Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Art of Line Combinations

After some recent discussion on the Official Atlanta Thrashers Message Boards as well as some comments on this very blog, Slightly Off-Topic has decided to take a deeper look into the makeup of how and why forward lines are created, when the lines need to be shaken up, and the stratification of skill set within.

Making up lines is not as simple as just putting three guys on the ice at a time and hoping that everything goes well. There are schools of thought, prevailing ideas, style of play considerations, and many more moving parts that factor into the forming and breaking up of line combinations.

As an Atlanta Thrashers intensive web log, Slightly Off-Topic will focus on the overall themes of line combinations, but relate those ideas to John Anderson and our interpretations of his forward jumblings.

The first part of this discussion is going to seem relatively obvious for true hockey fans, but we are going to go through it anyways. First, we must identify the lines themselves. In the traditional forms, the four forward lines usually serve these roles:

First Line – A scoring line that normally features each team’s most dangerous offensive player. The #1 line is called such because the idea is that a team’s top line is the trio of forwards that delivers the most offensive production. This does not always mean that the three most talented offensive players make up this line, but rather the three players that consistently provide offensive zone time… at the least.

Second Line – May feature great offensive threats, like the first line, but generally provides depth scoring. In hockey, there are many great players that aren’t considered “first line material,” but still have the offensive skill set to be top six players. The top six forward slots are generally reserved for point producing NHL players. There are exceptions to every rule and depending on some of the line philosophies that we will look at later in this entry, teams may decide to purposely put a bottom six style player into a top six role. In general, the second line is a unit that doesn’t have the same level of skill as the first line, but is cast in an offensive role.

Third Line – The most diverse line on most teams, the third line is a swing line for many coaches. Traditionally, the third line has been a defensively sound trio of forwards that has some, but not much, offensive punch. Many teams, in today’s NHL, look to the third line to provide energy and forechecking. The type of players that make up third lines usually have some grit to their game, but also provide depth on offense. Many NHL teams will feature a 20-goal scorer on the third line, but generally it is a unit that has a defense-first mentality.

Fourth Line – In most cases, the fourth line is a unit that is built solely to provide toughness and energy. Of four lines, the fourth (obviously) will get the least minutes on ice. This should allow the fourth line to have fresh legs each and every shift… leading to strong forechecking shifts and some agitating play. The fourth line will normally feature a NHL team’s most likely fighting option. Goals are few and far between for the fourth line, but any offensive contribution generally comes as a result of a strong forecheck.

In a nutshell, those are loose descriptions of what the four forward lines look like in the NHL traditionally. As coaches begin to evaluate their rosters and start piecing together line combinations, I am of the belief that most hockey coaches will try and do two things first:

1.) Every coach is going to identify the most likely sources of offense. Essentially, where are the goals going to come from? For Atlanta Thrashers fans, there is one obvious choice to start with and he comes in a 6-2, Russian sized wrapper. That man is Ilya Kovalchuk. When assigning line combinations, Ilya Kovalchuk is the star of the show… who gets to play with him? How does he get used? Who has chemistry with him? Ah, the C-word… an opinionated, intangible quality of a line.

2.) What are my weaknesses? Every coach knows what their strengths and weaknesses are going to be and in some cases a certain combination of lines may be able to hide some of those problems. If Atlanta, as a team, does not match up in a certain way, such as speed, size, or skill, then the coaches’ job is to mask that weakness as best he can.

It is at this point, when the strengths and weaknesses of a team’s forward unit has been identified, that the overall schools of thought come into play. What I mean by this is that some coaches have different ideas of how lines should work.

There is a common perception that balance is an important theme when creating lines. The size, speed, and skill of the forwards must be balanced so that other teams have a hard time matching up.

As an example, earlier in the season John Anderson put defensive-minded players Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn onto a line with offensively-gifted, but defensively-challenged Ilya Kovalchuk. What was the purpose of this line? In the past, Kovalchuk had shown some decent chemistry with Chris Thorburn on his right wing and even further back, Ilya had done well with chippy right wingers (Mellanby, Sim, Petrovicky).

Anderson, noting this, might have tried to mask Kovalchuk’s deficiencies on the backend by putting out more responsible two-way players. At the same time that John Anderson tried this trio, his second unit of Slava Kozlov, Todd White, and Bryan Little were producing many offensive chances and points. Anderson could afford to tinker with Kovalchuk’s line.

