A Long December for the Thrashers

At some point in the past few weeks, you've probably thought to yourself, "What the hell happened to the Thrashers?" After a solid open to the season, the Thrashers are falling and falling in the standings. Looking at the stats, it's hard to pick out any particular player who is doing poorly. We've still got a strong powerplay. We still score plenty of goals. Moose still is sitting on some career bests. What's the deal?

One of the most difficult jobs for stats guys is to separate data by time. Most of the tools that we use to try to explain data cover the entire year, but what happens when a team starts strong and then falls off? Our analytic tools aren't particularly good at isolating those stretches. It's a lot of manual work.

Despite that, I feel like it's important to really get the context of how badly the Thrashers have been this December. I thought, rather than show just the stats for December, let's assume that they've played all year like they have this month. Same offensive and defensive rates, same rates of goals and assists and plus-minus. What would the team look like?

That's the concept behind the rest of this post: what would I be writing if the Thrashers had played all year like they have in December? Please keep in mind that the operating assumption is that we've played 38 games this poorly, not 14, so I make some suggestions that I wouldn't currently make. It's all fiction. It starts after the jump.

Atlanta: Where Hope Comes to Die

 

[If you didn't read the paragraphs above the jump, you'll want to do that now.]

Last year's Atlanta Thrashers, where did you go? The team that showed so much promise last year has apparently crawled beneath the porch to die alone. Our high-octane (giggle) offense has managed just 2.62 goals/game this season, 21st in the NHL... just ahead of Minnesota. And it's not like we can actually play defense: not a single Top-6 forward or Top-4 defenseman is a plus-player this year. Sure, Pavel Kubina is even... and Chris Thorburn (+5) has played a few shifts with Ilya Kovalchuk, but that hardly counts. And the penalty kill that the coaches spent all summer trying to improve by watching video of other teams? Ha! Operating right at 70% for dead-last in the league. Apparently they only watched video of the Toronto Maple Leafs... and can't execute as well.

Sure, it hasn't helped that the Thrashers have been without Kari Lehtonen. Johan Hedberg's 8-11-3 record is pretty par-for-the-course, but only God knows why Ondrej Pavelec is still getting starts with a 3-13 mark. I don't care if his agent throws another hissy fit, it's time to send the kid back to Chicago. I'm not sure if Drew MacIntyre deserves to be put in this situation, but somethings got to change. (Anybody else wonder if Manny Legace might have been an improvement?) I haven't given up on Ondrej by a long shot, but when you're giving up 3, 4, and 5 goals every game, it's time for a change.

The good news is that Kari is skating again and (gingerly) taking shots. While the playoffs are looking out-of-reach for the - gulp - 11-24-3 Thrashers, perhaps we can at least end positively and start next year on a good note. (Isn't that what we said last year?)

Admittedly, if we win against Boston, we can skyrocket up to 29th place! Carolina Hurricanes, here we come! Since the Thrashers have more wins than the 'Canes, we'd be ahead of them, despite having the same number of points. Woohoo tie-breakers!

So where did we - or rather, where did Don Waddell - go wrong? Let's break it down:

Forwards: Well Nik Antropov sure can score! His 22 goals lead the team and put him near the top of the NHL. The knock against Nik has always been that he doesn't shoot enough, but that sure hasn't been a problem this year. He drives hard to the net, knocks in rebounds, everything we need. In fact, it almost seems like Ilya Kovalchuk would be scoring more if not for Nik. That said, Ilya's 18 goals are not exactly a small total. While he's not having a career year like Nik, he could very well hit 40 this season. He'll probably have even more next season with his new team... whoever they are...

There's a few other guys who are playing decently: Colby Armstrong (11) and Slava Kozlov (11) are both looking at 20-goal seasons. Better yet, Army has the team's best plus-minus at +13, one of our only forwards in the positive column. Slava's -22? Not so hot. Marty Reasoner has shown a good scoring touch as well: 8 goals for a mostly 4th-line center is impressive. Chris Thorburn has been a bright spot on our woeful penalty kill and is sitting at +5.

The good news stops there. Maxim Afinogenov's 5 goals and 16 assists aren't worth his -27. He's seeming like less of a bargain and more of an albatross every game. Bryan Little and Rich Peverley have both disappeared - 13 and 19 points, respectively - and are sitting at -19. Perhaps we shouldn't be playing them together? The line of Kozlov-Peverley-Little is a combined -60, almost a third of the team's Total Plus-Minus. That's simply not acceptable.

And while the Kane-White-Armstrong line has been playing pretty well defensively (at a combined plus-minus of +2), I can't help but feel like Evander Kane could use some more time in the WHL. 3 goals and 3 assists? Those look like a defenseman's numbers.

Speaking of defensemen...

Defensemen: Thank God for Pavel Kubina. His even-rating and 24 points (3 goals 21 assists) with Toby Enstrom are a real bright spot on this team. Toby's racking up the points on the power play as well with 30 on the season (though he's a -8). Those guys have played decently.

Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey haven't. What is going on here? They are -19 and -18, respectively. Zach has no goals and just 8 assists on the year: that's as many points as Christoph Schubert has with practically half the ice time. These guys can't seem to get their heads in the game. I'm clueless as to why John Anderson insists on playing them together, especially given how well Boris Valabik and Schubert have been this year.

At the beginning of the season, the writers here at BWA made some predictions about where the Thrashers might end up. None of us, not a single one, would have even considered the possibility that the Thrashers would be sitting in last place in the NHL halfway through the season. We're absolutely shocked... but maybe we shouldn't be. Pre-season predictions were constantly putting Atlanta in the bottom 5, usually in 27th place or so. Did we miss something?

As bloggers, we try to be constructive, but not too harsh. We are fans of the team and want that to come through in our writing without sounding like homers. Sometimes we can strike the correct balance, but we really, really missed something this year. Wow, did we miss something.

What's left to do? Clearly this season is a wash - at 13 games below 0.500, even a second-half miracle would leave us outside looking in on the playoffs. We'd have to get up to about 10 games above 0.500, and I don't think any of us would be willing to predict a 33-10-1 finish to the season. If you're that gullible, I've got the details for Kovy's new contract with Atlanta I'd be willing to sell you... Is there anything positive that can come from this season?

The good news is that we'll likely get another high, high draft pick. This year's draft class is looking pretty strong. That pick, coupled with the return we'll get on Kovalchuk, should help us to continue to drive our youth movement. A few more years down the road, this could be a very strong team. The biggest concern, of course, is whether or not there will be any fans left. The imminent departure of Kovy combined with a couple more seasons at the bottom of the barrel will leave slim pickings for Thrashers fans. There's not much hope left in Blueland.

The Thrashers have become a lot like my fantasy football team: lots to be excited about, but then bitter disappointment. Year after year after year. But hey, (yet again,) there's always next year!

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