Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Future of Thrashers’ Defense: Part Two – Personnel

On Monday, February 9, 2009 at 8:17 a.m. (according to the Slightly Off-Topic blog time… which is totally off-topic itself), I had a well thought out introduction written to begin the discussion on the Thrashers’ lack of defensive success since the inception of the franchise.

Today, Thursday, February 12, 2009 at whatever time this finally gets posted, I have no such cool, laser-guided, music-pumping, introduction. I thought briefly about having some sort of chess reference and how the Thrashers don’t have the right pieces in place to implement a successful strategy. Upon further review, that intro was really lame… so this is what you get. I hope you are still reading.

On-Topic: RE: Thrashers defense via the personnel… forward we go. This is Part Two.

As layed out on Monday, the most glaring problem with the Atlanta Thrashers defense, in my estimation, is the lack of a consistent, aggressive forecheck. Before I go clamoring on about how Jordan LaVallee is a perfect fit and Riley Holzapfel is the checking line center of the future, let us discuss the type of attributes that players need to have in an aggressive forecheck… in order of importance.

  1. Everyday I’m Hustlin’ – The most important part of a successful forecheck is hard work. The whole concept surrounding a good press is to force turnovers based on offensive third pressure. A team that is willing to work tirelessly on the forecheck is going to create tons of opporunities through sheer work ethic.
  1. I feel the need, the need for speed – Skating, more specifically. Straight foot speed is a bonus, but overall skating ability is more important to the forecheck. The difference between them is simple. Skating incorporates speed, but also factors in acceleration, the ability to change directions (mobility), and response time (agility). Forwards need to have all or a combination of most of these skating skills to be relatively effective on the forecheck.
  1. Who is responsible for this? – Otherwise known as the mythical, intangible “hockey sense.” Responsibility on the ice is difficult to gauge. Some players are taught a responsible role from an early age, others are taught much later on… even at the NHL level. Discipline and awareness are integral working parts of a player becoming responsible. In an aggressive forecheck, a team must have hockey savvy players that are aggressive at the right times. Responsibility factors in when a player makes the wrong decision, but is able to recover in some form or fashion. This is all just a hurricane of words to do describe a good defender.

With these three broad aspects in mind, who on the current Thrashers team has what? I’ve compiled a list of the current Thrashers forwards as of the current date with each players forechecking qualities. You may disagree, if so, please note why in the comments section… I’d love some feedback on this.

Colby Armstrong – 1, 3
Eric Boulton – 1, 3
Erik Christensen – 2
Ilya Kovalchuk – 2
Slava Kozlov – 3
Bryan Little – 1, 2, 3
Joe Motzko - 3
Eric Perrin – 1, 2, 3
Rich Peverley – 1, 2, 3
Marty Reasoner – 1, 3
Jim Slater – 1, 2
Colin Stuart – 1, 2, 3
Chris Thorburn – 1
Todd White – 3

Now, I know there is going to be some disagreement, especially when you factor in some of the performances of these players this season. Please keep in mind that this is based purely on an attribute level, not on performance this season.

Out of the current Thrashers forwards, I see four players that consistently show all of the characteristics of a good forechecking forward.

Now, no team is going to have 13 forwards that will top the charts in all three categories. The main concern with the Atlanta Thrashers (and this is a team-wide concern, not just defensively) is that this team doesn’t have enough combination forwards. Guys that have at least two of the three forechecking qualities, plus intangibles like size or strength or good hands.

Take Todd White and Slava Kozlov for instance. These are both veteran players that were two-thirds of the Thrashers best scoring line for the first half of the season. The name of their game was puck possession though, not turnovers off the forecheck. White is a relatively responsible defensive player that has a good skating stride, but I wouldn’t say he skates as well as the other 2’s on that list. Personally, though Todd’s game has been much more consistent this season, I still see him conserving energy on the forecheck… the same goes for Kozlov.

Not every line has to be a force on the forecheck and that can work to the Thrashers advantage. However, if the system is to be uniform, then all of the players must at least play a style of the uniform forecheck. This is something that I, as a fan, have just not seen.

Now the fun part… who could help the Thrashers? Understanding what type of player the Thrashers need to be successful on the forecheck is the first step to finding out who can help this team and where.

In my opinion, the upgrade on the forecheck has to start in the bottom six. Though this could be a topic for a blog any other day, the Thrashers have tried to force many square bottom six pegs into top six circle slots.

Guys like Joe Motzko, Chris Thorburn, Marty Reasoner, and arguably Colby Armstrong are all bottom six players that have been given shots to play in a top six role. This is not a problem if there are some bonafide forecheckers and/or scoring options in the bottom six to level out the lines… but for the Thrashers there aren’t.

There will be plenty of free agent options, many of which won’t be Thrasher material (either by our or their own estimation) in July, but let’s focus on some of the Thrashers prospects that might have a chance to crack the lineup in the legitimate future.