Balance is not always the way. Depending on the personnel of a team, an overloading tactic is a possibility as well. There are many teams in the NHL that have three premier players that play on the same line. The most obvious example is the Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley line in Ottawa. Rather than attempting to balance the scoring, the Senators have gone with the one dominating offensive line that gets a ton of minutes and gives opposing teams fits in the match-up game.

Personally, I like balance in the lines and I think it is evident that John Anderson feels the same way.

Now the difficult part of creating lines… what works? This is where chemistry sets in. An attribute of a line that some people see and others don’t and when the others that don’t see it do, then the ones who saw it don’t anymore… confusing right? So is the mystery of chemistry.

With the broad theme of full set of lines in place, the hard part is taking the pieces and connecting them together. What makes that even more difficult is that the puzzle is constantly shifting and changing… rendering something that fit and looked good at one point totally useless 15 games later.

Each hockey coach, whether they will admit it or not, has an idea of what will and won’t work. With that idea in place, many hockey coaches will try the same thing over and over again hoping that it will finally click. Sometimes it does and other times it does not… it’s just a human tendency… to want to make your ideas work.

There is a philosophy that playmakers don’t necessarily need the most talented players around them to be successful. Example: Joe Thornton hops on a line with Jonathan Cheechoo in San Jose a few years ago and Cheechoo scores 52 goals.

There is a philosophy that a North American style large winger can benefit by playing with teammates that play an east-to-west, lateral style game. Example: Mike Knuble this season with Philadelphia.

There is a philosophy that having the top two offensive lines with different styles, one with a puck possession game and the other a quick-hitting, on the rush style will keep an defense off-balanced. Example: This season’s Boston Bruins.

There are countless hockey philosophies, but the most important aspect when creating and dealing with line combinations is flow. Similar to chemistry, but not the same, flow the part of the game that you notice without noticing.

Chemistry is knowing what the other player is going to do and when they are going to do it… a trust and a complimenting style of play. Flow is the execution of that complimenting style of play. What we are seeing from Bryan Little and Ilya Kovalchuk in the current line situation for the Thrashers is the development of chemistry, but the flow of their games was already intertwined.

Little and Kovalchuk play the game at the same pace and fill lanes, gaps, and patches of ice for each other.

There is no science to making line combinations. It is an art in which the players themselves are self-propelled brushes painting wonderful masterpieces or chaotic confusion. The coach just gives or doesn’t give them the opportunity.

For the Thrashers current lines, I believe that John Anderson is trying to create a balanced, unified attack. The speed that Kovalchuk and Little have is unmatched by any other Thrasher. Todd White may not share the chemistry with those two that Rich Peverley could, but White is holding his own.

Peverley, in turn, has shown pretty good chemistry with any linemates and that has continued with Marty Reasoner and Slava Kozlov. With a not-so-educated guess, I believe that Reasoner is playing second line minutes to be showcased for a potential trade.

The third line has received a speed boost from Colin Stuart and Erik Christensen as Anderson has really placed at least one strong skater on every line. Stuart’s offensive skills are solid and Colby Armstrong is on pace for a 20-goal season. Christensen, despite his struggles, has an offensive mind, but has played slightly better on defense as the third line center than he did on the first or second lines.

The fourth line provides the grit with Boulton and Thorburn. Eric Perrin has played extremely well and skated with purpose over the last 15 games. When Jim Slater is healthy to return, the Thrashers have a very energetic and opportunistic fourth line that is usually defensively sound.

As a whole, with the current success, these lines make a certain amount of sense for Anderson. I think that Reasoner is not long for the top six, despite his good play. Erik Christensen isn’t a prototypical third line center and has struggled to stay in the lineup this season. I don’t think Todd White is a #1 center. It is my opinion that White is better in the number two slot and without Kovalchuk to his left.

Would I do the lines differently? Initially yes, but there is a method to Anderson’s line of thinking and he’s not just flipping lines around, like Bob Hartley, to hope that something sticks. John has a reason for what he’s doing with the forwards and in recent days that has translated to some success on the ice… which we can all appreciate.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Schneider to Montreal... West Coast Swing... LaVallee Watch

Alright, nearly a week has gone by and I’m itching to update this Web Log… Last time on Slightly Off-Topic, I got slightly excited about the prospects of Jordan LaVallee entering the Thrashers lineup after his call-up to Atlanta from Chicago. A little bit later on in this entry I’ll share my thoughts on Jordan, his time with the Thrashers, and when he might get a look on the ice.

