Last season, the Atlanta Thrashers finished 23rd in the overall NHL standings. While the team finished above .500 with a 35-34-13 record, the truth is above .500 means very little in the "new NHL". Consider that the fourth-worst team in the NHL last season (Columbus Blue Jackets) finished a mere three games under .500 on the season.
Out with the old, in with the new
Optimism did not abound prior to the 2009-10 season when the focus of the Thrashers' season was as much to do with re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk as it was winning hockey games. Unfortunately for Thrashers supporters, the team finished poorly in all the significant statistical categories in 2009-10, and to rub salt in the wounds of the team fan base, Kovalchuk was dealt to New Jersey just prior to the trade deadline. The Kovalchuk trade marked the third time in the franchise's young existence that a superstar had been traded away by former GM Don Waddell. The Russian sniper joined Marian Hossa and Dany Heatley as former Thrashers players starring elsewhere.
With the loss of Kovalchuk, some in the fan base scoffed at another rebuilding project. They had heard that song before and had little interest in hearing it again. Rick Dudley, on the other hand, had no choice but to try to sell that idea to the team's withering group of fans.
The highly-respected Dudley, who played a significant role in the Stanley Cup championships of last season's Chicago Blackhawks and the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, had been through rebuilding projects before, and was of the belief that the Thrashers needed a new identity. And with their new Kovalchuk-less identity in hand, Atlanta was surprisingly successful early on this season, all without any kind of recognizable top line forward on the roster.
The team has changed its overall philosophy significantly. Having helped in the Chicago Blackhawks' rebuild, Dudley took this opportunity to impose his team-building belief throughout the organization. Maybe most importantly, he is aware of the inherent patience that comes with rebuilding.
Atlanta has received tremendous production from defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. These two blueliners not only lead the team in scoring, but they also played as a tandem and logged significant minutes night in and night out, before Enstrom's injury. The diminutive Enstrom's passing skills complemented Byfuglien's big shot, helping the Thrashers become an offensively dangerous team from the back-end. As of Monday January 24, the Thrashers' defense corps had produced whopping 31 goals.
That goal-scoring number is indeed impressive but it is also somewhat disconcerting for a team's top two point producers to be defensemen. Alas, that is what comes along with a rebuilding project that sees the team trade its best sniper for younger, cheaper assets. There is little doubt Kovalchuk would have been leading the team in scoring this year, but Dudley and new head coach Craig Ramsay have attempted to build a team-first mentality, something Kovalchuk's critics believe that he lacks.
The team's balanced scoring attack probably helps in building a team-first attitude. When there is no one-superstar player to rely on, others feel the need to step up and place more responsibility on their shoulders respectively. Coach Craig Ramsay has worked to instill that attitude from day one on the job.
Thrashers by the numbers
To think that the Thrashers have become a better scoring team than last season is a bit surprising. Former bench boss John Anderson was considered an offensive coach who allowed for more freedom to create offense. On the other hand, Ramsay is known for his defensive acumen (some would argue he was the best defensive forward of his generation) and has tried to instill such awareness into this year's squad. The difference between this season's squad and last season's squad in terms of goals-for is not vast, but an increase is impressive when taking into account the change in style and the loss of Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov.
What is surprising about this year's stat line is the fact that this team is awful on the penalty kill and somehow worse at preventing shots on goal. If not for the terrific goaltending, almost all from Ondrej Pavelec (16-12-7, .925 save percentage), this team would be far lower in the standing's than it currently is. The team's overall save percentage is currently .914, up 4% from last season. A closer look, however, reveals that only Pavelec is above .900 when it comes to Thrashers' netminders save percentage. This is not reassuring when one takes into account that the Czech netminder's career save percentage (albeit a short career thus far) is .911. If the youngsters numbers come down to earth, which is very, very likely, this team could be headed further down the standings.
In terms of positives, a number of improvements have been made under Ramsay. One significant change is that the Thrashers have become the top team in the NHL in total blocked shots. Blocking shots does require skill, although sometimes good teams who always control the puck see lower blocked shot totals because they are on the defensive far less. Having said that, the addition of Brent Sopel (fourth in the entire NHL with 114 blocked shots) has been the major catalyst for this blocked shot performance and one can only wonder how poor the team's shots against total would be without the group's ability to block shots.
Another positive change under Ramsay has been the team's overall discipline. The penalty killing is obviously an issue (29th overall in NHL), but one way to cut down on that being such a significant factor is to cut down on minor penalties and power plays against. The team has done that, demonstrating Ramsay's calm demeanor and discipline on the ice by cutting down on minor penalties to place eighth overall in the NHL this season. In fact, that has been such a sticking point that Dudley traded away offseason acquisition Ben Eager for what many believe was his quick temper and lack of consistent discipline.
While there are positives to build on, the Thrashers are still lacking in many important areas, most importantly shots against. Positives can be emphasized, but this team's improvement may very well have been overstated.
Becoming a more well-rounded hockey squad is the organization's main goal, but they do not lack company. The Southeast Division used to be called the South-Least for a reason. Season after season, four of the division's five teams would miss the playoffs. That is no longer the case and it starts at the top. George McPhee, Dale Tallon, Jim Rutherford and Steve Yzerman are respected hockey men with a vision. The division did not always have that and that makes Dudley's task that much more difficult.
The vision is in place for this franchise, but the touting of such a quick turnaround has been somewhat overblown. The numbers show some improvement, but lack in many of the most important areasmost significantly shots against.
Ramsay and Dudley are changing the culture by rebuilding the team's attitude, style of play and most importantly personnel.
Thrashers fans have to demonstrate that patience in order to build a team that can sustain success moving forward. A short-term fix will not help this time around, as the saying goes, "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."