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About That Defense

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I've been crunching some numbers thinking about what exactly has gone wrong this season. Part of the answer is that our secondary scoring has really declined this year but the biggest problem has been the abysmal play of our defensive corps this year. Statistically speaking Havelid is playing about the same as last year and Enstrom represents an upgrade over all the departed guys (Sutton, de Vries and Hnidy). The real problem has been the near collapse of three returning defenders: Exelby, McCarthy and Zhitnik.

To illustrate just how atrocious they have been I've going to show you their performance at even strength (5 on 5) play for the entire season (64 games played). I'll be using the terrific stats from Behind the Net's site. BTN lets you see which defensemen face the toughest opposition and how well the team plays when a particular guy is on or off the ice. So here are the Thrashers defensemen ranked in order of the quality of opposition players out there.

1. Nicklas Havelid sees the toughest minutes of any defender drawing the assignment of matching up against the offensive stars of the other team. The Thrashers score an average of 3.06 goals per game with Havelid on the ice and allow 3.19 GAA, but when you take Havelid the ice everything falls apart: Thrashers only score just 1.54 ES goals per game and they allow a staggering 2.74 for a goal differential of -1.19 per game at even strength. Yikes!

2. Tobias Enstrom has been paired with Havelid since Waddell took over and his numbers are very similar to Havelid. Enstrom also plays tough minutes against the opposition's best forwards. When Enstrom is out the Thrashers average 2.72 ES goals for and allow 2.78 ES GA--roughly breaking even. When Enstrom (and Havelid) are off the ice, the Thrashers offense falls by a goal per game to 1.73 and the defense allow 2.90 per game. When Enstrom is absent the Thrashers are being outscored to the tune of 1.17 goals per game at even strength.

3. Ken Klee gets mocked by a lot of fans for being this year's version of Sutton. I'll admit that Klee is not fleet of foot but I've defended Klee because he is smart enough to realize he is not fast and therefore puts himself in a conservative position so he doesn't get beat too easily (unlike Zhitnik who still positions himself as though he still skate with the fast players). Well the stats show that Klee is our 3rd best defender. When Klee is on the ice at even strength we score 1.83 GFA and allow 2.46 GAA for a differential of -.63 but when Klee is OFF the ice we are even worse scoring just 2.20 GFA and allowing 3.08 for a differential of -.87 per game. Klee is not great but he stops the bleeding better than the other defensemen further down this list.

4. Zhitnik has seem more tough minutes than Exelby and McCarthy so he gets listed at number four. Just about every Thrashers fan has been riding Zhitnik for his poor play and the numbers show the the fans are correct. When Alexei is out there at even strength we score 1.91 GFA and allow 2.77 GAA for a-.86 differential, when Alexei is OFF the ice we score 2.19 GFA and allow 2.84 GAA for a smaller -.65 differential. But he is just part of the problem.

5. As much as people enjoy dumping on Zhitnik and Klee they really ought to pay more attention to the wicked bad seasons Exelby and McCarthy are putting together in 2007-08. Exelby has little offensive flair and the Thrashers score a palty 1.73 GFA when he is on the ice. In the past Exelby has been know as a "defensive defenseman" but we should not call him that anymore since when he is out there the Thrashers allow a brutal 3.02 GAA. When XLB is on the ice the Thrashers are outscored by a whooping -1.29 goals per game at ES and when XLB is off the ice they are out scored by just -.55 goals per game.

6. McCarthy's defensive numbers are very similar to Exelby's, but McCarthy has the the bizarre distinction of almost never being out there when the Thrashers score. Just as Exelby doesn't deserve the label of "defensive defenseman" McCarthy doesn't deserve to be called an "offensive defenseman" anymore. When McCarthy is on the ice at even strength the Thrashers score an incredibly low 0.68 GFA (that's right less than a goal per game) and when McCarthy is OFF the ice the team averages 2.63 GFA. In terms of defense in makes little difference whether McCarthy is on the ice (3.07 GAA) or off of it (3.01 GAA), but he has been a huge drag on the offense this year.

So there you have it. The Thrashers top pairing can break even against the opposition's very best, but it is the Thrasher 2nd and 3rd pairing that are killing them. Klee and Zhitnik are both getting outscored at even strength, but it is the Exelby-McCarthy pairing that is getting just absolutely ripped apart on a nightly basis. In my opinion the Thrashers would get the maximum gain out of their new salary cap space this summer by signing two quality defensemen. That would allow them to bump Klee, Zhitnik and Exelby down to the #5, #6 and #7 spots on the depth chart (McCarthy is a free agent and should be allowed to depart).