But first, there is more pressing news… though old by now, Mathieu Schneider has been traded to the Montreal Canadiens for a 2nd round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (originally Anaheim’s) and a third round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Thrashers also sent a conditional pick to Montreal for this year’s draft that will be determined based on how the Canadiens wrap up their playoff story.

I’d diagram this trade from a Canadien perspective, but I just don’t care. The Thrashers were essentially able to trade Ken Klee and Brad Larsen for two third round or better picks in the next two drafts. An additional second rounder this year could be an extremely valuable asset. Due to the projected depth of this year’s draft class, holding two second round picks could be a large bargaining chip if Atlanta wants to try to A.) Move up for a second first round pick (Atlanta will undoubtedly have a lottery i.e. top-5 draft pick) or B.) Package the second rounder with other picks/players/prospects to pick up a prospect/NHL player.

What this deal does for Atlanta is give them options for this year’s draft… We already know that Atlanta is going to end up with a top level talent, whether it’s Victor Hedman, John Tavares, Magnus Svenssen-Paajarvi, Evander Kane, Matt Duchene, etc.

Two second round picks, in such a deep draft, are going to be very important in complimenting whatever the Thrashers end up doing with the top-5 pick. If Atlanta goes defenseman (Hedman), then the Thrashers may be able to package the two second rounders to get a first round talent forward or Atlanta can go with the two second rounders to address forward depth.

The acquisition of Mathieu Schneider, though not necessarily successful on the ice, was a smart move by Waddell. Schneider filled salary requirements, relished a role of mentor for our young Zach Bogosian, brought a professional attitude to the ice every day, and then was moved for assets more valuable than what he cost to bring him here.

All-in-all, the Schneider saga in Atlanta was a success for the Thrashers. The part of this whole process that makes me most pleased was that in an interview with Darren Eliot on SportSouth during the Kings game, Waddell made clear that he had tried to pry away some prospects from the Canadiens.

Waddell did the right thing by moving Schneider now and getting a solid return. Since Schneider was the only blatently obvious tradable commodity, Waddell can now pick and choose on potential deals for the likes of Marty Reasoner, Colby Armstrong, Niclas Havelid, and any other Thrashers that might draw interest come March 4.

With Schneider in the review mirror, how about the Atlanta Thrashers and that killer offense, eh? Where did this come from?

Over the past two games, both wins over Anaheim and L.A., the Thrashers have scored 14 goals in regulation and put 70 shots on goal in 125 minutes. This… is Thrashers hockey? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that this current stretch out on the coast is the meshing of John Anderson’s system within his players. I’d like to think that…

But… (dang, not a but!), let’s be honest here. Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastian Giguerre and L.A’s Jonathan Quick didn’t exactly have great starts in goal. Both were victimized on goals that, on a normal goaltending day, would have been stopped. The statistics are inflated, yes, but the results are not.

Atlanta thoroughly out-played Anaheim on Sunday and Monday’s evaporation of a 6-3 lead over the Kings was a combination of tired legs on back-to-back nights and an extremely hungry L.A. squad led by the Slovene Machine Anze Kopitar!!!!

Okay, I got the best of both worlds on Tuesday… watched Atlanta get a win after another sweet shootout move by Erik Christensen and also saw Anze score two goals and an assists. For those that may not know, I’m of Slovenian decent and Kopitar is the first to play in the NHL (but hopefully not the last… Go Jan Mursak in Grand Rapids!).

As bad as the starting goalies were for both teams, nobody can take anything away from Ilya Kovalchuk. You see that article that is at the bottom of the blog? Cross that sucker out because Kovalchuk is back! The last two games, he’s been Ilya good. Ahem, by the way, Kovalchuk is now on pace for 41 goals (Monty… this is your big fat “I told you so.”).

Great start on the road trip, but Atlanta has the capability to keep this going with a Phoenix Coyote’s franchise that has lost nine out of their last 10 games and has just one win in February. Could this be our first Jordan LaVallee sighting?

Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen on Thursday. I want it to happen, but I don’t think so. Coaches are weird creatures and John Anderson hasn’t won enough at the NHL level to change things up after a two game winning streak… unless somebody is banged up.

