Last season the Atlanta Thrashers allowed 279 Goals Against and finished 29th in Team Defense. The Thrashers Penalty Kill was equally bad allowing 88 goals against and a Penalty Kill percentage of 76% which was 29th in the NHL. Improving on the defensive side of the puck is the easiest way for the Thrashers to move up in the standings. Goal differential predicts the standings and therefore a goal prevented is as valuable as a goal scored.
Given that the Thrashers style of play under Coach John Anderson, it is unlikely they will ever rank as an elite defensive team. However, a strong offense combined with a merely average defense could be sufficient to get them into the post-season. The addition of Pavel Kubina should help the team begin the climb out of the basement.
Kubina is a good fit for John Anderson hockey. He has good skating, good passing and good shooting skills. He will replace Exelby on the team roster--a player lacking in all three areas, but outstanding at hitting. Exelby's struggles with making a good first pass, and his tendency to dump the puck to center ice have been documented in this space before so I'm not going to harp on it. Replacing Exelby with Kubina immediately increases the number of tape-to-tape outlet passes. With Kubina the Thrashers should clear their zone and keep possession of the puck more often allowing the speedy skill forwards to fly down the ice and play in the opponent's end more of the time.
Hockey is not so much a game of puck possession but rather of puck position--playing in the other team's end increases your odds of having a favorable bounce turn into a goal for you instead of a goal against you. If the Thrashers do a better job of clearing their zone while still retaining possession of the puck, it should help shift the balance of scoring chances.
Analysts who study "shot quality" (or more accurately "shot location") have shown that the Thrashers not only are out-shot season-after-season, but they also allow a disproportionate number of shots from high percentage areas such as the slot. If the Thrashers cut down on both the number and quality of shots in the coming season look for Kari Lehtonen's GAA and SV% to improve significantly.
Pavel Kubina Profile
In 2008 Kubina played a lot of tough minutes against quality opposition forwards. In 2009 with the emergence of Luke Schenn as a top defenseman, his "tough minutes" slipped back to the normal range for a NHL defenseman. In both 2008 and 2009 Kubina had a positive Corsi Number--meaning that when he was on the ice at even strength his team out shot the opposition--a very welcome sign for the perennially out-shot Atlanta Thrashers.
While Kubina did not always lead his team in SH Minutes, he was one of the more effective PKers for the Maple Leafs. Over at Behind The Net Gabriel Desjardins has a rating system that allows you to compare the team PP and PK performance when Kubina was either on or off the ice. In both 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Toronto PK performed better when Kubina was out there than when he was on the bench. The same is true for the PP which was more effective when he was on the ice. The stats clearly indicate that Kubina was a difference maker relative to other guys on his squad.
One more aspect that he brings to the table is a willingness to mix it up. Brian Burke may not have appreciated his toughness, but Kubina has finished with 90 or more penalty minutes six different season and will drop the gloves to stand up for a teammate. Kubina also brings some needed size to the blueline which will allow him to close off more of the passing lanes on the PK than the departed Exelby.
To get a sense of how Kubina has been used in his NHL career I have created a table showing his Time On Ice (TOI) percentile rankings. A high number means that you are at the very top of all NHL defenseman who play half a season's worth of games. Throughout his career Kubina has been a consistent 2nd pairing defensemen at Even Strength and also someone who consistently gets plenty of PP minutes. While he has seen regular PK duty he has usually ranked in the bottom half of NHL PK Defensemen (a bit of a concern).
In terms of his scoring efficiency, Kubina has consistently put up points both at ES and on the PP. He has ranked above average nearly every season and has sprinkled in a couple of elite level performances over the years both at ES and on the PP. These high ranking numbers are more evidence of his puck skills, shooting skills and hockey intelligence.
|Season||Age||ES TOI Rank||PP TOI Rank||SH TOI Rank||Total TOI Rank||ES Scoring Rate Rank||PP Scoring Rate Rank||Total Scoring Rate Rank|
Overall Pavel Kubina appears to be a very solid fit for the Thrashers and the style their coaching staff wants to play. However, there are some downsides to this trade. While Exelby was not a top 4 player on the ice, he was a locker room presence and will likely be missed by teammates. If I were to nitpick, I wish that Kubina was more of PK warrior with his previous team.
Another risk, is that he could depart next summer as a UFA. I am assuming team will try to re-sign him. However if a young D takes major step forward (Valabik, Salmela, Lewis, Kulda) perhaps they might want to open a spot fin the top four heading into 2010 season.
In a odd quirk, there are no Canadians on the projected opening night defense (2 Americans and 4 Europeans). Kubina (Czech Republic) is from the same region of Europe as Boris Valabik (Slovakia) and perhaps he could provide some mentoring as a NHL veteran to a young defensemen trying to find his way in the world's best hockey league. Kubina also brings some needed playoff experience to a very young defense. He won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa Bay.
In the past the Thrashers have invested their payroll and offense and tried to muddle through with band aids on the blueline. This season they have really committed big money to the defense and goaltending positions, roughly $20 million (Kubina $5.0; Hainsey $4.5, Enstrom $4.0, Lehtonen $4.0 * estimate Bogosian $1, Valabik $0.8 and Salmela $0.6). They have invested in the position of greatest need. if the young players continue to improve and the veterans perform as expected they have the potential of making significant reductions in the number of goals allowed next year.