If you’re a faithful follower of the Atlanta Thrashers, you are no doubt sickened to the pit of your stomach over the repetitive and annoying chorus of Canadian media who relish the fantasy of one day poaching the Atlanta-based hockey club from U.S. soil. Without fail, as attendance numbers drop well below the league average down at Philips Arena, relocation rumour mongers (I speak Canadian!) in the media start licking their chops at the prospect of returning a team to its rightful place such as Winnipeg, Quebec (pour la memoire, je voudrais voir les Nordiques de retour au Quebec) and Hamilton(??). Anyway, I’m not here to lament the sobering attendance reality that exists here in Atlanta, nor soothe any egoes by providing a litany of valid reasons, both economic and political, as to why the Thrashers aren’t moving any time soon. (For that, you can simply click on this link to ESPN.com for Burnside’s take on the situation). What I do plan to do is provide for you a list of 10 reasons why any curious resident within 100 miles of Atlanta should go check out the Thrashers. Beyond that, the folks in Winnipeg can go “peg” sand for all I care. Enjoy your AHL Moooooose!
Obviously, it’s still early in the season and any record through 28 games can be a bit misleading. Last year’s Thrashers are a great case in point when it comes to unrealized expectations after a strong start. Strangely, after the same number of games, both teams have/had a record of 15 – 10 – 3 for 33 points. The difference seems to be a different style of play, one that lends itself better to production and effectiveness over the long haul. Last year, after 28 games, the Thrashers were giving up way too many shots on goal — 34.4 SOG to be exact — and that trend would end up taking its toll with a 6-game holiday losing slump to finish out a miserable December. On top of that, the Thrashers were coming off their hottest scoring stretch of the season in which they potted 49 goals in 14 games by scoring at a sizzling 11.5% clip. Alas, that trend would come to an abrupt halt when the team managed just 16 goals over its next 8 for a scoring clip of only 7.2%. The goaltending tandem of Hedberg & Pavelec couldn’t rise to the challenge of overcoming the scoring drought and the rest is etched in history as another season of failure.
But I digress, I’m here to show you why the Thrashers of THIS SEASON are worthy of your attention. Statistically speaking, they are certainly trending in the right direction with 2 more goals scored compared to last year through 28 games and a goal differential of plus-13 compared to last year’s plus-8 (adjusted for shootouts and ENG). The special teams have maintained consistency and the Thrashers have 5 more PP goals through 28 games compared to last year. Although the penalty kill numbers are roughly the same (hovering around 80%). Most importantly is the improving trend of shot differential as the Ramsay-led Thrashers are 53 SOG better than the Anderson-led Thrashers through 28 games. Impressively, over the last 15 games they have netted a favorable SOG differential of plus-20 (+26 at even-strength). In the last 10, a favorable differential of plus-19, coupled with timely PP scoring, has produced an 8 – 2 mark to earn a share of 6th place in the East.
Now that I have laid out the comparison to last season, let me point out TEN really good reasons why you should be excited enough about Thrashers hockey to check out a few games over the next couple months. In no particular order they are:
#1) A very proficient and effective Power Play unit — Since they are currently #1 in PP production (at the time of typing this on 12/8) with a 24.7% success rate (27 goals in 28 games), I’ll put this at the top of my list and let those numbers do the talking. Gone is the Kovalchuk one-timer show, replaced by the booming shot of Dustin Byfuglien, who leads the way with 14 PP points and several wounded D-men at the end of his booming slap-shots.
#2) Dustin Byfuglien’s emergence as a Norris Trophy candidate — #1 bleeds right into #2 with “Big Buff” stealing the spotlight down at the Bulb with his charismatic persona as well as his top production from the back end. Not only is he leading the Thrashers with 29 points, he is also 13th overall in the NHL as well as the leading point-producer among all defenseman. Not bad for a power forward, eh?
#3) Balanced attack with scoring from all 4 lines — I kid you not when I tell you Coach Ramsay loves to roll 4 lines. When he says he wants everyone to contribute, he means it as every forward averages nearly 10 mins of ice-time per game, the minor exception being Eric Boulton who is sometimes in the bin serving five minutes for fighting! As a result, the Thrashers have 8 forwards with at least 11 points. Led by captain Andrew Ladd, who has 28 points thus far, the Thrashers have 7 players with at least 15 points and may be the only team in the league with 7 players having scored at least 4 even-strength goals.
#4) Ondrej Pavelec’s emergence as a consistently brilliant shot-stopper — It’s still a bit early to announce Pavelec’s candidacy for the Vezina Trophy, but the 23 year-old Czech is off to a great start with a gaudy save percentage of .947 in 16 appearances as well as a miniscule goals against average of 1.71. He has put together a sensational run in which he has won 8 of his last 9 starts, allowing only 11 goals and stopping 96.2% of the shots that get to him. If he keeps this up, along with the many dazzling, acrobatic saves of recent memory, then countryman Dominik Hasek may be looking to get HIS autograph!!