One guy that won’t be coming out of the lineup in favor of LaVallee is Colin Stuart. With back-to-back games netting a short-handed goal, Stuart might be making a player like Eric Perrin expendable on the trade market. Stuart has an NHL skating stride and he’s playing the type of game that could earn him an NHL paycheck. The key for Colin is to continue on the path… he played really well in his initial call-up last season, but eventually fell into a pattern of mediocrity. Hopefully, Colin learned his lesson and now knows what to bring on a nightly basis to stay in the NHL.

Great start to the trip. Great trade by Waddell. Great seeing Kovalchuk get hot. Even greater watching Atlanta win. Hey, for once it feels kind of good to be a Thrasher fan… I’m not going to get used to it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's LaVallee Time!

As broken on the Thrashers Message Board (partly by yours truly), the Thrashers have recalled Jordan LaVallee from the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.

What does this mean?

This means that Joe Motzko, while playing decently in his NHL time with Atlanta, is not a part of the future for the Atlanta Thrashers. This means that Jordan LaVallee should get a chance to prove that he is worth a full-time roster spot for more than two NHL games. This means the line predictions before Sunday's game against the Anaheim Ducks will be plentiful.

We don't yet know where Jordan will play (most likely LW) and on which line (my guess is between a healthy Marty Reasoner and Colby Armstrong), but his role is actually pretty well defined: show up ready to play every day, give 100 percent, play defensively responsible, and use your size.

These are all aspects of LaVallee's game that should translate to the NHL. Will his 15 AHL goals lead to some scoring opportunities at this level? This blogster thinks so, but I have to admit that Jordan has been one of my favorite prospects since his drafting in 2005.

Don't expect highlight reel goals or no-look passes, but Jordan should bring a north-south, hard nosed game to the rink... a much needed style of play as the Thrashers embark on a Western Conference swing.

Good luck Jordan and earn yourself an NHL paycheck!

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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poll Results

The voting is in and Colby Armstrong was the winner. The question posed was which current Thrasher is the best fit for the Peverley and Kovalchuk line? Since the poll was posted, John Anderson has since blown up the line combinations.

Most recently, Ilya is playing to the left of Todd White and Bryan Little. Peverley is centering Slava Kozlov and Joe Motzko, while Armstrong stays on the third line with Marty Reasoner and Colin Stuart.

We'll see how the lines change when Jimmy Slater gets back into the mix and also after the trade deadline. Hopefully this team can pick up or call up some players for the future (immediate and long-term).

The poll results:

Chris Thorburn - 2 vote - 22 percent
Bryan Little - 1 vote - 11 percent
Colby Armstrong - 6 votes - 66 percent
Joe Motzko - 0 votes -0 percent

I shall concoct a new poll in a day or two. The cauldren of question has not spoken to me as of yet.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Future of the Thrashers’ Defense: Part One - Strategy

The saying goes, “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.” One of the most overused phrases in all of sports, but that doesn’t make the quote any less true. Nearly nine seasons down the road for the Atlanta Thrashers and exactly one slightly unimpressive championship: a Southeast Division championship in 2006-07.

The futility of the Atlanta hockey defensive system is one of the most well-documented complaints of the Thrashers fan base. There is tons of history to keep us whining and crying about goalies’ groins, pucks going in off defenseman’s heads (I’m looking at you Yannick Tremblay), falling down, not getting up, conceding the blueline and so on and so forth and so so and on fourth…. Get it? The Thrashers defense is bad and always has been.

In this post, I will attempt to explain some of the reasons as to why the current unit of Thrashers is struggling so mightily on the defensive side of things.

When goals are scored, especially in whopping amounts allowed by Atlanta (190, 30th-dead last in the NHL), the natural and also uninformed knee-jerk reaction is to blame the goalie. He’s guy that is allowing them, right? True, the puck beats the goalie… after it has beaten everybody else. The net-minder is the last line of defense.

A good defense starts with the forecheck. A great defense feeds of the forecheck. Personally, I believe in a two-man forecheck i.e. sending in two forwards into the opposing team’s defensive third. The Thrashers, in theory, also believe in a two-man forecheck, but Atlanta is inconsistent in the forecheck. The same positions, same responsibilities, suddenly become different on a line-by-line, shift-by-shift basis.

