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How Far From Contending?

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Dear Readers: Sorry for not posting much, but I'm really busy right now but I still make time to watch most of each Thrashers game despite their performance. I'm a die hard addict what can I say? Postings will probably be sparse until I finish up my big project. But here's some things to chew on.

The LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi and Head Coach Marc Crawford had a town hall meeting with their season ticket holders recently and made the following comments. Here's a short excerpt from the coverage in the LA Times:

The Kings may be the most interesting last-place team in recent years, one part tantalizing promise and one part defensive train wreck, testing the considerable patience of the long-suffering fans.

"I expect the coaches to do everything possible to get the goals against down and to start the process now," Lombardi said. " . . . Just like the analogy: Lee's at Gettysburg. He's totally outnumbered and outmanned. But he can't throw up the white flag and say, 'I can't get it done.' "

Said Kings Coach Marc Crawford: "It's a legitimate criticism. When you look at our goals against, as a coaching staff, we're embarrassed by it, to be quite truthful."

Now a quick comparison of the Thrashers and King:

LA Kings GAA 3.22 ranked 29th-second to last in the NHL
Thrashers GAA 3.24 ranked 30th-dead last in the NHL

LA Kings SOG Against Rank 27th--near the bottom of the NHL
Thrashers SOG Against Ranked 30th--dead last in the NHL

At our town hall meeting I recall hearing about how this club doesn't need to be torn down "we just need to add one or two more players to the mix" which is true as long as those two players are Nick Lidstrom and Sidney Crosby.

The truth of the matter is that the Thrashers are not one or two players away from being a contender. They are three players away from being a solid bet to just make the playoffs. If everything goes perfectly for the organization and they land the "two quality defensemen and one decent forward" (as was stated at the THM) you will have a team that may make the playoffs but is unlikely to have have home ice advantage.

As a fan I don't want to just squeak into the playoffs I want to contend for the Cup. I heard recently that in the recent history of the Stanley Cup playoffs just one team has ever won the Cup without having home ice for at least one round of the playoffs. If that is correct, the Thrashers don't just need to get into the post-season they really need to be a top 4 team in their conference.

Yes the team has some pieces--and many of them are young and just entering their prime. I'm happy to say that the young players like Lehtonen, Armstrong, Christenson and Enstrom are among the few that are not just mailing it in (which cannot be said for the old guys like Kozlov, Zhitnik and White who all appear to be in decline and are signed for next season or longer.). But when you consider how often this team has been out shot this season it is shocking. Right now the Thrashers have been out shot by 570 shots on the season. Shots on goal can be a fluky stat in the short run but when you get out shot that badly over 70+ games it isn't an accident--your team just isn't very good.

Again, one of the things that concerns me most is that ownership and management keeps up the optimistic talk despite a large body of evidence that the hockey club needs major improvements. At the trade deadline we didn't move additional veterans and they inquired into adding pieces "because we were still in the playoff hunt." That worries me because it suggests they are not being accurate in their evaluation of the team and that they are fooling themselves that this team is close to being a contender.

Don Waddell went on to talk about how the Thrashers were "tied for the Division lead just a couple of weeks before the trade deadline." But an honest assessment shows that the Thrashers were extremely lucky on three fronts.
  1. The only reason they were even in the playoff conversation is that the Southeast Division was weak on an epic level. The moment when the Thrashers were tied for the lead the top team in the division only ranked 8th or 9th in the East and would have ranked even lower in the West. When was the last time a team ranked 18th or 20th went on to win anything in the playoffs? The answer is never.
  2. The Thrashers have won a disproportionate share of points by getting to overtime and the shootout and winning the extra point. More than anything else the shootout comes down to luck and it is not evidence of the team's underlying skill level. Studies have shown that teams that are good in the shootout one year usually do not repeat that success the following year.
  3. The Thrashers have been extremely lucky at avoiding in juries to their top nine forwards and top four defensemen the last two years. Kovalchuk and Hossa both missed a small number of games and Havelid and Enstrom have played huge minutes and have missed very few games combined. Our best players have been in the lineup almost without fail. Jamie Mirtle did a recent ranking of games lost to injury and the Thrashers were near the top with very few injuries.
So basically the Thrashers were lucky that everyone else in the division sucked and they were also lucky in winning the bonus point which pushed them higher in the standing than they deserved to be. Finally, the Thrashers were lucky again not to suffer any major injuries that kept top players out for long periods (unlike other clubs that lost Lidstrom, Crosby, and Brind'amour for extended periods). Now you could argue that the Thrashers were unlucky to have the Hossa situation hanging over them--and I would agree with that. But other clubs also had uncertainty to deal with at the trade deadline so the Thrashers were not alone in that department.

When your team only occupies a playoff spot for about 7-10 days the entire season, you're not that good. When your team is on pace to be out shot by 600 shots in a season it is huge warning sign that you need major changes. When your team is on pace to allow more 50 goals than they score you're in trouble. I'm a hockey fan who wants to see the Stanley Cup championship someday in Atlanta and right now this team is VERY far away from the talent needed to accomplish that feat. The need for major improvements to the talent base is pretty glaring to me--the real questions are 1) does ownership and management seeing the same major problems the rest of us see; 2) can management make the right moves needed to correct this situation?