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Saturday and Sunday the Atlanta Thrashers added two NHL veterans to their team as the team battles to make and the playoffs and possibly win the Southeast Division. In this post a take a look at the Zhitnik trade.

Zhitnik for Coburn

Pros: Zhitnik has played tough minutes against in multiple situations for playoff caliber teams in the past. He has good speed and a good shot. He has experience playing on the power play for good teams. He likes to hit people.

Zhitnik has been one of the top defensemen on his team over the last several years. If we look at total ice time per game he was the #1 defensemen on his squad until this year. His total minutes have been in a modest decline. The decline is mostly even strength minutes (which are the most easy to replace), he still receives a good deal of high-leverage special teams ice time. Even with his decline in total minutes from 26 a game to 23 a game he still ranks 32nd overall in the NHL this season.

Season Average TOI Rank Among Team Defensemen Rank Among NHL Defensemen
2006-07 23:35 2nd/3rd 32
2005-06 24:30 1st 17
2003-04 25:01 1st 11
2002-03 26:32 1st 6

Note: 06-07 Team Rank is NYI/PHI

If we look at his PP minutes we see that again he has been either the #1 guy or the #2 PP guy on his team over the last several years. In Philadelphia he as behind the very talented Pitkanen and in Tom Poti was the #1 guy for the Islanders. In Atlanta he will clearly be on the top unit and see plenty of PP minutes.

One nice advantage of acquiring Zhitnik over a more one-dimensional player like Sopel is that he can also help kill penalties. In recent days, GM DW has added Belanger and Zhitnik as potential PK unit members. Prior to this current season Zhitnik was the top PK defensemen on his own team and he among all NHL defensmen he was in the top 35. His PK minutes with Islanders were still significant, but in Philadelphia the team has used Rathje, Hatcher and Pitkanen more than Zhitnik.

Season Average SH TOI Rank Among Team Defensemen Rank Among NHL Defensemen
2006-07 3:37 2nd/4th 60
2005-06 4:22 1st 34
2003-04 3:33 1st 24
2002-03 3:49 1st 31

Note: 06-07 Team Rank is NYI/PHI

The ice time data indicates to me that Zhitnik has earned the trust of coaches in previous years and previous teams. He may not be able to play 26 minutes a game anymore but he should still bring something to the table. From the glass-is-half-perspective it is pretty clear that he has not been riden as hard this season as in previous years. Hopefully, that means he has a full tank. He is supposed to be in very good physical condition.

From the glass-is-half-empty perspective the team probably could have acquired him for less months ago or signed him as free agent after the lockout (instead of Holik perhaps). The ice time data indicates that Zhitnik at 34 is not quite the horse he was at 30. At 34 Zhitnik is certainly in the decline phase of his career, as long as the decline remains modest he will still be worth his salary at the end of this contract ($3.5).

The Thrashers gave up a significant prospect in Coburn. Opinions about Coburn vary quite a bit. Personally, I thought Coburn looked unimpressive at NHL camp. In NHL preseason and in the AHL I though that Coburn's decision making left a lot to be desired. During his NHL stint this season he looked better to me. Even the improved Coburn didn't show me much offensive flair. The loss of Coburn is somewhat ameliorated be the fact that the team is so stacked with defensive prospects that they will be hard pressed to all get ice time in Chicago next year. Two Europeans may sign and come over and Grant Lewis will turn pro.

Big Picture

The reconstruction of the Atlanta defense corps has begun. I’ve stated repeatedly that the Thrashers have a below average collection of defensemen. Year after year this team ranks low in shots on goal against. If this franchise is going to win a Stanley Cup they absolutely must upgrade the blueline. One of the structural problems for the Thrashers is that they have so much of their salary tied up in forwards. To a certain extent you get what you pay for in a salary cap world—and the Thrashers have been spending their money on offense and the defense lacks quality and depth as a result.

Zhitnik will replace some of our more ineffective defensemen and perhaps make the ones that we retain more effective. Last year Havelid was extremely effective but he looks tired from all the minute he has received this season. I am hopeful that Zhitnik's arrival will lead to fewer minutes and therefore a more effective Havelid. This summer Sutton and de Vries will be unrestricted free agents. Much of their current salary ($4.6 million) will be used to pay Zhitnik’s salary ($3.5 million), and provide modest pay increases for restricted free agents Exelby and McCarthy. For roughly the same amount of money that the Thrashers are spending right now they could go from a defense that where Sutton and de Vries play large roles to a defense where Zhitnik and Popovic replace them on the roster. In my opinion this is a significantly better defense in terms of preventing scoring chances.

The Consequences

There may not be enough money to retain Slava Kozlov after this trade unless the ownership situation is settled and the winner is willing to spend (i.e. lose) more money by increasing payroll for the 2006-07 season. Zhitnik and Kozlov are friends from way back and he might have a desire to stay in Atlanta, but it might require him to give the Thrashers a home team discount for him to stay.