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Who Moves the Puck? Update

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I seem to have moved past the "anger" phase in the stages of grief as I mourn the death of the Thrashers playoffs hopes (I didn't expect them to make it, but I did expect them to hang around in the race longer than this.)

Back on December 2nd I posted about "zone shift" statistic. Using Vic Ferrari's great website Time On Ice you can see which players come off the ice after a ES whistle and which players go onto the ice for the faceoff. Using this data you can see which players move the puck into the offensive zone from their own end (positive rating below) and which players are more likely to lose ground and end up coming off the ice with puck back in their defensive zone. Well here are the updated "zone shift" rankings for the 2008 Thrashers.

+9 Lehtonen
+1 Pavelec
-93 Hedberg

G Comments: I find that the goalie stats startling for several reasons. The team has a huge negative number when Hedberg starts but is almost even when the other goalies are in net. Hedberg is the best puckhandler of the three and sometimes clears the zone himself but those puck skills are not showing up in the zone shift metric.

I'm been arguing for a while that Hedberg is just not that great of a goalie and the Thrashers would benefit from an upgrade (his SV% ranks near the bottom every season). Others have pointed to his winning percentage and argued that the Thrashers play harder for him.

Personally, I think he's just been lucky to be in net on nights when the Thrashers offense clicks--much like a baseball pitcher who wins extra games because of high run support. I'm not going to declare a victory just yet, but the zone shift stat certainly casts doubt on the idea that the Thrashers play harder for Hedberg--if that were true why do they end up with so many more faceoffs in their defensive zone? I see this is more evidence that Hedberg is benefiting from offensive good fortune.

+12 Oystrick
+10 Bogosian
+9 Enstrom
+6 Schneider
+4 Valabik
-5 Hainsey
-18 Exelby
-26 Havelid

D Comments: Recently the coaching staff has taken to pairing Oystrick and Valabik with Enstrom and Havelid. This mixing and matching of defensemen is pretty cool in that we can see how Enstrom and Havelid perform when they are apart. Since December 2nd Enstrom has gone from a +5 to a +9. The good news is that Enstrom seems to have righted the ship after a rough start and he is now the leader in the zone shift metric among the defensemen receiving top four ice time. When Enstrom is on the ice his passing and skating skills help move the play away from his own net.

The bad news is that Nic Havelid's zone shift number keeps getting worse, falling from a -19 to a -26 in the last two weeks. I've really enjoyed watching Havelid work hard every night, but he should not be re-signed when his contract expires. The warning signs are everywhere that he is ceasing to be an effective top four NHL defensemen (assuming he's not playing hurt like Kozlov was all last year). I'm afraid the Thrahsers will re-sign him and then be "surprised" that he's not as good as he once was.

The other defense paring that regularly plays together --Hainsey and Exelby--also has a sizable gap as well, with Hainsey a slight negative and Exelby the 2nd worst on the club. I've harped on Exelby's lack of outlet passing and his tendency to just dump the puck many times. If Hainsey were paired with someone who had more skill I suspect he might have a positive zone shift number.

Probably the best news here is that the Thrashers youngest D (Bogosian, Enstrom, Oystrick) all have positive zone shift numbers and these guys will be here for the long haul. Throw in the fact that Hainsey might have a positive number if paired with a better partner and there some reason for long term optimism on the blueline.

+31 Reasoner
+30 Armstrong
+9 Thorburn
+6 Williams
+6 Christensen
+5 Kozlov
0 Perrin
-1 Little
-3 Crabb
-7 Kovalchuk
-20 White
-23 Boulton
-28 Slater

Here's the good news. The Thrashers have a 3rd line worthy of a playoff team: Armstrong-Reasoner-Thorburn were terrific together at taking the puck and playing in the offensive zone while being matched up against the other team's scoring line. The bad news is that the Thrashers lack a 1st, 2nd and 4th line that is worthy of a playoff team.

4th liners Boulton, Slater and Thorburn were steadily losing ground in the battle for puck position. Since Joey Crabb arrived he appears to have helped stop the bleeding on the 4th line. Only time will tell if Crabb can keep this line even or if they fall back into their retreating habits.

The "Mixed Drink Line" of Little-White-Russian is a mixed bag. Kozlov is a net positive, Little even and White a big minus. Much of White's ugliness came while centering Kovalchuk--but the whole line has lost ground in the month of December. Together the Little-White-Russian line seems to break even--but on a playoff caliber team your 2nd line must do better than just break even.

The worst news comes when you look at the Thrashers candidates for the #1 line. Kovalchuk has had three different centers so far this season. The Kovalchuk-White combo at the start of the season was nothing short of a disaster using the zone shift metric. Then we saw the Kovalchuk-Williams combo and that too was pretty much a disaster in terms of territory lost. Finally Kovalchk was paired with the team's best territorial centerman and the bleeding has stopped. Kovalchuk's zone rating has improved since 12-2 and Reasoner has been a slight positive since that point.

The good news is that our #1 line no longer is retreat game after game. The bad news is that our awesome checking line has been broken up. The new Armstrong-Williams-Perrin combo has been roughly break even.

NHL hockey is very fast. There a lot of things happening all at once out there and the human brain can't possibly comprehend it all. That's one reason I really like this zone shift stat because it provides a handy little indicators for one of the most basic aspects of the game--is the team advancing or retreating when a player is out there on the ice at Even Strength?

This week the Thrashers were de facto eliminated from the playoff race. Turning our attention to next season and beyond the central question is what is causing this team to languish in the standings and who should be back next year? Using zone shift as a guide I would not re-sign Havelid and I would try very hard to re-sign Reasoner. Slater is a RFA and I would let him walk. Todd White has two more years and $5 million owed to him--is it possible to find a trading partner for him? I have no idea why Don Waddell felt the need to give Eric Boulton a two year deal but he's another UFA mistake signing that should be moved if possible. There are better checkers available every off season and with Valabik on the roster he's not even the scariest fighter on the team anymore.