by PuckStopsHere on 11/21/09 at 02:32 PM ET
Last year, the Atlanta Thrashers finished with the fourth worst record in the NHL. Nobody thought too highly of the team that went through the 2008/09 season with 35 wins and 47 losses. This year (so far) has gone much better, though the Thrashers have not received much notice yet in part because the Thrashers have played a league least 18 games so far. Through that, they have a 10-8 record (with two regulation tie points), which has the team in 22nd when the standings are sorted by points. If you sort the standings in terms of points per game, Atlanta is 11th (11 positions better than their total points spot). Faux rumors shows this with their projected final standings (which has Atlanta on pace to get 100 points this year). That would make this the best season in Atlanta Thrasher history.
If we look deeper than the point totals, Atlanta looks to be in even better shape. Atlanta has the best offence in the league so far, when sorted by goals per game. Their 3.61 goals per game puts them slightly ahead of Washington for the league lead. If we sort teams in terms of goal differential per game, Atlanta’s +0.72 goals per game places them fourth in the league (behind San Jose, Philadelphia and Chicago). Goal differentials are usually better indicative of how well a team is playing than point totals.
Atlanta has done this with their best player Ilya Kovalchuk hurt for one third (six) of their games so far. Their supposed number one goalie Kari Lehtonen has not played at all due to back surgery. If the Thrashers can get healthy, things could get even better.
There are also reasons to believe that this level of play cannot last. Ilya Kovalchuk becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. That could create a distracting story about whether or not he is to be traded.
Many of their top scorers have no long term track record of success. Rich Peverley leads the team with 23 points. Last year (at age 26) he had his career best season of 44 points. Prior to that, he had never exceeded ten points in an NHL season. It is reasonable to ask if the early season has been a hot streak he cannot maintain all season. Their third highest scorer (behind Peverley and Kovalchuk) is Maxim Afinogenov who has 19 points. While Afinogenov clearly has talent, last year he nearly played himself out of the NHL by scoring a mere 20 points in Buffalo along with some very poor defence. How likely is he to regress toward his playing level of last year? Their fourth highest scorer Nik Antropov has 17 points so far. His career best is 59 (he too is on pace to significantly beat that) and was criticized for his lack of intensity in two cities last year (Toronto and New York). Can you rely on him? Their next three scorers are all very young. There is rookie Evander Kane, 2nd year man Zach Bogosian and third year man Tobias Enstrom. A good young core can help a team make a large step forward, but it can also fall apart quickly if it is playing “over its head”. It is far more likely to fall apart if the players above them stop scoring, which is very possible based on their track record and the situation is made worse if a Kovalchuk trade happens.
Atlanta has the potential to be a big surprise team this year. They have played very well so far. Their success is partially hidden by a lack of games played. The underlying numbers and key injuries so far, make things look even better than that. However, continued success requires unproven players like Rich Peverley to continue playing well and it requires potential attitude problems in Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov to stay on board. It is possible that this is a breakout season for the Atlanta Thrashers if they can stay on their current track. Can they?
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