After a rousing first half of the season where stubborn hockey pundits and scribes were reluctant to acknowledge that the Atlanta Thrashers were for real several finally started to come around. Then a funny thing happened at the beginning of the second half. The Thrashers went into an all too familiar nosedive taking the team from contention for a second place spot in their division to struggling for a playoff spot.
A closer examination of the team points out some of the issues Coach Craig Ramsay and General Manager Rick Dudley will have to address to reverse the disastrous trend facing the Atlanta squad.
Balanced Scoring Needed
The competition has reviewed the Thrashers previous game tapes and personnel. It becomes clear that Atlanta’s game plan unrealistically relies too much on Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom as the catalysts for their offense and defense.
No slight to the contributions of both men, but hall of famers Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin and even the great Bobby Orr could not lead their team offensively without some help from forwards.
It is also worth noting that no team has gone far with the top scorers being defensemen. Even All-Stars.
Byfuglien continues to take a lion’s share of the shots on goal registering five to six a game. Upon observation you may notice that although Big Buf is still getting his shots but he is also being frequently screened and bothered which is taking away opportunities for clear shots on goal which allowed him to find the back of net with excellent frequency the first 40 games.
Enstrom, the other half of Atlanta first line defense corps has also seen an increase in the intensity of forechecks and closer coverage to inhibit his decision making and synergy with Byfuglien and keep him from making the plays that have him tracking for a 60-plus assist campaign.
The result has been a dramatic reduction in point production by the two all-star selections from the Thrashers.
Since both defenders are the top point producers on the roster, it is obvious that if the Thrashers are to be beaten it will be necessary to focus on the teams scoring leaders Byfuglien and Enstrom.
To win consistently in the NHL it is imperative to have a good powerplay conversion rate and just as important to have a solid penalty kill squad.
The Thrashers currently rank number 29th in special teams performance.
Atlanta is stuck in a four game-losing streak and have won only three of their past 12 games.
Essentially It is the same team—with one big difference and it has to do with other teams not being taken by surprise anymore.
The Thrashers have allowed 16 power-play goals in 47 times while shorthanded over the past 12 games for a 66-percent efficiency rate. From Nov. 19 to mid-December, they allowed only four power-play goals in 39 chances for 89.7 efficiency.
“Special teams, especially penalty killing, is the ultimate team game,” Ramsay told Atlanta Journal Constitution. “That’s where everybody has to be together." said Ramsay.
Despite the roller coaster ride so far this season the Thrashers for the first time in the teams history has the management, coaching staff and characters players to overcome the adversity they have experienced so far.
The other key contributor to the teams continued success will be the acelerated maturation of Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Anthony Stewart and the rest of the forwards to take on more of the scoring load and mix up the offense.
Injuries sidelining Captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Tobias Enstrom are only temporary. The team will continue to jell surprising the naysayers yet again.
Just watch and see.
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