The Atlanta Thrashers are playing the most intelligent brand of hockey in team history. Hallelujah!
When the team first arrived in 1999 I was extremely excited to have the NHL in the city I call home. I watched every game that was televised and attended nearly every home game in person after Season 2. I watched many defeats and many bad decisions over the last decade. Given that context, I keep pinching myself when I watch this version of the Atlanta Thrashers--because they're playing a smarter brand of hockey.
Many of the things that I'm seeing are subtle. About two weeks ago, I was at the home game and the Thrashers had a power play. The puck came over to the right side point men. That point man noticed that the opposing PK unit was sagging off him to protect the passing lanes. Inside of just burying his head and blasting a long shot, the Thrashers defenseman moved in towards the top of the circle which caused the defending PK man to move towards him opening up the middle of the ice more. It was a very small thing, but it was an adjustment that elite players or elite teams make and bad teams don't. It was an adjustment previous Thrashers teams rarely made.
On Wednesday, the Thrashers beat a very good Red Wings team. The Wings didn't bring their best effort after the 1st period and the Thrashers made them pay for that. In the past, the Thrashers probably would have found a way to let the Red Wings climb back into the game. What impressed me the most about the victory over the Wings was that the Thrashers forwards were consistently getting the step on the Wings defenders and creating 2 on 1 rushes. The Thrashers ability to get out wide on Detroit's defenders was obviously the result of a team strategy because more than one line was taking this approach. The coaching staff saw something they thought they could exploit on video and the team bought into the strategy and then they executed it.
The Thrashers probably have the best coaching staff in the history of the franchise--and it shows in many little details. The Thrashers players are making little clever plays in each game. Those small improvements will not always produce a victory but over the long run they could add a couple of wins to the team's total. Remember how competitive the Eastern Conference playoff race usually is--stealing a few extra points here and there over 82 games could prove to be enormous.
Credit also should go to GM Rick Dudley. Not only did he bring in this coaching staff, but he brought in many of the players who fill out the roster. Some of these guys are simply smarter hockey players than the guys they replaced. The players have embraced the team concept, they are listening to the coaching staff. The scoring by committee has been enough to keep the team in the hunt.
I wasn't wild about the price paid for Dustin Byfuglien or the plan to play him at defense. But Dudley deserves credit because it has worked so far this season. When Byfuglien is on the ice during even strength situations the team has broken even (2.43 GFA, 2.43 GAA) and when Byfuglien is off the ice the Thrashers are being outscored by nearly a goal per 60 minutes (2.21 GFA 3.01 GAA). Among the defensemen, Byfuglien has the 2nd lowest GAA when he is on the ice at ES (Ron Hainsey is your leader with a 2.16 ES GAA). On the Power Play Byfuglien has been very effective with his ice time, his PP GFA is a crazy good 11.37 which ranks him 2nd only to Anthony Stewart so far this season. Also the Thrashers PP unit has not allowed a shorthanded goal against--something the PP defense should get credit for.
The on-ice direction of the team is very good right now. Certainly the players will make some boneheaded plays as we go along, but the ratio of stupid decisions to smart decisions has shifted in the correct direction--and I'm very thankful for that.