leg injury. However, when Zach went down, the 6′-7″, 240 pound Boris Valabik was called upon to fill the void and, depending on whether he or Oystrick was playing, the average size of the blueline grew about an inch…to about six-one.
As the trade deadline came and went, gone where the 5′-11″, 195 pound Schneider and the 6′-0″, 200 Nic Havelid. The defensive corps got younger…and it got bigger as well. When the Thrashers walloped the Lightning 6-2 in the season finale last April, the starting defenders in that game…Hainsey, Bogosian, Exelby, Enstrom, Oystrick and Valabik…averaged 6′-1.83″ and 208.33 pounds.
Those primary players, sprinkled in with nine games by the 6′-1″ Anssi Salmela, helped the Thrashers defense play much more respectably in the closing months of the year. The team that was allowing 3.65 goals per game was now only surrendering about 3.15…and finish the year with an overall total GA/G of 3.40. Also, the team penalty kill went from a putrid 73.9% effective at the mid-point of the season to 76.0%…still not great, but better.
Although the average shots-per-game stat really did not shrink, (32.7 SA/G season overall), to me it appeared that less of the time Kari and Moose were facing shots from point-blank range.
While its true, “team” defense includes the input from the forwards, I have always contended that good defense begins with good defenders. And as the defense got bigger, it seemed to get better.
Now, after the Exelby for Kubina deal this summer, the Thrashers blueline…much like what Johnny said of Leon…. is getting lar-r-r-r-ger!
As such, if you consider an opening day lineup that could include Hainsey, Bogosian, Enstrom, Kubina, Valabik and Salmela, you would see a defensive lineup that had only one player, Enstrom, under 6-feet tall and averages 6′-2 1/2″ and 211.67 pounds.
That’s an overall average gain of two inches and almost twelve pounds since last season’s opener.
Hopefully, the “bigger defenders = better defense” trend will continue.