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Blond Ambition: John Anderson Takes on Atlanta

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I had the opportunity to hear new Head Coach John Anderson speak on both Friday and Saturday during Prospect Camp. Friday was the season ticket holder event and Saturday was a blogger Q&A with him. My thanks the Thrashers organization for holding both events and allowing me to gather the material that appears below.

First my notes on the Friday event. Anderson was introduced as coach by Don Waddell. DW mentioned that he had interviewed five candidates and wanted to conduct a through search despite all the fan hubbub about the slow process. DW said that when Anderson was announced, Kari Lehtonen was excited about having his old coach back again. At this point, Anderson started talking. He spoke in a calm matter-of-fact manner without any bluster.

Anderson said he wants to see the team do a better job shutting down the passing lanes so Kari sees more long shots from the blueline [and the stats confirm that the Thrashers surrender more shots from high scoring areas than the average team] and that his defensemen have the green light. That when Mark Popovic played for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks they noticed what a great skater he was but scored very few points. After he was acquired by the Thrashers he asked Popovic "why so few points?" Popovic had been told to stop at the blue line. JA said he told him "well if you have open ice you have the green light to skate up here" and his points saw a big increase. He said he wants to see less rimming the puck around the boards and more outlet passing (hello Garnet Exelby!)

JA also mentioned that he knows not only many of the young kids but also veteran Todd White who played for him back when he was in the Blackhawks system. At one point White asked Anderson if he was good enough to make the NHL. He told him "you just need someone up there who believes in you and who will give you an opportunity." He said he already told White that 11 goals [last season] just wasn't good enough and he should shoot for 30 next year.

Anderson was asked which AHL guys might surprise Atlanta fans. He prefaced his remark by saying every AHL guy has to earn their way to the NHL and the highlighted Boris Valabik, Colin Stuart, Bryan Little and Ondrej Pavelec. He told a little anecdote about teaching Little to use a cut back move to make opposing defensemen move laterally which would allow Little to get around them for a shot on goal. He said that Little has the potential to take a big step forward this season. [He listed the same players on Saturday at the blogger roundtable and Sterling was absent both times FWIW.]

When a questioner criticized Ilya Kovalchuk for being a minus player, Anderson interjected. He said that plus/minus was very much affected by the quality of the team and that best way to interpret plus/minus is look at players at the extremes. "If someone is way ahead or behind the team average that tells you something about that particular player." He pointed that Kovalchuk was on a team were most players were minus and he was pretty close to average in that respect. [As a stats guy I endorse Anderson's use of the plus/minus statistic in this way. It is MOST useful in comparing teammates to one another, comparing players on different teams is a mistake.]

Anderson also addressed the criticism that the Wolves-Thrashers affiliation is a big organizational problem. He said that the person who wrote the article that first appeared in Toronto never spoke to him before writing it. He credited Craig Custance (AJC) for coming to Chicago watching a game, practice and talking to Anderson. "I explained the Thrasher system and the Wolves systems and let him judge if they were the same or not." He also pointed out that certain plays which are designed for Kovalchuk or Enstrom would not work in the AHL "because we don't have anyone like Kovalchuk or like Enstrom--we have to plays that fit the people we have." He mentioned that communication between the levels had increased notably after the lockout and that he spoke weekly with Bob Hartley on the phone.

When there was talk about whether Kovalchuk would stay in Atlanta, Anderson volunteered that it was his objective to change the culture in the locker room. "we have to make this a place that he wants to be. In the future, if a player does leave Atlanta we want that to be a hard choice [because he liked it here]."

Here are my questions on Saturday.

Thrashers Talons: You mentioned watching Thrashers first periods up in Chicago before taking the ice with the Wolves. When you were watching did you have any ideas about how you would handle the team if you were in charge?

John Anderson: Well, one thing about being a coach is that you can't just sit back and enjoy a game, you're always analyzing what is going on. That goes for both teams, not just the Thrashers but also the team they are playing. One thing we want to be careful about is 'if it's not broke don't fix'--we'll try some things that worked for me with the Wolves and if that doesn't work we'll try something different.

