The man known as…well, at least to me anyway, as the “Human Eclipse” has emerged as the best all-around player to wear the cobalt blue at Philips Arena. Add in the fact that he eclipsed just about every previous career high in his first year as a Thrasher and you can see why there is such optimism in Blueland about Nik’s prospects for an even better year this coming season. Last season, Antropov registered a career best in seven statistical categories: total points (67), assists (43), plus/minus (+13), power play points (21), PP assists (13), average ice time (18:14) and shooting percentage (an obscenely high 19%). Now if we could only get the “Big A” to be a bit more selfish when the puck ends up on his stick in scoring positions on the ice.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Antropov is whether this season was the absolute pinnacle of his production or just the beginning of his finest “hour” of hockey. To answer this question, I’ve dived deep into a pile of stats to see if Nik is indeed trending in a positive upward fashion. At first blush, the answer seems like an obvious “duh, of course he is!” But a definitive conclusion can only be reached by going a little deeper into the numbers to flesh out the more meaningful statistical trends. Going back over the last 4 seasons I found lots of evidence to support the thinking that we’re just beginning to see the best Kazakh-Nik-istan has to offer.
For each of the past 4 seasons, Nik has managed to increase significantly his points per minute output with each season being better than the one before. In ‘06-‘07, Antropov’s PPM output was .0368 and then .0387 in ‘07-‘08, .0426 in ‘08-‘09 and lastly .0484 in Atlanta. To make those numbers a little more meaningful, I have computed them as point per game (per 60 mins) averages as well: 2.21, 2.32, 2.56 and 2.90 as a T-bird. Translated over a full 82 game season, Nik would have registered the following point totals: 56, 59, 65 and 73, respectively. So it definitely seems as though Nik is not only trending upwards, but also still realizing his optimal potential as a player at the age of 30.
The best part of the statistical scoring trend for Nik is that his production has always increased in conjunction with additional ice-time when he’s healthy. In 2006-07, an expected break-out season, Nik’s season was marred by injuries and two extended periods of missed games. Despite only playing 54 games, and only 16:36 minutes per game on average, Nik managed to dent the back of the net 18 times, 13 of which came after he returned from a month and a half injury lay-off. In fact, he finished strong with 10 goals and 8 assists in his final 28 games of the season, a .64 point per game clip. Since then, Nik’s PPG average has been above not only .64, but well above a .70 PPG pace. Last season his PPG peaked at .88 PPG.
Without looking at the numbers, some might argue that Nik’s production only increased because he was getting significantly more power-play ice time. But that wasn’t really the case as his PP TOI dropped in 2008-09 (when he split time in Toronto and New York) from a career best 3:35 the year before to just 2:50 with TOR and 3:21 as a Ranger. But what is impressive is the fact that his points per game increased to its highest level ever in 2009-10 as a Thrasher with the same 3:35 minutes of PP time as in his 56 point season in 2007-08. While Nik did in fact elevate his PP numbers to a career high level, his even-strength ice-time production increased markedly as well. His 46 ES points in 76 games (a .61 PPG avg) was by far his best season at ES in his 10-year career.
The potential red herring in this case is the fact that Nik Antropov got to play alongside a guy named Ilya Kovalchuk, who is probably the best line-mate he’s ever had save for Mats Sundin, with whom Nik only played on an occasional basis early in his Toronto days. But interestingly enough, Nik, who is not afraid to pay the physical price to annoy goalies with his big butt in the crease, actually produced at a better rate (25 points in 25 games) after Kovalchuk was traded than he did before when he was producing at a .82 PPG rate. And that was in spite of a nagging hip injury which kept him from practicing most of the second half of the 2009-10 season.
Of course, the hip injury did seem to affect his defensive play (that and playing with Max Afinogenov instead of Bryan Little) down the stretch as his plus/minus took a serious hit—from a +20 on February 6 to +13 in just 17 games—after the lines were changed. Initially, the new line combination of Bergfors-Antropov-Little really gelled and put up impressive numbers (11 goals & 15 assists) in the 8 games they played together. However, the injury to Evander Kane and the subsequent dim-witted decision by former Head Coach John Anderson to shake up the lines, slowed Antropov’s late-season production as he only registered 13 points in his last 17 games. But Bryan Little and Nick Bergfors were not quite the same after they were split up. Then again, the team wasn’t quite the same without Evander Kane in the line-up to spread the talent evenly throughout the top 3 lines.
To wrap things up in what has become an alarmingly long and analysis-heavy entry (I do apologize but I’ve got to do something during the boring summer months to keep me busy!), I believe that Nik Antropov has arrived as an elite top-line player in this league. However, he isn’t the greatest face-off man, but when healthy, his defensive awarness, hustle and long-reach more than make up for his paltry 41% F/O win percentage. Although I would prefer that he move to the wing on the PP so either Rich Peverley, Bryan Little or even Todd White (gasp!) can take and hopefully win the draw at least 55% of the time. But most importantly, the numbers support the assertion that big Nik is just starting to peak. Barring further injury issues—luckily he has averaged 76 games over the last 3 seasons—that keep him out of the line-up, I see no reason why he won’t continue to play at a high level for the Thrashers for the next 3 seasons.
And that would surely make all of his fellow Kazakhs quite happy and proud. As for Thrashers fans, dare I say that three more seasons of .80 plus PPG production would make them all happy enough to make a “romance explosion” in their britches? Okay, perhaps not. Let’s just say that it would make for the “benefit glorious nation of Blueland-ia” if Nik’s numbers keep ascending.
j_barty_party of As the Birds Thrash