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How Much Better is Atlanta's Defense?

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The Thrashers have essentially swapped out last year's 2nd pairing of Alexei Zhitnik and Ken Klee for Mathieu Schneider and Ron Hainsey. Now most Thrasher fans would probably look at that statement and start doing cartwheels, but let's move beyond first impressions.

A couple of observations. Ken Klee was the better than most fans give him credit, in fact, I'd say he was the 3rd best Thrasher defender last season (I know faint praise for a team that finished dead last in Goals Against). The other thing is that while Ron Hainsey brings some nice skills to the table, but he's not considered to be a great even strength defender. In fact, both Schneider and Hainsey broke into the league because of their offensive abilities rather than their defense.

So how much better is the Thrashers defense now than it was before? My crude back-on-the-envelope estimate is that the Hainsey/Schneider duo is 16 goals against better than the Klee/Zhitnik duo. If those two save the Thrashers 16 GA over last season, that alone is worth roughly 6-8 more standings points. (EDIT: Earl Sleek over at Battle of California points out that Schneider played well while getting top 4 minutes on D)

The other good news is that these two additions bump Exelby to the 3rd pairing where he belongs. Perhaps Coach Anderson can get more out of Exelby than Coach Hartley and Coach Waddell/McCrimmon did, but I'm keeping my expectations low. Based on the pre-season game in Nashville it will be another long season of watching X dumping the puck to center ice and letting the other team re-group to attack again.

Last year when Exelby was out on the ice the Thrashers were absolutely destroyed 36-63 (GA-GF) for a big fat -27. While the fans HATED Zhitnik, at even strength Exelby was even worse. Exebly certainly tried harder than Zhitnik did, but effort alone will not keep the puck out of your net. Exelby is still on this team and he still can't make an outlet pass to save his life--that's a major impediment to this club making the playoffs this year.

The other potential upgrade is the rookie who dresses in the 3rd pairing slot, Boris Valabik or Zach Bogosian. Whichever player it is, he will make some rookies mistakes and probably only play 10-12 minutes a night so I'm not counting on a huge impact. Still it wouldn't be hard to improve upon what Steve McCarthy turned in last season. When McCarty was on the ice at even strength the Thrashers were outscored 14-35 last year. That's a whopping -21 with McCarthy (and usually Exelby) out there on the blueline. If the Exelby/Valabik/Bogosian combo could just limit the damage to say -10, our 3rd defense pairing could save this club another 10 goals against. (By the way the underrated Mark Popovic was only outscored 12-16 at even strength last year, a better performance than Klee, Zhitnik, Exelby or McCarthy.)

Conclusion: Both big name defensive additions are known for their offense, but both are legitimate top four NHL veterans. The 2nd pairing looks to be significantly better than last year and the 3rd pairing has the potential of being significantly better as well. The Thrashers were simply brutal in their own end last year and adding two competent if not spectacular defenders should help the team move from from the brutal category upward toward the land of the average. With the loss of Hossa I have a hard time seeing major gains on the offensive side, but I know have a reason to hope for make strides in goal pre.