As we have opined here many times, the Thrashers have never been remotely close to being an NHL defensive powerhouse. More times than not over the course of the past decade, their play at the blueline looks more like a turnstile allowing opponents free access to the defensive zone than a tollbooth that requires stiff payment to pass through it. And once they’ve entered the D-zone, opposing forwards have spent so much time there that they’ve been able to file for Homestead exemption.
Indeed, this has been a team built more upon the philosophy of outscoring other teams in order to win instead of keeping the puck out of their own net. The Thrashers brain trust…as admitted by then-GM Don Waddell last winter… have looked to construct this franchise around an Ilya Kovalchuk-type scorer and not around the concept of team play, whether it be inside the defensive zone or out.
This strategy has led to exactly one playoff appearance and just as many postseason victories as I have trips made to the moon…zero.
It is also the main aspect of this team that I hope the new coaching staff will put their focus and attention to changing. A new focus on team defense has to be job-one for any new coach whomever that may be.
In summers past, many people…myself included…have looked for an almost complete overhaul of the blueline. The thinking being, “Surely any group of veterans and young up-and-comers could do no worse than what we’ve become accustomed to in these parts”. But this year, well… not so much. In fact, I’m not at all opposed to seeing the vast majority of them back in Thrasherville this coming fall.
And that is something I thought I’d never be able to opine here.
If you take a look at the raw numbers… Atlanta allowed 33.1 shots on goal per game last season, which was 27th in the league and up 0.4 SG/G from the previous season. However, the 3.05 goals against average was down from the 3.40 GA/G of 2008-09. In fact, only twice before have the Thrashers allowed fewer goals…2.96 in the season prior to the lockout and 2.94 in 2006-07, the year they actually qualified for the playoffs.
One reason for last season’s GA/G improvement was certainly the play in goal… primarily Johan Hedberg. But it also can be credited to just where those shots were coming from. Unlike previous seasons, fewer shots were fired from close range.
Another huge factor has to do with the improved play from the penalty kill unit. Last year they were successful 82.2% of the time, (16th in the NHL), when playing a man down. This was significantly better than the previous four seasons…76.0%, (29th) in 2008-09, 78.8%, (27th) in 2007-08, 79.8%, (26th) in 2006-07 and 72.2%, (T-25th) in the first year following the lockout.
For this, many thanks can be given to Mr. Kane, Mr. Reasoner, Mr. Kubina and Mr. Slater, (who the team announced today has been re-signed).
But moreover, I don’t think that last year’s defensive unit was given much of a chance to succeed simply given the style of play employed by the coaching staff. John Anderson’s system relied heavily on a fast-paced offensive scheme…even more so than normal around here. Many times defensemen were left to handle things on their own as back checking was not a practice high on the priority scale it seemed.
In short, I’d like to see what this D-unit could do if given the right circumstances…the right playing scheme and coaching strategy.
The Thrashers already have under contract the bulk of last season’s blueline…Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian, Toby Enstrom, Boris Valabik and Johnny Oduya. Those five along with someone like Arturs Kulda could conceivable make up your three defensive pairings if need be. However, re-signing Pavel Kubina would be a huge plus for this organization, (DUH5).
If so, the he along with Enstrom, Oduya and Hainsey could take the top-four, leaving Bogey to pair up with Kulda on the third line with Valabik rounding out the seven-man unit.
Think about that for a moment…how far has this team come if players like Bogosian, Valabik and Kulda needed to be “relegated” to the third line rotation?
I would also have no issue whatsoever with returning either Christoph Schubert or Mark Popovic. Were it left up to me, it would be Schubie…I just like having that physical presence in front of our net and that cannon of a shot he has.
That would free up Valabik for trade, possibly helping to bring in players up front. This summer the Thrashers will look to replace the likes of Colby Armstrong, Slava Kozlov, and possibly Evgeni Artyukhin and/or Eric Boulton. Of course if I had my way, Todd White would need replacing as well as I’d like to see him rotated into the contract buy-out column when Alexei Zhitnik rotates out on July 1.
Wow…I just suggested sacrificing a Thrashers defender to help bolster the offense. I think I need to go lay down.