What wins hockey games? Teams that out-score the opponents of course.
What causes a team to out score their opponents? Playing more in the offensive zone and less in your own end of the ice. The more you play in the other end; the more likely your team is to score than be scored upon.
Which players cause their team to play in the opposition's end rather than their own end. One way to measure puck possession in each zone is to look at shots and Corsi numbers (shots + shots attemtped) by player. I've posted about Corsi number many times before. (These stats are for Even Strength sistuations only--no PK or PP included in this analysis)
Today I want to look at another way to get a handle on this question of "who moves the puck" by comparing where players begin and end their shits. Vic Ferrari's Time On Ice site lets you see game-by-game which players come off the ice and come on the ice for each faceoff. Over the long run great players play more in the offensive end, assuming they don't score, a good offensive shift often results in a) the opposition icing the puck; b) the goaltender freezes the puck; c) the opposition deflects the puck out. All three of these non-scoring outcomes results in a faceoff in the offensize zone.
If we look at the LONG RUN of a full NHL season, the better players are going to have more shifts that finish in the offensive zone compared to the number that began back in their own defensive zone. Zone shift captures this basic intuition--players with positive numbers usually are better at shifting the puck out of the D Zone and into the O Zone over the course of a season.
Evaluating the Defense
First we have the Thrashers defensemen for 2008-2009. The most encouraging aspect of this chart is that the younger players generally have positive or even numbers. That is good portent for the future. Rookies Valabik, Oystrick and Bogosian have put up positive numbers. One thing to keep in mind though is that all three of these players have probably been somewhat proteced (not matched againt the opposition's top guns) all year, their number might suffer some if they received more "hard minutes" agasint the top scorers in the NHL.
The other thing that stands out about this table is the BIG gap that has opened up between Enstrom/Havelid (-27) and Hainsey/Exelby (-14). These pairs began the season playing together but due to injuries they have seen more shifts split apart and that allows us to get some leverage on which player is doing the heavy lifting. The data indicate that Enstrom and Hainsey are helping pulling up their partners of Havelid and Exelby respectively. This is one reason I have said that I do not favor any big extension to Havelid, despite my affection for him. He's 35 and getting closer to the end of his NHL career. Anything more than a one year deal is probably tempting fate.
For all the flack fans have directed at Schneider (and he has looked lackadasical at times) he does two things that the Thrasher badly need 1) he moves the puck efficiently up the ice and 2) he puts pucks on the net instead of waiting for a perfect opportunity that never presents itself.
Evaluating the Forwards
When we look at the forwards several things stand. The Thrashers have 2/3rds of a fantastic 3rd line in Armstrong and Reasoner. Both guys are simply great at doing what a 3rd line is supposed to do--they play down in the opposition end of the ice. Unfortunatley, Reasoner is only here on a one year deal and unless he re-signs will likely be dealt. I'd gladly have him back for another year. Recently Armstrong has been moved up to the 1st line where he is below aveage offensively. Armstrong is plus 3rd liner, but probably a minus 1st line winger.
The Mixed Drink line of Little-White-Russian (Kozlov) has been consistently solid all year. Kozlov and Little have put up strong positive Zone Shift ratings. They get the puck go down the ice and put pressure on the opposition goale--exactly what you want out of a 2nd line.
The really bad news is that the 1st line has been a mess for the first half of the season. Kovalchuk-Christensen-Williams were all negative in the Zone Shift rating. Christensen simply hasn't been very effective most of the year, Williams coudln't seem to hang on to the puck for the first two months and Kovalchuk is prone to turnovers in all three zones of the ice--which hurts his line. The recent creation of the AK-47 line (Kovalchuk-Peverley-Armstrong) has been VERY good through three games in terms of putting together a postive zone shfit (see Peverley's +8). If this pattern keeps up the Thrashers may have found TWO solid scoring lines for the 2nd half of the year.
The downside of moving Armstrong to the 1st line and potentialy trading Reasoner at the deadline is that the Thrashers could end with two solid scoring lines but struggle with the checking lines. Perrin, Thorburn and Crabb have broken even or better this year, but Slater and Boulton have been in retreat far too often this season as the opposition hems them into their defensive zone. Slater is having a better offensively season, but he's not a great checker nor a very good Penalty Killer. Boulton is not an effective NHL player anymore and I was not enthused when he was re-signed last summer. The Thrashers are one of the worst defenesive teams in the NHL and Boulton and Slater are part of the problem.
Goalies don't skate out so it might see silly to look at the Zone Rating for net minders. Perhaps it is silly, but the one thing that jumped out at me is that Hedberg is acknowledged as the best stickhandler of the three. The Zone Rating is consistent with that conventional wisdom--the team appears to move the puck more efficiently down the ice when Hedberg is in net.