Now, I’m the first to rebel against a uniform system. Chances are if you like it, I don’t (unless I can turn you to the darkside!). But the Thrashers and any team system must be uniform. The parts, especially when factoring a team defensive philosophy, must be relatively interchangeable. This uniformity must be within reason. We all know that Ilya Kovalchuk is just not the defensive player that Colin Stuart is on the left wing, but that doesn’t relieve Ilya of his defensive responsibilities and position on the ice.

Ah, the first left wing mention, which brings us to the left wing lock. What’s this you might ask? The left wing lock is a defensive system, supposedly implemented by the John Anderson, to cut down opposing team’s speed entering the Thrashers’ defensive third and reduce odd-man rushes. For a decent explanation of the left wing lock, check this linky out (it’s wikipedia, so you know you are getting the best information!).

Does that sound like the Thrashers to you? I don’t think so.

Here is what Atlanta does, inconsistency not included… On the forecheck, the Thrashers send two forwards in. Good so far, right, here is where the good stops. These forwards (normally the center and the right wing) are supposed to stay relatively tightly spaced (an outstretched stick length apart) to keep passes from going through the middle of the ice. The idea is to force the first pass from behind the net to the side wall, near the circles.

The Thrashers, in most cases, come too far down into the zone as a group, stagger the forwards, and leave way too much space for opposing teams to easily use the middle. When Atlanta does force a pass to the half wall, the forward to that side converges on the puck carrier to force a pass. At this instance, the left wing, who has been playing a zone coverage in the middle of the ice (on the opposing teams’ half) will shift towards the wall, about halfway from the blueline to the redline, to cut off a pass to the middle.

The other forechecking forward will drift back to the blueline, away from the wall on the opposite side. The defenseman on the off side will step up from the blueline to take away the cross ice pass.

The Thrashers, rarely getting this far, get too aggressive in this set. The only forward that is supposed to go after the puck is the forechecking forward on the near side. Everybody else continues to play defense. Ideally, the puck carrier along the wall try and force a pass into the middle that creates a turnover. If he goes backwards, then the Thrashers can re-implement the first stages of the forecheck.

The keys to a healthy forecheck are as follows (in order): First, take away the middle of the ice for the first pass. Second, force the puck to the wall and keep it there. Third, create frustration passes and turnovers through timed aggressiveness. Timed aggressiveness meaning that the forecheckers have to use the right judgement as to when to pressure the puck. This can be an on ice read after a bobble or bad pass or it can be regimented to a certain part of the ice (like along the boards).

In all honesty, the Thrashers forecheck is undisciplined, lazy, and most of the players have mental breakdowns. Imagine a basketball team that uses a full-court press, but two or three of the players are out of position. Will that press work? To me, the forecheck is the most important part of the defensive scheme because it sets the tone for the game.

When looking at defense through the middle of the ice, without a solid forecheck in the left wing lock there is no reason to talk about the defense through the middle.

As we start to take a look at the back end, it is important to note some things off the rush. The Thrashers, as a team, concede the blueline far too easily. This is not the defenseman’s fault, but in fact the lack of a solid forecheck. If the Thrashers are beaten down the ice by the breakout of opposing teams, the failed forwards from the left wing lock are way behind the play.

This creates a rush, either two-on-to or odd-man. The Thrashers defensemen have to concede the blueline in this instance. When Atlanta defensemen such as Garnet Exelby or Mathieu Schneider do end up trying to make a play at the blueline and get beat (which is more likely than making a great defensive play), then the hapless defender is left with one out of position defenseman, three forwards behind the play, and three offensive players on the rush with time and space. The result is going to be high quality scoring chances and goals. Without fixing the forecheck first, the only way to combat this problem is to change the entire way the Thrashers play defense… which may not be a bad idea.

So, if the theme here isn’t obvious enough, the primary task of the Atlanta Thrashers at this point is to fix the forecheck. In my professional experience, I’ve found that coaches can be extremely stubborn when dealing with their system. So, the personnel has to change. The addition of Rich Peverley was a great pickup for Anderson’s system, but guys like Spencer Machacek, Riley Holzapfel, and Jordan LaVallee could all be very valuable assets to the Thrashers system

In part two, we’ll look at the personnel that the Thrashers have and need to improve the team defense.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Joe Motzko... A Thrasher for the long-term?