(Falconer's Take: Sometimes coaches are strongly committed to a particular way to play hockey. After hearing Anderson speak twice it is very clear that he is not wedded to any one particular 'system' or approach to hockey. He takes an attitude of being open to change and being flexible. Anderson emphasized that winning is what matters and he will employ whatever system that seems to work the best.)

TT: You had success at every level you coached but you had to wait a long time before getting your shot in the NHL. Did you have any previous moments where you though you might come to the NHL?

JA: Back in the [Wolves'] IHL days, I was interviewed for the job in Anaheim. After we won the Turner Cup, Pat Quinn interviewed me [for Toronto]. Then Dave Lewis talked to be about coming to Boston, but then he was fired at the end of that season so perhaps that turned out for the best.

TT: I've have a chance to watch your Wolves teams play on the road and opposing fans often gripe that the Wolves have better players. Certainly the Thrashers are not favored to win, how does being an underdog affect your approach?

JA: Bad teams don't win championships. When Hershey won and Milwaukee won and Hamilton won the Calder Cup they were not favored to win. Our owner in Chicago had very high expectations. When Kevin Chevaldayoff built our practice facility he modeled it on the Thrashers NHL facility. We have an underwater treadmill--and we're not a NHL team. People come to Chicago and then they don't want to play anywhere else.

Another reason we won is that Atlanta allowed us some flexibility. Our relationship may not have been perfect--much of what has been written is just not true. We have different skill level than in the NHL so we don't always use the same plays. But we spoke weekly about both individual players and systems. Bob's bark is a bit bigger than mine so sometimes it was useful to have him reinforce certain points with players.

(Falconer's Take: I got the impression that Anderson has heard the "the Wolves won because they have better players" charge too many times for his taste. But I thought it was fair to ask him about it. Anderson is correct that it takes hard work to win--even if you're talented. The other team is not going to bow down, you have to take it too them. Most years in the NHL the regular season champion does not win the Stanley Cup.)

TT: You have mentioned before that you are good friends with Washington Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. His team in many ways is similar to yours--a Russian superstar with a young players--did he tell you anything about what to expect at this level such as 'this is harder' or so forth?

JA: After the first game I spoke with Bruce and he said "you know it's not THAT much different" then they played Philadelphia and he said "wow--this is MUCH faster [than the AHL]." We were talking about the fact that we face each other the very first game of the season, and I said "you know we should just link up at center ice and duke it out--it will be our first real NHL fight of our careers [laughter in the room]. He said to me that it wouldn't be a bad year if you [meaning the Thrashers] finish second in the division, I told him I'm not going to let Melrose beat me! [more laughter]. But to be serious for a moment, they will be a tough challenge, they are big, fast and explosive and he knows how to take advantage of that--but we're good too.

(Falconer's Take: Well, we certainly can expect these two coaches to go at it pretty hard each time we play the Capitals. With Barry Melrose being added to the division the pre- and post-game press chats could end up being very entertaining.)

My Anderson Assessment
To be completely candid, I was not wild about the hiring of Coach Anderson at the time (I liked the coaches that San Jose and Florida ended up hiring better.) I expressed some concerns about him in this post. I still worry that his offensive approach will only worsen the Thrashers historic defensive woes. Time will tell, I suppose.

Having said all that, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised after hearing him this weekend. I was very impressed with how he carries himself. He comes across as a very genuine and very balanced sort of guy. He strikes me as someone I would WANT to play hard for. He seemed very steady and self confident without being cocky or preening.

I worry that he is too optimistic about the Thrashers roster and talent level ("we have one of the best scorers in the NHL and one of the best goalies") and I'm afraid he could be in for a rough games. There are going to be many nights where the Thrashers might play their hearts out and still lose because the other team simply has more talent and sometimes talent trumps effort.

But here's the bottom line -- if John Anderson can get his young roster to buy in and believe that they can win, that will become a huge plus for this team. Some coaches can get player to run through walls for them and Anderson just might be that sort of guy. I still wouldn't place any money on the team qualifying for the playoffs, but if Anderson can motivate a collection of young guys to play their hearts out -- they could be an entertaining team to watch in 2008-09 season.