#5) Craig Ramsay’s coaching influence, calm leadership and effective strategy — For whatever reason, Ramsay has had to toil, perhaps willingly for the most part, as an assistant bench-boss for way too long before getting a real chance at the head job. He’s had two interim stints as a Head Coach, but old pal and GM Rick Dudley realized the time was now for Ramsay to get a serious shot. And so far, despite some rough patches, the impact has been huge. “Rammer” has helped to completely change the dynamic of the locker-room with his quiet confidence-instilling personality while his attention-to-detail teaching approach has yielded undeniable results (which we’ll get to in a bit). Lastly, his ability to adjust within a game and get his troops to rally in the face of adversity has been remarkable.
#6) Strong team leadership with a Stanley Cup pedigree — As a coach, you’re only as good as your captain, right? If your captain doesn’t have the respect of his peers and control of the room, then the coach’s message is undermined. With Andrew Ladd, that has not been a problem. Quiet in demeanor, Ladd is a consummate professional who never takes a shift off. He’s not the most talented guy in the room, but his blend of know-how, savvy and experience (even though he’s still only 24!) had garnered him the respect of this team as well as 28 points in what’s turning into a career year on the ice. Obviously, we know he has been through the rigors of two long Cup runs (winning of course) and that can only further strengthen his presence in the room when Coach Ramsay needs someone to chide the boys.
#7) Lots of youth and potential balanced out by experience — It is well documented how meaningful it is to have 5 Stanley Cup winners (including Freddy Modin) in the dressing room to provide leadership for a young team. But what makes this situation even better is the fact that this team is teeming with young talent and potential for improvement. We already knew Evander Kane was ready to take his game to a new level, and he is. But he’s still finding ways to contribute even when he’s not scoring. Zach Bogosian still has some puzzling stretches, but his pure, raw skill is undeniable. Luckily, he gets to work and train with blueline partner Johnny Oduya, and that pairing is coming into its own. Lastly, rookie Alexander Burmistrov has been much more effective than anyone ever dared to dream with 12 points and a staunch plus-5 rating on the “checking” line. And his knack for controlling the puck and drawing penalties — he must be close to the league lead — has been a boon to a team that wasn’t sure if they’d have enough scoring at the start of the year.
#8) TEAM DEFENSE!! Stats in this case do not lie! — Despite a very shaky start in which the Thrashers gave up a startling 54 goals in 15 games (3.60 per) not counting shootouts, they have finally settled into the new coaching framework and paradigm. Since giving up 5 goals in Ottawa back in early November, the Thrashers have been stingy allowing a mere 24 goals (2 were empty netters) in 13 games. The play of Pavelec has certainly been a huge factor, but he could not be so good without the proper level of support. The Thrashers are 3rd overall in Blocked Shots with 440 (an avg of 15.7 per) as a team and 2nd overall — behind Chicago ironically — in the number of Takeaways credited. In fact, they have 7 players in the Top 50 of this category including Byfuglien, who leads all D-men with 30! Others on the list of defensive prowess are: Bryan Little (16th), Burmistrov (18th), Kane (29th), Nicklas Bergfors (35th), Oduya (39th) and Rich Peverley (48th), who is also 10th in the league in total face-offs won (58%). By the way, Byfuglien is 7th overall in “takes”.
#9) Character and a will to win that fuels cohesion and winning — While the Thrashers have been somewhat “dominant” over their most recent 9 games, winning 4 of them by 3 goals or more, they have also demonstrated the ability to come from behind and chase a team down for a win at the end. The Thrashers have succeeded in doing so twice in the last 4 games beating both Colorado (at their house) and Nashville Monday nite in dramatic, overtime fashion. Now when the team gets behind, which is rare as they have scored first in 12 of the last 15 games, there is a calming sense that this team is capable of coming back through hard work and perseverance within the system crafted by Ramsay. They don’t panic and they don’t try to do too much; they simply keep working and doing the little things that help you win battles and eventually games.
#10) And finally, what’s more fun than good hockey in the dead of winter?? — As I write this novel, the temperature is quickly dropping into the upper 20s here in Atlanta. Winter and its harsh chill (and wind!) has hit Atlanta hard of late. Luckily the Thrashers are heating up. So why not spend an evening down in Blueland warming yourself up with some adult beverages, food, hockey and fun as the Thrashers do their best to get the Bulb rocking like 2007. You have no excuse Atlanta! Great seats, inexpensive to boot, are available by the bushel! ;-) Hockey is wonderful live and everyone likes a team that plays with the heart of a champion. So get your ass down to Marietta St, scalp a cheap ticket and have some fun with Big Buff and the boys. You won’t regret it!
About the Author: Accountant / Analyst who has a nagging writing addiction when it comes to hockey. I've been a hockey fan since I was a wee tyke and now my allegiance to the Atlanta Thrashers has me "mentally thrashed". My other long-time passion is the game of golf so I'm a glutton for punishment! As a mid to late 30-something, I'm blessed to have a girlfriend who aids and abets my hockey / blogging obsession. Hockey heroes include: Gilbert Perreault, Adam Oates (Go RPI!), Pat LaFontaine and Marty Reasoner. Follow me on the twitter machine @j_barty_party