As the reality of this season smacks Thrashers fans in the face with each and every loss, the Atlanta hockey organization is left with a few questions regarding the approach for the rest of the season. Who do we trade? Who do we keep? What are their prices? Who is a part of our future?

It is my personal belief that the administration (from GM Don Waddell to the coach John Anderson) have accepted the most likely fate of the 2008-09 campaign. A season that will likely end up with a top-5 draft pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. There is no secret that the Thrashers are rebuilding and despite the best hopes and dreams of die-hard fans like myself; we knew this before the season too.

During the year, Atlanta has given chances, second chances, and in some cases third chances to the mid-tier young players in the organization. When I say mid-tier young, I'm not referring to talent, but age; the early to mid-20's players getting their chance at a top six role or a regular NHL job.

Bryan Little, though in his early 20's, has definitively won a job... in the top six no less, but the likes of Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Nathan Oystrick, and Boris Valabik have yet to nail down a spot. With those spots loosely (in some cases very loosely) occupied, the Thrashers have recently called up Colin Stuart and Joe Motzko.

Thrasher fans got a good look at Colin Stuart in his time with the team last year. A solid defensive player with a good skating stride and a decent forechecking game, Stuart is in a battle for a spot on the lower forwards lines. Stuart is not an upgrade by any means, but on a team that has won just 18 of 52 games, nearly every spot is available.

And so we come to the arrival of Joe Motzko. A much different style of player than Colin Stuart, Motzko is on the verge of being labled a AAAA hockey player (good enough to play on a scoring line in the AHL, but not productive enough to play everyday in the NHL.)

In conversations and comments from Chicago Wolves fans, Motzko's work ethic is questioned, despite leading the Wolves in scoring in his time in the AHL. To understand a player like Joe Motzko, we must first document his journey to the NHL.

Motzko played four years of college hockey at St. Cloud University in Minnesota. Getting significant time from his freshman year all the way to his senior season, Motzko had 52 goals and 90 assists for 142 points in 154 career games in the NCAA. The 6-0, 184 lb. winger played with former Thrashers Mark Hartigan for four seasons and also shared the ice with NHLers Tyler Arnason and Ryan Malone.

In May of 2003, Motzko was signed by the fledgling Columbus Blue Jackets. He played two games during the 2002-03 season for the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch. In 2003-04, Motzko got a two game call-up for the CBJ's playing in two February games before being returned to the AHL.

After the lockout, Motzko got two more games in the 2005-06 season. This time Joe played a pair of games in December, including a 5-2 loss at the hands of the Atlanta Thrashers on December 9, 2005 (Ronald Petrovicky had a had trick for Atlanta!).

In January of 2006, Motzko was moved to Anaheim along with former St. Cloud University teammate Mark Hartigan and a 4th round pick for Zenon Konopka, Curtis Glennross, and a conditional 7th rounder. Motzko spent most of the year with Anaheim's AHL team in Portland. Motzko did play in three playoff games for the Ducks including one game in the Stanley Cup finals against Ottawa... sort of, Joe only got 2:46 of ice time.

In July of 2007, Motzko signed with Washington Capitals as a depth forward. Once again assigned to the AHL, Motzko appeared in eight games for the Capitals scoring two goals and two assists before Atlanta acquired him in a deal that sent another AHLer (Alexandre Giroux) to Washington. FYI, Giroux played 11 games with the Capitals earlier this year when Washington was struck with a brash of injuries.

Now, with 398 AHL games, 151 AHL goals, and 195 AHL assists under his belt, Joe will play his 22nd NHL game on Friday when Atlanta hosts New Jersey.

Guys with that many points in professional hockey that have only had a few looks at the NHL, bounced around a little bit, and are 28 years old aren't in the NHL for a reason... usually.

Sometimes that reason is a lack of physical attributes... the NHL is a much more physically demanding game than that of the AHL. In the NHL, players need to be strong, fast, quick, and usually have some size.

Motzko is 6-0 tall and 180 lbs. Those measurements are not what NHL experts would call "having size", but the same experts wouldn't say that he "lacks size" either. He's about average. Skating doesn't seem to be a problem as I watched Motzko intently in Tuesday's game. Once again, Joe is not a great skater, but he can hold his own at the NHL level.

