Chris Thorburn And the Myth of the "Best 4th Line in Hockey"


The Atlanta Thrashers announced today that re-signed UFA checking winger Chris Thorburn to a two year extension worth slightly more than the NHL minimum.  My question is why? I hate to be "Debbie Downer" here, but I think this was a missed opportunity by the organization. Yes, Thorburn is a) inexpensive b) works hard c) good in the locker room d) is good with the kids, etc. But what about the PK unit? Thorburn is not a PK guy and when your PK is as dreadful as the Thrashers was last two seasons it is like trying to swim to the surface with a lead weight jacket. The Thrashers only had three open roster spots--and by re-signing a guy (Thorburn) who is a non-PK checker they just lowered the ceiling on improving in that key area.

Another beef I have is with all this talk by people around the Thrashers about the team "having the best 4th line in the NHL"--personally I find this absurd. The Thrashers finished 27th overall--with a roster that weak shouldn't a great 4th line be blindingly obvious?

What should a team look for in their 4th line? Three guys who play in the opponent's end and take time off the clock when playing against more skilled players. Players who can hit and change the tempo of the game. Players who are great defensively and can help kill penalties. Players who can come hold their own in goal differential and come off the ice even. Let's take a cold hard look at the "Greek Gods" line or the "Best 4th Line in Hockey!!!" stack up.

Table 1 shows that the Thrashers coaching staff protected the 4th line all last year. The Greek God line didn't go out and shut down the opposition's top scoring lines. Instead, they faced the weakest possible opposition--mostly the other teams 3rd and 4th lines. In fact it was Colin Stuart, Eric Perrin and Colby Armstrong who bore the brunt of the "tough" minutes last season. (Did I mention that Colby Armstrong is the Thrashers "secret MVP"? A forthcoming post.)

Line Player Quality of Opposition at ES
4th Thorburn 0.98
4th Slater 0.92
4th Boulton 0.90
3rd Reasoner 1.04
3rd C. Stuart 1.07
3rd Perrin 1.06
2nd Armstrong 1.06
2nd Peverley 1.05
2nd Kozlov 1.02
1st Kovalchuk 1.04
1st White 1.02
1st Little 1.01

 

(More after the jump)

Did the Bouton-Slater-Thorburn line play in the opposition team's end when they were out on the ice at ES? Did they impose their will and exert pressure on the other team? The best measure of "pressure" is shots attempted (Shots that hit the net or goalie+Shots wide+Shots blocked)---aka called Corsi Numbers after former Sabres Assistant Coach Jim Corsi. Table 2 below shows that the Thrashers 4th line was pretty much man handled while playing against softer opponents. Ugh. Notice which player has the highest offensive Team Shots Attempted (hint: it is not Ilya Kovalchuk) and that only one player had a positive net Team Shots Attempted number?

Line Player Shots For Attempted per 60 Minutes (SOG+Missed SOG+Blocked SOG) Shot Attempts Against Per 60 Minutes (SOG+Missed SOG+Blocked SOG) Corsi Number Per 60 Minutes
4th Thorburn 48.0 56.6 -8.6
4th Slater 48.6 54.7 -6.1
4th Bouton 43.2 57.1 -13.9
3rd Reasoner 46.9 53.1 -6.2
3rd C. Stuart 45.2 53.2 -8.0
3rd Perrin 46.9 53.0 -6.1
2nd Armstrong 50.8 50.5 +0.6
2nd Peverley 49.6 54.7 -5.1
2nd Kozlov 47.3 50.8 -3.5
1st Kovalchuk 48.5 53.6 -5.1
1st White 49.6 49.7 -4.7
1st Little 45.3 50.3 -5.0

 

Winning hockey begins and ends with one stat: Goal Differential. It is pretty obvious really, you have to win the scoreboard battle to climb up the standings. Team Goal Differential predicts NHL Standings with a 93% degree accuracy--no other stat comes remotely close to it.

At Even Strength you need your lines to win the Goal Differential battle over the course of the season. Atlanta's biggest weakness last season was the PK, but they also got outshot and outscored at ES. Which lines did best and which lines did wost?

Table 3 below shows who is helping and hurting the Atlanta Thrashers at ES last season. In general the 4th line members did OK, but Chris Thorburn had the worst Goal Differential of any regular still with the team at the end of the year at -10.(Slava Kozlov was 2nd worst, but he more than made up for his ES -6 with awesome PP play and his money shooting in the Shootout.) A rough rule of thumb is that a swing of 5 in the Goal Differential equals one win. Thorburn's -10 means he cost the Thrashers approximately 2 wins over the course of the season. That's not the guy you want to extend for 2 years with other UFA options available.

When Throburn was on the ice he sucked the life out of the offense (1.71 GFA) and had a lousy personal GAA (2.49). A roster filled with nothing but cloned Chris Thorburns would have been outscored 140 to 204 at ES and finished with approximately 54 standing points (yikes!). In contrast a team composed of cloned Jim Slaters would have finished with roughly 81 points. I'm not a Jim Slater fan, but Team Slater is a lot closer to the playoffs than Team Thorburn.

