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Riding the Blue Streak

As a kid I used to go to the Cedar Point amusement park near Cleveland Ohio. The park had numerous roller coasters and one of them was named the Blue Streak. One kid told me that the coaster was so named because it caused riders to lose their lunch. The same could be said of many Thrasher fans I suspect. The team has played inspired and exciting hockey only to jerk you around and make you feel like you're going to retch.

Let's review the roller coaster ride so far and see if we can pinpoint any patterns. The club started 0-6 under Hartley and then ripped off a great month where they went 10-4-1 only to spiral downward again in the last 11 games in which they have gone 2-7-2 (I treated shoot outs as ties here). The big question is which of these is the real Thrashers team? Time will tell if this is a good team going through a bad stretch or if this a bad team that had a hot stretch after their coach was fired.

What is driving this roller coaster?

When a team is losing it is seldom just one thing. When the Thrashers got hot they were scoring nearly 3.5 goals per game and lately they have cooled off to just 2.27 goals per game. The "cold Waddell" offense of 2.27 per game is better than the 1.50 under Hartley but both numbers would rank dead last in the league. What is perhaps most interesting is that the Thrashers forwards could score like Red Wings for a month and then completely fall apart the next month.

Goals For Per Game
1.50 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--worst in NHL
3.47 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--best in NHL
2.27 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--worst in NHL

The big story here is on the defensive side of the puck. Most NHL teams go through spots where they struggle to perform--but even in those slow stretches most teams can use defense and goaltending to eke out some points. For example, both the Islanders and Bruins have had relatively weak offenses but they have taken care of their own end and they are still in the playoff hunt.

On the other hand even the "hot" Atlanta Thrashers were not great in their own end. During the Hartley start they were extremely bad: 4.50 goals per game. The worst defensive team in the NHL other than Atlanta is Tampa Bay who are allowing 3.24 Goals per Game. During their hot stretch Atlanta limited the opposition to "just" 2.87 per game (which would rank as slightly below average) and during the recent cold period they have gone back closer to allowing 4 goals per game (which is about 13% worse than the 29th ranked NHL team).

Goals Against Per Game
4.50 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Worst in NHL
2.87 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Slightly below NHL average
3.82 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--Worst in NHL

If you've felt disgusted watching the porous Atlanta Thrashers defense this season you have good reason to feel that way. In the bad parts of the season the defense and goaltending hasn't just been "below average" or "poor" it can most accurately be described as "worst" as in "worst in the NHL" in its quality.

Team Save Percentage
.869 Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Worst in NHL
.909 Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Above NHL Average
.883 Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--Worst in NHL

What can we learn from this season so far?

The Thrashers did put together a hot stretch with these defensemen and these goaltenders. But (and this a huge "but") they were able to win because their offensive productivity was red hot--as in Ottawa Senators hot and Detroit Red Wings hot. Can the offense return to that level again? Can the defense and goaltending return to league average? For this team to make the playoffs the offense must get insanely hot or the defense must play much better.

Is there any area where the Waddell Thrashers have been consistent?

Yes, since the firing of Hartley the Thrashers have shown steady and consistent improvement in the Penalty Kill. They were phenomenally bad at times last season under Hartley and that continued this fall. After Hartley was removed the PK improved from incredibly bad to just bad and lately it has been incredibly good. The St. Louis Blues have the best PK unit in the NHL and they kill off 88% of their penalties and the Thrashers have matched that in the last 11 games.

Think about last sentence for a minute. The Thrashers have been getting phenomenally good penalty killing and yet they are still allowing close to 4 goals per game lately. That tells you just how bad this team is at preventing goals at even strength.

Penalty Kill Percentage
71.4% Cold Hartley (Games 1-6)--Way Worst in NHL
75.4% Hot Waddell (Games 7-21)--Wost in NHL
87.8% Cold Waddell (Games 22-34)--3rd Best in NHL