He Says, He Says: A Look at the Kozlov Controversy

By now, most Thrashers fans have seen both the comments made by Vyacheslav Kozlov about Coach John Anderson and Anderson's response. Nearly everybody has made up their mind one way or another, so it almost seems unnecessary to discuss the situation any further.

It is what it is.

However, it is also the off-season for the Thrashers, so there's not a whole lot of game news (nor player movement) to report. That means we have some time to discuss the Kozlov situation.

Here at Bird Watchers Anonymous, we try to bring a good mix of news, commentary, analysis, and opinion. This post will be no different: I'll do my best to present what Kozlov said, how Anderson responded, and offer a bit of fact-checking and opinion to the mix. We'll do that after the jump.

On Missing the Playoffs

Kozlov: "To me, this was the best team in 11 years of the organization. This franchise had the best players. Right now, they can not blame [Ilya] Kovalchuk or [Slava] Kozlov. They have to take responsibility, because I think ownership did everything right, signed good players, they have a good goalie, good defense — but something is missing. I think we are missing from the coaching staff."

Anderson: "One thing I understand about professional sports, is that ultimately if the team doesn’t do well the coach accepts all the responsibility. And I do rightfully so, no problem. When the team wins, the coach gives the players [the credit]. That’s how it is. … I understand the reality of it. We didn’t make the playoffs. I accept responsibility for that. Whatever happens, happens."

I'm not sure that Kozlov is 100% correct in saying that this team is the best we've had. The team that made the playoffs was, on paper and on the ice, a better team. Not all that much better, but they'd have won a Series of Seven. Still, we all have to believe that this team did not live up to our expectations. Is that the fault of the coach or the players?

Both sides will have to share some responsibility. Kozlov played in 55 games this season averaging over 15 minutes per game yet had only 8 goals, 3 on the power play. He's always been a streaky player, but this season was terrible: his first goal came in Game 17, and the other seven came in a stretch of 18 games which included a 5-game drought. After the 8th goal, he didn't score for 16 games again and was scratched. In the 5 games through the remainder of the season, he did not score.

"But Tim!," you say, "Nik Antropov didn't score any goals for around the same length to begin the season and you wrote a post about how he's the best Thrashers' forward!"

Sure. But Nik was picking up an assist pretty much every game. Slava had assists in just 5 of the first 16 goalless games and 7 of the back 21. That's nothing to write home about for a guy getting 2nd line minutes.

Still, Coach is right: the fault ends up on his shoulders. Slava Kozlov is just one player on a team, and it's the performance of the team that matters.

On Preparing For Games and Work Ethic

Kozlov: "Looks like they have fun, but unfortunately in the NHL you have to work. You have to prepare for every game. There are lots of good teams in the NHL and you think if you are a good team if you see the roster. That doesn’t work in this league. You have to do homework and work hard. I think I can put a big question mark that they weren’t preparing."

Kozlov: "This system, for two years they tell us it’s going to work but unfortunately everybody knows what we are going to do. Our breakouts, we make two, three passes in our zone and we don’t beat anybody. I saw that in the New Jersey game. New Jersey just waited in the neutral zone and we make two or three passes and make one mistake in neutral zone and boom, they counter attack us."

Anderson: "He talked about what works in the minors. Well, guess who I coached against? [Mike] Babcock. [Dave] Tippett. [Randy] Carlyle. [Bruce] Bodreau. I can go down the list because where do you think we all start from? The minors. They all said that’s where we came from. You are dealing with a different animal up here and that’s a learning curve that I do have to go through."

Anderson: "If you know Kozzy, he is very straight laced, very rigid. I was brought in to try and change the culture here. I believe you are allowed to smile at practice and you are allowed to have fun. I want to be a workplace where you say ‘Man, I’m glad I’m here.’ That’s what I tried to convey. If he portrayed that I don’t work hard, then I think he’s wrong because we have film [work] every day, every power play even. We are prepared."

