When NHL Training Camp opened in September, the Thrashers had the best collection of defensemen in their short team history. The top four of Enstrom, Bogosian, Kubina and Hainsey had secure jobs, but the bottom three spots were wide open. Contenders included players from last season such as Boris Valabik, Anssi Salmela and Nathan Oystrick and tryout Mark Popovic. Popovic ended up winning the last roster spot over Oystrick (who was put on waivers and then the AHL).
Then on October 2nd the Atlanta Thrashers put in a waiver claim on Christoph Schubert a big German born player who was originally a defenseman. The Ottawa Senators had chosen to employ him as a 4th line checker instead of defense. Not long after Schubert was acquired Boris Valabik had an injury that made him unavailable for an extended period of time.
For most of this season the Thrashers coaching staff has had three options to fill those last two defenseman spots on any given night: Schubert, Salmela and Popovic. For the first few games they appear to have rotated the 2 starting assignment between the three candidates, but after the 4th game of the season Schubert has dressed for every subsequent contest. On the season Schubert has dressed 23 times, Popovic 16 and Salmela 14 (and Valabik 0 so far).
Below is chart of showing which games each defenseman has played and how much total ice time they received so far this year. Schubert is averaging over 16 minutes a game will Salmela and Popovic are about 13 and a half minutes per game.
Another way of looking at how the coaching staff uses a player is to look at their Quality of Opposition and Quality of Teammates calculated by Gabe Desjarins at www.behindthenet.ca. (If an opposing player's team tends to out-score the opposition at Even Strength than the opponent has a positive rating, if the opposing player's team tends to be on the losing end while at Even Strength, then the opponent has a negative number.)
If we look at the 3rd pairing defensemen we can see that both Salmela and Schubert face slighly weaker opponents while Popovic has faced MUCH weaker opposition. On the other hand, all three have skated at Even Strength behind the weaker Thrashers forwards with Schubert and Popvic just about the same and Salmela skating with much worse teammates.
Which defenseman has been most effective at Even Strength? One way to answer that question is to simply look at Goal Differential--is the team winning the scoring battle at Even Strength when this defenseman is on the ice? The Thrashers offense shows little variation--the team scores about the same regardless of which defenseman is on the ice at ES, but the defense shows major swings. When Popovic has been out on the ice (against weaker opponents) Atlanta has allowed an ugly GAA of 3.22 but when Salmela has been out there the Thrashers have posted an outstanding 1.95 GAA. In terms of their net goal differential Salmela has the best ratio of GFA-GAA by far with Schubert in the middle and Popovic far behind.
Another way to evaluate players is the using the Behind The Net On/Off Rating. This is a metric that is best used for comparing players who play on the same team and in the same games. A positive number in this rating system means that the Thrashers are doing better against the opposition when this player is on the ice at Even Strength than when this player is off the ice at Even Strength. The On/Off number have the same pattern as the Goal Differential numbers, they show Salmela as the most effective, Schubert in the middle and Popovic last at Even Strength
|Player||ES GFA||ES GAA||ES Goal Diff||On/Off Rating|
The Thrashers are loaded with offensive minded defenseman and none of the bottom pairing D receive any PP ice time. The opposite is true for the PK where Schubert averages 2:19 PK TOI per game, Popovic 1:45 per game and Salmela just 0:09. Using the PK GAA as a measures of effectiveness, Schubert has the wost PK GAA of any defenseman who kills penalties, Popovic is middle of the pack.
The stats show that Schubert has won the trust of the coaching staff, but Anssi Salmela has actually been more effective when he has played and probably deserves more opportunities. The one thing that isn't directly measured in any of these stats is physicality. Schubert is big and likes to hit--which is a dimension the Thrashers lack at times. I suspect that Schubert's checking is a key reason he has dressed most nights this season. How the coaching staff will fit Boris Valabik into this mix is an even bigger question, perhaps a trade will provide some clarity in the coming weeks.