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Under Waddell: Improved But Defense Still Lacking

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We are now 23 games into the Don Waddell/Brad McCrimmon coaching staff era and I thought it would be good to look at some numbers. It has been a while since I've posted anything spreadsheet here.

The Thrashers offense has been very good since Waddell replaced Hartley behind the bench. The team has scored nearly 3 goals per game (shootouts are excluded from all of the stats in this post) which would put it right near the top of the NHL if they can sustain this pace the rest of the season.

Hartley: 1.50 GFA (30th out of 30 teams)
Waddell: 2.96 GFA (7th out of 30 teams)
Combined: 2.66 GFA (17th out of 30 teams)

On the other hand the defense (in terms of goals allowed) still ranks dead last to bottom in the NHL league. If you look just at the Waddell coached games it still only ranks 24th out of 30 teams. That's hardly a recipe for sustained success in the regular season and playoffs. If the team receives a better performance from Zhitnik they might be able to move up a few more spots. In the history of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise defense has always been below the league average.

Hartley: 4.50 GAA (30th)
Waddell: 2.96 GAA (24th)
Combined: 3.28 GAA (30th)

When it comes to special teams we see a split decision. I criticized Hartley for being unimaginative with the power play and we see that under Waddell the PP% is 17.0% which is about league average. I still think that with players like Hossa and Kovalchuk the Thrashers power play should be better than league average.

Hartley: 07.7% (30th)
Waddell: 17.0% (15th)
Combined: 15.1% (25th)

On the other hand, the penalty killing shows only modest improvement under Waddell. The PK was dead last when Hartley was let go and it has risen to just 28th. Under Waddell the opposition power play scores on 1 out of every power plays against Atalanta.

Hartley: 71.4% (30th)
Waddell: 78.9% (25th)
Combined: 76.9% (28th)

How have the Thrashers Improved? Big Saves and Burying Chances

We have established that their defense is still poor, but the offense has performed much better. If we look at shots we notice that under Waddell the Thrashers are only generating a few more shots per game than they did under Hartley.

Shots on Goal For
Hartley: 23.5 (30th)
Waddell: 26.0 (24th)
Combined: 25.4 (26th)

What has changed dramatically for the Thrashers is their Shooting Percentage. Under Waddell they have been the 2nd best team in the NHL at turning shots into goals. A huge amount of credit goes to Ilya Kovalchuk who has been just unreal in his ability to convert opportunities so far this season.

Shooting %
Hartley: 06.4% (30th)
Waddell: 11.4% (2nd)
Combined: 10.5% (6th)

On the defensive side of things we see that the Thrashers have shaved a couple of shots per game off their average under Waddell.

Shots on Goal Against
Hartley: 34.3 (30th)
Waddell: 31.4 (26th)
Combined: 32.0 (26th)

While the shots against may be roughly the same under Waddell, the goal tending has been much stronger. The .906 SV% put up by Hedberg, Pavelec and Lehtonen is above the league average. So while the Thrashes defense is quite poor at preventing shots on goal, the club's goaltenders have been above average in keeping those shots out of the net.

Hartley: 86.9% (30th)
Waddell: 90.6% (12th)
Combined: 89.8 (20th)

The Big Picture
The Thrashers have turned around their season with better play on offense. A more efficient Power Play, a terrific Shooting % which has increased their offensive production. One big concern I have is that the Shooting % may not be sustainable over the long run. If Kovalchuk cools off other players must step up and generate more shots and more goals.

On defense the team is no longer terrible but it still is poor. The data suggests to me that this is more the fault of the defensemen than it is the goaltenders. I should also note that the Thrashers choose to play a wide open style which will lead to more shots and goals against than say the Minnesota Wild. I do think that the defensemen (Zhitnik in particular) are capable of playing better than they have so far this season. This team will need strong nights from their blueline to get back into the playoffs.