After physical attributes are ruled out, the mental side of the game comes into effect. Now, we as Thrasher fans have a very small sample by which to judge Motzko; just two games. Input from Chicago Wolves fans is always welcome, but I've found that as a Thrasher fan, while I keep in mind what Wolves fans have said, I have to watch a player myself to gauge the mental side of the game.

The one game I've seen Motzko play, Atlanta had a strong game as a team. This weighs into the observation too. However, Joe Motzko was very serviceable at an NHL level on Tuesday. I though the Motzko - Reasoner - Armstrong line was a very good puck possession trio for Atlanta. Joe was in the right places at the right times and scored a goal because of his good positioning. Motzko's goal wasn't spectacular or lucky, just solid.

Now the question that was poised nearly 2,000 words ago... Can Joe Motzko help the Thrashers? Can he stay a Thrasher?

My response: This year? Yes. Long-term? No. The Thrashers are giving a shot to a hockey player that has paid his dues. Regardless of his faults as a player, Motzko has produced admirably at the AHL level. His playing time in Atlanta isn't snaking any time from a player that deserves it more, in my opinion.

However, unless Motzko thoroughly impresses, I think the Thrashers are going to bring up some of the younger talent to get a good look at the NHL during the final months of the season. Atlanta may be waiting until after the trade deadline to start fusing some of the young prospects into the picture. Players like Riley Holzapfel, Spencer Machacek, Jordan LaVallee, and even Brett Sterling appear to have a brighter future for Atlanta than the Joe Motzkos and Colin Stuarts in the franchise.

I believe that the Thrashers risk losing Motzko to waivers if he is sent back down, so the Thrashers are going to give him a good hard look before making that call. There is an outside chance that Atlanta is trying to showcase Motzko and/or Stuart as add-ons for a deal that might include Marty Reasoner, Mathieu Schneider, Eric Perrin, Colby Armstrong, or Niclas Havelid.

In any event, Joe Motzko is getting a chance. I'm glad the Thrashers are rewarding a player that has produced for the farm team, but I'm wary for now. I'm hoping to see at least LaVallee back in Thrasher blue by the end of the season.

For Joe Motzko... good luck and work hard.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On-Air Tonight

South Atlantic Conference basketball is on the docket tonight for a men's and women's double-header starting at 6 p.m. - 5:45 p.m. airtime for the pregame show.

Women's: Newberry (13-7, 6-3) vs. Mars Hill (11-9, 3-6)
Men's: Newberry (16-4, 6-3) vs. Mars Hill (12-7, 4-5)

If you are in Newberry County, for some odd reason, you can tune your radio to AM 1240 to catch the game.

Audio webstreaming is available at and Video webstreaming can be found at Enter your email address and the password is "shoes".

Hope you tune in!

A good season, but not Ilya good.

Bottom line: My mouth still hurts a bit from grinning all night after a 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Rangers. It's been over a year and a half since the Thrashers were swept out of the playoffs by the Blue Shirts and I, as a fan with a memory, relish every victory over NYR since that day... because they don't come often.

However, it could have been easier. It could have been nicer. In a season where the Thrashers' futility on the ice has been the most consistent aspect of the team, Thrasher fans, such as myself, could only expect the worse.

With about 30 seconds left in the game, leading by a score of 1-0, and New York's Henrik Lundqvist pulled from the net, John Anderson sent out his best faceoff man for a draw in his own zone. Rich Peverley, who played unspectacularly, but extremely dependable last night, did his job and possession went to the Thrashers.

Empty net. Puck possession. Blood in the water. Who best to sniff out the loose puck and go for the kill than Ilya Kovalchuk?

And so he did. And so I relaxed on the sofa at my fiancee's duplex apartment. I leaned back... at the ready to give a hearty clap and congratulatory, "Thatta boy, Ilya!" But this season is different for Kovalchuk... this season is off.

Down the right side boards, Kovalchuk took a wrister as he was gaining the zone; not in a non-chalant manner or in a victorious pull-up. Kovalchuk missed. Clank. Off the outside of the right post.

Off the outside of the right post? Off the out-SIDE OF THE RIGHT POST!!!!!! How un-Ilya! How very Thrashers.

This is where my point begins. I know that Atlanta went on to victory in the shootout with two sweet goals by Bryan Little and Slava Kozlov. I know that two points in the standings doesn't do much for the Thrashers other than hurt Atlanta's chances of gaining the #1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

But I also know that I have never seen Ilya Kovalchuk be off when the game was on the line... sometimes he rings the crossbar, other times he gets robbed by a fantastic save, but when the game is there for the taking... he takes it.

