After an offseason that saw the hiring of a new general manager and a new coach, a churning of half the roster and the adoption of an ownership budget that screams, “Will kill penalties for food,” the Thrashers opened their 11th season in unique fashion: Their goalie fainted two and a half minutes into the season.
Craig Ramsay thought he had prepared for every conceivable scenario in his debut as coach. That one he never addressed.
“Forty years in this business, I ain’t never seen that,” he said. “It wasn’t on my list.”
We should note that it’s not that unusual for a Thrashers’ goalie to pass out. It just doesn’t usually happen until at least December. But this time the Thrashers strayed from the norm. They didn’t follow with their own collapse.
It’s only five games into the NHL season, well short of a scientific sampling. But the Thrashers are becoming an interesting little story.
That game when goalie Ondrej Pavelec collapsed? Ramsay rallied the team and the Thrashers won 4-2 over Washington, one of the league’s top teams. Playing with No. 2 goalie Chris Mason, they have won three of their first five games (four coming on the road). Their last two wins came at Anaheim and San Jose (where they had never won before).
They’ve had eight different goal scorers. Their leading goal scorer is a guy named Anthony Stewart. It took him 105 games to score his first four NHL goals. It took him five games this year to score his next four.
Ramsay’s philosophy is simple: Get the puck out of your own end quickly and then attack — with all five skaters. It’s like the Detroit Red Wings, only without the Detroit Red Wings.
The strategy has its occasional perils, but also an obvious upside. The Thrashers have trailed in all five games but rallied from two goals down in the last two to win.
“The way we’re playing now is the way we’re going to play all season,” Ramsay said. “Hopefully we won’t fall behind all the time. But when the puck drops, I want everybody going forward, five guys attacking. Everybody is required to participate offensively.”
He sounds like a little league coach. Everybody plays. Have fun. Don’t worry about mistakes. Later, we’ll do pizza.
Is there a hockey version of running a down-and-out to the Chevy and drawing up plays in the dirt? Because that’s almost what Ramsay is like.
“One thing I hate about kids sports is coaches decide at eight years old whether somebody can play or not,” he said. “I wasn’t that kid. I didn’t play on a team until I was 10. [General manager] Rick Dudley wasn’t that player, and he had a very good NHL career. I was known as a checker but I scored 20 goals a year. If you dress here, you’re going to play and you’re going to try to score. It’s not about accepting a role.”
Yes, there is a structure. Players talk about how detail oriented Ramsay can be in certain systems. There’s a lot of teaching and video study. But the overall philosophy is simple: You go that way.
Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey came here as a free agent in 2008. He said this is the best the team has played five-on-five since his arrival. “We’re spending a lot less time in our end, and that means there’s less of a chance for something to go wrong,” he said.
And then this: “The week was much improved after the first two and a half minutes.”
Forward Rich Peverley said, “We’re going to be a hard team to play against. That’s going to be our identity.”
That would be a new one.
In a short amount of time — NHL training camps have shrunk to three weeks — Ramsay has managed to get a lot of new players to believe in his system and follow him. He’ll need that all season because there’s little margin for error. The Thrashers’ payroll, courtesy of your nickel-squeezing Atlanta Spirit, is second-lowest in the league at $42.5 million — nearly $16.9 million under the cap.
Ramsay isn’t concerned. He believed the Thrashers could make the playoffs “before even I knew who the players were.” It helps to be confident. So far so good. And nobody has fainted in several days.
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