Spencer Machacek – By all accounts, Machacek is nearly a 1, 2, 3 player already for the Wolves of Chicago. A right winger, Spencer has heralded by scouts for his tireless work ethic (#1 on my list for a good forechecker) and is also scouted as being good in the high traffic areas as well as in the corners. Machacek is the prototypical forechecking winger.

Where could he fit? It’s too early to peg Machacek for a top six role and especially not with the added pressure of playing the right side of Ilya Kovalchuk (dreamers take note). Machacek could definitely fill the role of an Eric Boulton, Joe Motzko, or even (if he gets moved) Colby Armstrong on the bottom lines by next season… depending on the deadline deals Atlanta makes in March.

Jordan LaVallee – Got a cup of coffee last season and with his size, fluid skating, physical presence, and work ethic, Jordan is certainly a 1,2 player and probably on his way to getting 3 down as well. With a couple years in the Wolves system, LaVallee has shown that he can put some pucks in the net, play the penalty kill, and deliver some sound body checks. For some reason, I have this feeling that the Thrashers want LaVallee to play more of a role like Chris Thorburn (enforcer with some offensive skill) rather than what I’d like to see him play (a Colby Armstrong-style player on the left side). I think Jordan has 15-goal potential down the line in the NHL. Much like Colin Stuart, LaVallee’s skating stride should at least get him a shot.

Where could he fit? Third line left wing spot looks perfect to me. Maybe not this season, but if Atlanta were to put LaVallee with Reasoner in the middle and Armstrong on the right side… oh man, that looks like a forechecking line to be reckoned with on a nightly basis. Once again though, I think the Thrashers want him to be a different type of player than he really is.

Riley Holzapfel – Apparently, Riley has third line center written all over him. I’ve seen less of Holzapfel than the other two, but Riley may not be strong enough up the middle to be a center at the NHL level. Holzapfel is another guy that has 1 and 2 of the above categories along with the potential to be a defensively sound player.

Where could he fit? Unless Marty Reasoner and Eric Perrin get moved at the deadline, Holzapfel won’t play center at the NHL level this season. I could definitely see Riley make the transition to left wing, at least to start off his NHL career. Colin Stuart said after he came up that both Machacek and Holzapfel were players to watch for as each was playing good hockey when Stuart left the Wolves.

I’m holding off until the deadline to state what the Thrashers should do at the forward position regarding call-ups. Atlanta my bring in a player or two that has NHL potential that might get a look over those three or a trade might open up a spot for one or two current Wolves.

The fact is that these three players could be very valuable in the Thrashers future as they look to improve the defense starting from up top.

So, 1,557 words later, the future of the Thrashers defense actually gets to the blueliners. With the trade deadline looming a little less than a month away, the Thrashers are sure to have a shake up on the backend. Mathieu Schneider is almost certainly guaranteed to be on the move and Niclas Havelid has been a subject of trade rumors as well.

The Thrashers actually have a couple of promising young defensemen that give rise to hope… if the forecheck can be fixed. Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Boris Valabik, and Nathan Oystrick all occupy NHL roster spots and are likely to do so for the rest of the season.

Atlanta also has Ron Hainsey and Garnet Exelby under contract for a couple more years. If the defenders of Blueland really are part of a rebuilding process, then I think the Thrashers will move Niclas Havelid and replace him with another Swedish defenseman come draft day.

As this season has gone on, I’ve changed my view as to what this team needs at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Though this is also a topic for another blog, a much later blog, the Thrashers draft plans will affect what happens at the deadline this year.

Honestly, I think that Enstrom, Bogosian, Valabik, and Hainsey can all be above average defenders in the Eastern Conference. Bogosian and Enstrom have the talent to be extraordinary, Valabik can fill a role and be a steadying presence of physicalness, and Ron Hainsey the veteran presence.

Garnet Exelby is a mystery. He played well at the beginning of this season, but injury problems have really taken it’s toll on the type of game that Exelby used to play. A guy that would deliver bone-crunching hits, Exelby has gone away from the game that got him to the NHL. By the end of Ex’s contract, if he’s not a third pairing defensemen then Atlanta hasn’t developed their talent properly.

The only real NHL talent that Atlanta seems to have in Chicago is Artus Kulda. After a great playoff experience last year, Kulda’s season in Chicago has been marred by injuries. By all accounts, Kulda has the capability to be a sturdy defensive partner for his former junior teammate Zach Bogosian. I think that Artus is still a year away from being a consistent contributor to the NHL game and I believe the Thrashers are in no rush to hurry his development.

When looking at the personnel that Atlanta has available now and potentially in the future (with development of the young ones), the Thrashers blueline looks talented. Talent will only get you so far though and the Thrashers have to have a better system. We’ve seen a much better Kari Lehtonen is the last month and Ondrej Pavelec is knocking at the door.

Atlanta has the tools to improve defensively as a team, but all of these guys are young and it will take time for it to slide into place. The key is the forecheck. The key is currently lost.

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