There's panic in the streets. There may also be panic in the locker room or perhaps in the executive suites, but should there be panic? Has the team sustained a key injury to an irreplaceable player? No. Has the team seen a dramatic change in the roster? No. Is this the same group of players who played well in October and November? Yes.
Let's put the current drought into a bigger context and see what jumps out of the data. I spent time this week compiling a game log of all 130+ games that Coach John Anderson has coached the Atlanta Thrashers. Let's begin with the basics. Below I have compiled a month-by-month summary of the Thrashers Offense, Defense, Goal Differential, Point Winning Percentage and Point Pace.
During the current slump the Thrashers offense has been the weakest we have see under Coach Anderson (except for his first month as coach in October of 2008). The Thrashers have also had their worst two defensive months under Anderson during this slump (that Jan GAA was 3.75 before the Capitals put a snowman on Atlanta). The Goal Differential was positive from March through November of 2009.
Goal Differential is the key stat here because goal differential predicts standing points with 90%+ accuracy. If your team finishes with a positive number in Goal Differential, you'll probably make the playoffs. In the 2008 portion of Coach Anderson's tenure, the Thrashers were outscored by 0.67 margin per game (2.87 GFA -3.54 GAA) and were on pace for just 63 points and a lottery pick in the NHL Draft. In calendar 2009 (spring and fall of 2009) the Thrashers played like a playoff team, outscoring the opposition by an average of 3.16 to 2.96. In Calendar 2010 the team has been outscored by over 2 goals per game (2.40 GFA - 4.60 GAA) and is on pace to win just 66 points--which is a lottery team pace.
Now what has happened here? Is this a lottery team or a playoff team? The Thrashers played playoff level hockey for most of Calendar 2009 and now the team performance has fallen off badly.
I think it might be valuable to review why the Thrashers started playing better back in January of 2009. There was a roster change as Jason Williams was deleted and Rich Peverley added. Ilya Kovalchuk was named Captain and began playing some of his best hockey. Kari Lehtonen returned from injury and posted a terrific SV% until he was injured again. Zach Bogosian returned from his injury and became a top 4 stalwart. Veterans who didn't always execute Anderson's system were subtracted (Havelid, Schneider, Christensen, Williams). And Colin Stuart helped perk up the PK after Christensen was traded.
To summarize the previous paragraph the Thrashers turned around their team performance because of some significant roster changes or major shifts in playing time(Peverley, Stuart, Lehtonen and Bogosian) and because increased team cohesion on the ice and in the locker room.
Now if we think about the current Thrashers roster, rather than ask WHAT has changed, we might ask WHO has changed--and the answer is "nobody"--this is the same group that played well for the past few months. Other than Antropov being hurt, this is the same lineup that played competitive hockey in 2009. The roster is not riddled with injuries. The team didn't make any significant trades or call ups. The same ingredients are present. The pieces that are needed for winning hockey are still around.
I think some of this panic is an over-reaction because the foundation for a competitive hockey team is still in place. If Kovalchuk is retained and they stay healthy at key positions, I still think they can make the playoffs. They were hot and now they're cold, this too shall pass. (More on the hot and cold in my next post!)