The NHL season has kicked off and every team is working hard to win games. Now that the pre-season is finally over we can begin to look at how the Thrashers coaching staff is utilizing their roster. The team has a new GM and Head Coach this season which means that each player has to earn their playing time under the new regime.
The Thrashers roster has a large number of new faces--a fact that is under-discussed in the wake of the new GM and new coach. One third of the defense corps came from the Chicago Blackhawks (Sopel and Byfuglien). Among the forwards two are from Chicago (Ladd, Eager), one from Calgary (Dawes), one from Columbus (Modin) and one played in the OHL last year (Burmistrov) and another in the AHL (Stewart). Chris Mason is also new to the Thrashers. So in the opening night lineup 50% of the forwards are new, 33% of the defense and 50% of the goaltending. That's a lot of turnover!
A new head coach and some new players creates the potential for players to be used in new and unexpected ways. Let's take a look at the early trends.
So far Coach Ramsay has spread out the out the Event Strength Ice Time among the four lines. Players seeing the biggest increase are Stewart, Thorburn and Kane.
- +4:34 A. Stewart (compared to his last full NHL season in 2008-09)
- +2:57 C. Thorburn
- +1:27 E. Kane
Players seeing the biggest decrease in their ES Time On Ice are Bergfors (who had a lackluster camp in my view), Ladd, Antropov and Little. In the case of Ladd, all of his declines in EV TOI are offset by even bigger gains in his Power Play TOI.
- -3:20 Bergfors
- -2:20 Ladd
- -2:19 Antropov
- -2:11 Little
The Power Play in particular has seen some huge shifts in the allocation of ice time. Both Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd were used as 3rd line forwards (i.e. not much PP time) last year. This season both have seen major increases in man-advantage ice time.
- +3:20 Kane
- +3:06 Ladd
- +1:22 Peverley
- +1:18 Little
A few players have seen a drop in their PP ice time. Dawes and Modin were 2nd unit PP guys with their prior teams. Bergfors was given a lot of PP time after arriving in Atlanta and that has declined along with his ES ice time.
- -1:18 Dawes
- -1:08 Modin
- -1:08 Bergfors
The Penalty Kill is another area where there has been a major shift. One remarkable fact is that an 18 year old rookie (Burmistrov) is being used as a regular in the PK rotation. Bryan Little who has never been on the NHL PK unit is being used there this season. Anthony Stewart is also being given PK responsibilities. Each of these players may have been used as PKers in juniors or the minors, but they have little NHL experience in that role.
- +2:28 Burmistrov (compared to zero PK TOI last season)
- +2:01 Stweart
- +1:26 Ladd
- +1:20 Little
The one big surprise (to me at least) is that Rich Peverley has been removed from the PK rotation. He was used in that role with both Nashville and Atlanta in previous seasons. Evander Kane has also been removed as well.
- -2:08 Peverley
- -0:50 Kane
Let's put all these numbers together and see the biggest changes in total ice time for forwards. It is clear that Anthony Stewart is being given an opportunity to show the talent that caused Rick Dudley to draft him in the 1st round for the Florida Panthers. His last full NHL season (2008-09 with Florida) he was a 4th liner who averaged about 7 minutes a game, so far in Atlanta he has doubled that and played 14 minutes a game. Evander Kane is being treated like a 1st line forward this season. Ladd is taking on a bigger role in Atlanta than what he had in Chicago.
- +7:02 Stewart
- +3:59 Kane
- +3:02 Thorburn
- +2:13 Ladd
Who are the biggest losers in overall ice time? Antropov (who played big minutes along side Ilya Kovalchuk) and Bergfors who was given a big role post-trade but struggled in camp this fall.
While 50% of the forwards are new faces, just 33% of the defensemen are new, so we might expect fewer big shifts in player utilization by the coaching staff. Let's stroll through the numbers.
On the Power Play the Bogosian-Enstrom pairing is seeing a big increase so far. It is pretty amazing to see Enstrom's PP TOI rise because he already had a ton of PP minutes being paired with Kovalchuk on the points for most of last season. The big loser is Ron Hainsey who has had his PP TOI reduced.
- +3:02 Bogosian
- +1:34 Enstrom
- -0:50 Hainsey
The Thrashers have leaned heavily on Sopel who has averaged 4 minutes per game on the PK unit. Tobias Enstrom was basically removed from the PK last year and has been returned to the rotation this season. Byfuglien and Ron Hainsey are barely seeing any PK ice time in the first two games.
- +2:10 Enstrom
- +1:45 Sopel
- -3:10 Hainsey
In terms of overall ice time, the numbers below are not a typo, Ron Hainsey is playing 10 fewer minutes per game than he did last season. It is clear that Ron Hainsey's struggles in several pre-season games have hurt him. The coaching staff has not given him nearly as much ice time as he used to receive. I suspect that he will get some of that back as he earns their confidence. As a rule, defensemen receive more ice time than forwards, so that helps to explain some of Byfuglien's increase as he shifts from F to D this season. The duo of Enstrom and Bogosian has been the top minute pairing and the coaching staff has given them a lot of responsibility on the blueline.
- +4:25 Byfuglien
- +3:44 Bogosian
- +3:02 Enstrom
- -9:47 Hainsey
One thing that is clear to me is that the coaching staff really watched carefully during training camp. Players who performed (Thorburn, Burmistrov, Stewart) are being given more opportunities. While players who struggled (Hainsey, Bergfors) will have to prove themselves before they earn a larger role. We hear a lot of talk about holding players responsible and so far it seems that this staff is serious about that. In the long run the Thrashers need to get contributions from Bergfors and Hainsey to have a successful season.