Kozlov's comments certainly strike a chord, especially when he talks about the problems we've had against New Jersey [or substitute another team playing the neutral-zone trap.] The Falconer has written about our difficulties against the trap, so it's not exactly a big secret. What is more concerning are Kozlov's comments about the coaching staff having fun but not working. It's a pretty hefty charge to say that the coaching staff is not preparing for games.

John Anderson counters that he "was brought in to try and change the culture here." This, to me, is the most instructive comment of all. You may remember talk of "crusty old veterans" last year, and it sounds like it's not much different this year. I've noticed during the few times that I've been able to attend Thrashers practices that the guys usually look like they are having a great time. There's video evidence of this as well: go back and watch the video of Johan Hedberg mic'ed up. Or this one which has a few of the guys:

;

The guys are having a good time. Let's face it: Atlanta is not going to be a place for guys who want to win a Stanley Cup, at least not yet. It could be a place for guys who love to play hockey, though. A lighter attitude, the nice weather, and the team made up of good "locker room guys" could bring in players who have struggled elsewhere. The biggest example I can give is Maxim Afinogenov, a guy we had written off a few months ago as being on the way out. During a practice at Philips, Falconer and I were struck by how much fun Max was having on the ice. It was encouraging to see him smiling while flying all over the ice with the puck. If you read Max's comments about why he's staying, you can perhaps see some of the Anderson-effect on him. (And the contrast between Anderson and Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff is quite apparent.)

I really like it here. The whole organization was very good to me. I feel comfortable. I feel like it’s home. I really enjoyed this year here.

One of the biggest challenges Atlanta's faced is the departure of free agents. If Anderson succeeds in changing the culture in Atlanta, that'd be a major first step toward keeping these guys. Now, not everybody is going to buy into this, and Slava Kozlov does strike me as a guy who would have some issues with all the light-heartedness.

On Ice Time and Playing Four Lines

Kozlov: "We lost lots of games by one goal and I feel when it’s a tight game, like one-goal or tie game, you have to start playing two or three lines. Nothing against players like [Chris Thorburn], [Eric Boulton] or [Marty Reasoner], but to get the feel of the game you have to use your key players more. When it’s 5-1, you can play everybody but when it’s a tie game you can judge a good coach from the great coach. The great coach sees how the team is playing, who has to play right now, what do you need to change right now. Not after the game or before. I think we missed that part."

Anderson: "He talked about the minutes played of our third and fourth line. He averaged 15 and a half minutes a game. Eric Boulton averaged six. For him to say I’m just turning lines over, that’s not true. If we needed a goal our top lines played. Absolutely they played. If the other team needed to be shut down, our checking lines played. To say I’m playing our fourth line too much or too little doesn’t make sense."

Anderson: "He said in Detroit he had great coaches. They played four lines in Detroit. That’s how they won the Stanley Cup. Maybe Washington will win [this year] because they have four good lines and they play them all. When we needed a goal, he was out there."

Here's another case where both guys have very valid points. Obviously, as Kozlov said, you want your scoring lines on the ice when your team is down, and John Anderson did play the fourth line late in close games. However, Slava gives the impression that the fourth line was getting equal- or near-equal time as the top line, and that's simply not true.

Let's try a relatively simple calculation: I'm going to take the average even-strength ice time for the top three forwards and average it. We'll compare that to the average for the bottom three forwards as a ratio: top/bottom. And then let's compare that to some of the best teams in the NHL this season. (These numbers are a little rough, as it's not always easy to determine who constitutes the "bottom three" as that changes, especially due to injuries.)

  • Atlanta: 1.92 (15:00 top, 7:50 bottom)
  • Washington: 1.69 (15:45 top, roughly 9:20 bottom)
  • Chicago: 1.88 (15:30 top, 8:15 bottom)
  • Detroit: 1.43 (15:45 top, 11:00 bottom)

Slava may not like it, but as it would turn out, Atlanta's right in line with ice time distribution with the some of the best in the league. If anything, Atlanta plays their bottom line less than other teams. I've got to give the nod to Anderson on this point.

Of course, that's just my opinion. Voice yours by voting in the poll and chiming in with a comment.

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