Line Player ES Goals For ES ES Goals Against ES Goal Diff xx ES GF per 60 minutes ES GA per 60 minutes Team Goal Differential per 60 Minutes
4th Thorburn 22 32 -10 1.71 2.49 -0.78
4th Slater 19 20 -1 2.24 2.36 -0.12
4th Bouton 18 22 -4 1.90 2.32 -0.42
3rd Reasoner 33 28 +5 2.17 1.84 +0.33
3rd C. Stuart 10 11 -1 1.92 2.11 -0.19
3rd Perrin 27 35 -8 2.08 2.69 -0.62
2nd Armstrong 48 39 +9 2.84 2.31 +0.53
2nd Peverley 45 36 +9 3.49 2.79 +0.70
2nd Kozlov 44 50 -6 2.70 3.07 -0.37
1st Kovalchuk 68 71 -3 3.47 3.63 -0.15
1st White 57 62 -5 3.37 3.66 -0.30
1st Little 55 56 -1 3.43 3.49 -0.06

 

Random Note: Notice in Table 3 above that Kovalchuk is way ahead of any other player in both ES Goals Scored but also ES Goals Against. Kovy's defense got better in the 2nd half. If he could cut back that ES Goals Allowed to say the level of Todd White's 62 and still produce 68 Goals for that would add two additional wins to the Thrashers season total. You can do it Captain!

Fixing the Penalty Kill

Last year's Thrashers had a lot of problems but the biggest source of grief was the Penalty Kill. The PK ripped a whole in the Thrashers Goal Differential like that iceberg that struck the Titanic. The truth of the matters is that the Thrashes were merely "bad" at Even Strength (-13 GD). That  Goal Differential is about what the Edmonton Oilers had last season and they hung around the playoffs for most of the season before being eliminated. In contrast the special teams tacked on another -16 because of the astonishingly brutal PK unit. That extra -16 in Goal Differential is what pushed the Thrashers from merely "bad" to "terrible" in the standings.

Goal Differential by Situation
Goals For Goals Against
Even Strength 168 181 -13
Power Play 69 10 +59
Short Handed 13 88 -75

 

At the beginning of the season Anderson expressed a preference for having the checking lines flesh out the PK unit. The NHL season is very long and taxing and such a division of labor would be ideal--it would probably keep the skill players fresh. But the brutal PK forced Coach Anderson to insert Todd White into the mix and he tried a number of different solutions. At some point you have to ask was the source of the problem was team strategy or team personnel?

Let's look at the SH Player Goals Against Average on the PK over the last two seasons. In 2008 the Thrashers PK unit finished 27th and allowed 75 PPGA. In 2009 the PK finished 29th and allowed 88 PPGA. Some observations gathered from Table 4.

  • Oh, how I miss Marian Hossa and his complete two way game, top scorer and best PKer.
  • Todd White had the best non-Hossa PK Goals Against Average (GAA) across both seasons and deserves more Short Handed minutes. Even if a tired Todd White scores few points, cutting down on the PKGA is crucial.
  • Jim Slater had the worst PK GAA across both season and deserves a seat on the bench when ATL is short handed--assuming the Thrashers want to win games.
  • Inconsistent players who were better one season but worse the next: Exelby, Enstrom, Havelid, Perrin.
  • Colby Armstrong is an amazing player who does great things for the Thrashers at ES, but for whatever reason he's not a good PK guy here or in Pittsburgh.
  • Is Bogosian ready to play 25-28 minutes a game? Because there is a PK unit in his neighborhood that needs him badly.
2008 SH Rank 2008 Player 2008 SH TOI per Game 2008 SH GAA x 2009 SH Rank 2009 Player 2009 SH TOI per Game 2009 SH GAA
1 Hossa 2.59 5.09 1 T. White 0.69 5.27
2 T. White 2.46 6.27 2 Bogosian 1.39 5.50
3 Enstrom 3.00 6.6 3 Schneider 1.01 6.20
4 Exelby 2.68 6.81 4 Valabik 2.03 6.51
5 Havelid 3.48 7.03 5 Hainsey 2.74 7.03
6 Perrin 2.70 7.13 6 Oystrick 0.88 7.73
7 Klee 2.53 7.25 7 Peverley 1.37 7.95
8 Dupuis 2.59 7.44 8 C. Stuart 2.71 8.04
9 Holik 1.25 7.63 9 Reasoner 3.44 8.39
10 McCarthy 0.82 8.03 10 Perrin 3.27 8.46
11 Slater 1.20 10.83 11 Slater 2.60 8.84
12 Zhitnik 1.17 11.00 12 Enstrom 3.27 9.19
13 Kwiatkowski 0.51 13.09 13 Havelid 3.10 10.60
14 Larsen 0.42 20.64 14 Armstrong 0.83 11.41
15 Exelby 2.22 11.93

 

How about next season? Well of the guys with the worst PK GAA, Exelby and Havelid have departed and Armstrong doesn't play much while SH anyway--so that's addition by subtraction. On the flip side Schneider and Oystrick posted some decent PK numbers and they are gone too. How about the new guys? Well the Toronto Maple Leafs PK was actually worse than Atlanta's --that's the bad news. The good news is that Antropov was one of their better SH guys (his PK GAA would rank in between Valabik and Schneider) and Kubina's number tied him with Perrin at 11th (not so encouraging).

One more silver lining: the Thrashers are MUCH bigger now and should be able to fill more passing lanes when down by a man. Antropov and Kubina are both big. Valabik should see more time with Exelby gone and he's huge. Notice that the three bottom D on the PK last year Enstrom is tiny (and his great skating is negated by stationary PK) and Havelid and Exelby are merely average height by NHL standards.

Conclusion

Chris Thorburn is a great human being and works very hard at his job. Unfortunately for the Atlanta Thrashers he is not necessarily great at his job despite all that hard work. Perhaps more importantly he can not help them solve their most pressing dilemma the Penalty Kill. In light of these facts, the two year extension signed today seems like a sub-optimal choice given the alternatives available to the Thrashers organization. I'm rather pleased with the Kubina and Antropov additions, but if the Thrashers miss the playoff by 2 points, this particular decision could look very bad next spring.

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