Coach John Anderson is proving himself to be a leader to be reckoned with in his short tenure as the Atlanta Thrasher bench boss.
It’s not easy coaching a NHL team in any city, but it is especially difficult in Atlanta, Ga., where some fans are watching the game and learning it at the same time.
Attendance is an indicator of success. It also helps pay the bills and allows the team to negotiate lucrative compensation with star players to keep them in town. The more seats filled in the 18,545 seats Phillips Arena, the better.
The only way to make sure more fans attend the games and keep coming back is to win. So, coaches can feel the heat if they cannot produce a winning product on the ice quickly.
Anderson and the Thrashers management have been surprisingly adept at piecing together a competitive team utilizing a mixture of veterans, free agents and draft choices.
Few remember that just last year the Thrashers had a team that was out of playoff contention early and lost games often. This season it has been different and much of the credit goes to Anderson’s approach to the game.
Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers captain and best player, has come out of the gate scoring goals at a record pace, averaging a goal a game. Of course this may seem not so unusual to the casual observer given Kovalchuk’s immense talent, but historically, star performers have problems performing at a high level when contract negotiations are going on.
Off the record, players complain that when contract time comes each side takes a position that sometimes creates hostile feelings. Both sides are looking for the best deal possible and, occasionally in the midst of negotiating, agents and team management can resort to criticism and name calling to gain a strategic advantage.
In his autobiography Gretzky, Wayne Gretzky describes how difficult contract negotiations were for him, overhearing a conversation between Bruce McNall of the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington referring to [Gretzky] as egotistical and selfish.
He also wrote about former teammate Paul Coffey’s feud with coach Glen Sather during contract time.
“In the end Paul’s pride had been wounded too badly. Edmonton ended up offering more money, but Paul was never coming back to the Oilers” said Gretzky.
Coach Anderson has managed to keep Kovalchuk motivated and focused during the tedious process of negotiations.
Anderson has also shown himself to understand showmanship by putting together a forward line with Kovalchuk, Andropov and Afinoginev, all Russian-born, resulting in a fast skating and hard shooting unit dubbed the Russian Express. The three forwards playing on the same line has reawakened both Andropov and Afinogenov, resulting in both players tracking to score 80 points plus for the season record highs for both.
Coach Anderson has tried Andropov and Afinoginev with different players, but the three Russians have played inspired hockey together.
The line of Colby Armstrong, Evander Kane, and Marty Reasoner have also skated well together, contributing critical goals and doing a good job keeping the opposition off the score board.
Kane, a rookie, has seven goals and is a plus player—unusual for a first-year performer.
Last season the Atlanta defense was severely criticized for its lackluster play, but this season Engstrom, Kubina, Hainsley, and Bogosian have improved the team’s defense, reduced giveaways and added to the offense.
Just a sophomore, Bogosian, who leads all NHL defenseman with eight goals, was chosen alternate captain by Anderson at the start of the season.
When Anderson was selected as Atlanta’s new head coach in 2008, many questioned the move. Some cited the fact that Anderson was an unknown commodity. Most were not aware of the layers of experience that Anderson brought with him to the job.
Anderson played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Quebec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers in the NHL. He also did time in the minor leagues with Dallas (CHL) Binghamton (AHL) and Fort Wayne (IHL) before coaching the Chicago Wolves (AHL) for 11 years.
Players can’t help but to respect a man with a 17-year pro career followed by 11 years as a coach.
The Thrashers have room for improvement, but no one is counting them out of the playoffs and John Anderson has helped change a lot of opinions.
The Thrashers are making believers out of a lot of fans this season.