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Playing the Expectations Game

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Yesterday in his blog Craig Custance the AJC beat reporter relayed this quote from head coach Bob Hartley regarding the Thrashers current situation.

Before the game, Hartley tried to keep the recent slide in perspective: "If someone would have come to me on day one of training camp, and said ‘Stop everything. Were taking you to 22 games left, [first place is] where we slot you, do you accept this? Deal or no deal?’ I would POW - Deal. You know? Not that I wouldn’t want to go open another suitcase, but I would have taken this deal. That’s where we’re at today.

Technically Coach Hartley is correct, but he is correct in an overly clever way that reminds me of an untrustworthy used car salesman trying to sell me a Yugo by telling me "you said you wanted a car that runs didn't you?" Well--yes--but....

I also can't help but think of former President Bill Clinton saying "it depends on what the meaning of the word is is" because this team is in first place depending upon what the meaning of "first place" is. First, of all the Thrashers are only tied for 1st in points. The other club (Tampa) has a game in hand, so using points-per-game we are already in 2nd place. The team is also just three points away from being out of the playoffs. The amount of verbal slight-of-hand in Coach Hartley's statement would do a criminal defense attorney proud.

Now for the grain of truth in Hartley's comment. Everyone is in an uproar because expectations where raised when this team sat in 2nd place in the East for much of the first half. As I noted in my previous post about the schedule, the Thrashers took advantage of a soft first half schedule and now they are getting their butts kicked by a much tougher Jan-Feb schedule.

So what should we as fans expect from our 2006-07 Thrashers? To get to the answer I'm going to first look at the team from the previous season and lay out my case for what I think we ought to expect from this team.

How Good Was Last Season's Team?

Last season the Thrashers scored 281 goals and gave up 275 (+6 goal differential) and finished with 90 points--and in a tie for 9th place. As we all know that team was hurt by goaltending in the first half, so I went and looked at their stats for the last 41 games. My thinking is that since Kari played almost all of the final 41 games so that would give us a better measure for what the 2005-06 squad was capable of doing when they were healthy.

If you project the final 41 games of the 2005-06 Thrashers to a full season you get a club that would have outscored the opposition 272-260 (+12) and finished up with 94 points putting them in 7th place just ahead of Tampa and Montreal. I'm actually surprised that the numbers were not stronger than this, but as I look back I realize I had forgotten just how ice cold they were back in January of 2006. They through a 6 game stretch where they didn't score more than 2 goals a game.

How Good is This Year's Team?

OK so if the 2005-06 team was a 7th place team--when the talent was healthy--what should we expect from the 2006-07 squad? Well what changed? Up front the team did a major swap of centers seeing Savard, Stefan and Aubin depart and Metropolit, Rucchin and Kapanen arrive. At wing the team lost Bondra and gained Sim. On defense Vishnevsky replaced Modry.

Even casual fans knew that losing Bondra and Savard would hurt the offense. Last year the four departed forwards produced 184 points combined and right now the four players replacing them are on pace to produce just 124. To put that very simply the Thrashers replaced a center who scored 97 points (Savard) with a player who will score 37. In effect there was no effective replacement for Savard. If you want to put Savard's loss in goal terms simply divide the 60 lost points by 2.7 (the average number of points produced by each NHL goal) and you see that his missing point production translates into roughly 22 fewer goals scored by the Thrashers. Ouch!

So if the loss of Savard resulted in a significant blow to the team's offense what about the defense. Certainly having Kari Lehtonen and Hedberg in net for a full year should help to lower the Thrashers goals against average significantly. What should we reasonably expect? Without Kari in net during the first half, the Thrashers were on pace to give up 290 goals against over a full 82 schedule. In the 2nd half when Kari was starting most of the games, the Thrashers were on pace to give up just 260 goals against over a full season. So I think a reasonable expectation is that the Thrashers would look a lot more like that 2nd half number than the first half number.

OK let's summarize what we have learned. The 2005-06 team scored 281 goals but the loss of Savard would reduce offense by roughly 22 goals, so I would expect the 2006-07 team to score 259 over a full season. On defense I would expect that the Thrashers would have competent goaltending all year and that they would allow goals at the same rate they did during the 2nd half of the 2005-06 or roughly 260 over a full season.

So what is a reasonable expectation for this 2006-07 team?
259 Goals For
260 Goals Against

What are the 2006-07 Atlanta Thrashers on pace for at the moment?
252 Goals For
263 Goal Against

So they are under performing a bit on both offense and defense (hello special teams!) but otherwise they are very close to producing what I think they should produce based on their talent level. This is a club that should have to scrap and claw their way into the playoffs and that is exactly where they are at the moment.

When the season started I thought this team could finish as high as 6-7-8 in the East if the stars stayed healthy. Anything higher than that would require Lehtonen to start playing like Ryan Miller and that hasn't happened yet. If injuries struck key players this team would miss the playoffs. This team has been VERY healthy at key positions and right now they look a lot like the 6-7-8 team I expected.

What Hasn't Lived up to Expectations?

OK, I've made my case that we got carried away with the Thrashers hot start and we need to be realistic about how much talent is on our squad. But let's come back to the Hartley expectation question. Yes, the team sits about where I expected them to sit in the standings, but there have been some key failures on the special teams.

I don't expect a power play featuring three star players (Kozlov, Kovalchuk and Hossa) to rank 22nd in the NHL. The failure of the power play reflects an inability of the coaching staff to correctly identify who should be on the ice. The coaching staff has continued to display a near total lack of imagination in terms of trying new things after the rest of the NHL has figured them out. I'm not in the locker room and I don't hear what it is said, but from my outsider perspective it sure looks to me like this power play unit is being to told to "work harder" rather than try something different. How many times does the power play have to fail before it becomes clear that changes must be made?

The penalty killing is even worse ranking dead last in the NHL. You don't have to be uber-talented to kill penalties. Lehtonen's PK SV% is below average so that hasn't helped. It absolutely kills me that this team is paying Bobby Holik $4.25 million a year as a defensive specialist and team leader and yet our PK is dead last in the league. Something tells me that a $450,000 checking center could have produced the same results as Holik and left us some cash for a real Center or offensive defenseman, but that's another post.

Sorry to be so long winded today but I wanted to lay out my entire case in one post rather than break it up over several days. Please note that the 2006-07 numbers for both individuals and teams have been adjusted upwards by 3% to make them comparable to the 2005-06 season. (So far in the East scoring is down 3% over last year, it is down even more in the West but we play 72 of our 82 games versus the East so the change in the West doesn't matter that much for our purposes here.)

Fearless predictions: Thrashers outplayed Ottawa (except in goal) and I think they will take 2 of the next three to right the ship. I also expect them to make the playoffs in the 7th or 8th slot.