Looking at Ilya Kovalchuk's numbers alone will indicate that he is having an off season. 21 goals... nice. 29 assists... underrated passing forward. 50 points in 52 games... I like it. Solid year so far. But it's not Ilya good.

Ilya Kovalchuk's pace has been well-documented by the media. His current scoring output would net him 33 goals, the least since his rookie campaign in 2001-02. A pertinent question to ask here is: why is Ilya's goal scoring down? Is he taking less shots? Well, yes and no.

Kovalchuk is on pace for 270 shots, which would be the least since his sophomore NHL season in 2002-03. His shooting percentage, currently, is 12.3 percent. Seems bad, right? However, those 270 shots are ones that are hitting the net.

Last night, for example, on the powerplay, Kovalchuk was planted at the left point (so he could wind up that big right-handed slapper). Ilya fired puck after puck (at least five) from the point on nice feeds by the likes of Ron Hainsey, Slava Kozlov, and Todd White.

At the end of the night, the NHL stat line had this loneliest number in his shot column: 1. So why is Kovalchuk missing the net? Is it his mechanics? Is this why he's not scoring goals? Is this why he's frustrated?

Those are questions only Ilya can answer and after last night, I'm sure he's asking them to himself. These type of seasons happen... for unexplained reasons really. Sometimes, even for a whole year, the puck doesn't bounce your way. This is not an excuse for Ilya, but it just may not be his year.

Kovalchuk is still having a good-to-solid year. He will net 30-plus goals, be close to a point per game average, and still wreak havoc for many opposing defenses... but it won't be good enough, because the Thrashers as a team are not good enough.

For Atlanta to get back on the trail to success, Atlanta needs #17 to be Ilya good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Well, I've gone and done it. I've created a blog. So, this is what it's like (looking around my new e-home)... I do like what I've done with the poll to the right... such a pretty blue, hold on a minute... I think I'm just slightly off-topic.

Okay, that was cheesy and this entry is not going to be the benchmark of what this blog is intended to be about, but it is an accurate microcosm of where it could go. For the first entry here at Slightly Off-Topic, I'm going to try and explain what this blog is going to be about, but I'm not sure I completely know how this is going to end up.

First, this is a not a personal blog. I'm not going to wake up in the morning, tell you about what my cat did to wake me up, release a bunch of pent up anger and hope that an e-reader symphathizes with the plight, or lack thereof, that is my life.

In fact, this first entry is probably the closest thing to a personal blog that you will ever read at Slightly Off-Topic, assuming you've come this far. That said, professionalism and creativity in journalism are generally associated with different ends of the spectrum. This blog will not bow to such a claim. Creativity is paramount in parts of both of my jobs, but balance is even more important.

You read, I am a relatively young (25 years old) aspiring sports broadcaster. Currently, I cover NCAA Division II athletics and local high school game as well. Right now, we are in basketball season. Baseball is just around the corner. For those two sports, I provide the role of a play-by-play radio man. For football in the fall, I am an analyst. This is my job... how I eat, how I live, how I exist in our world today.

Becoming a sports broadcaster has since opened my eyes to the disparity at which sports can be seen from the analytic, supposedly objective, viewpoint of a broadcaster and the emotional, sometimes irrational, eyes of a fan.

Slightly Off-Topic is an attempt to bridge that gap. To give fan commentary in a professional manner and to battle fan tendencies in the professional setting... essentially, we are going to be talking a lot of Thrashers hockey. What can I say... it's the best, well not now, but I have some ideas on how it could be.

However, as the name suggests, Thrashers hockey is not the only topic of discussion. If that is what you are here for, just click over to the right and go to all of the topics with the label "Thrashers" but I will also delve into the national sports scene including but not limited to Division I and II NCAA athletics, NFL, NBA, MLB, and, of course, NHL as well as a look into the rocky road of broadcasting.

These entries will most likely be discussionary topics rather than analytical breakdowns. The Thrashers stuff will probably be more in-depth.

If you think you may like it, please come back, but don't feel obligated. There will be times of silliness and times of seriousness. As always, these posts are going to reflect my opinions and any and all feedback is welcome. I'll try to stay as focused as I can, but afterall... I am always just Slightly Off-Topic.