The Atlanta Thrashers have been a bottom feeder franchise for pretty much the entirety of their history. This off-season they made some changes in the front office, bringing in former ‘Hawks executive Rick Dudley. Dudley wasted no time tapping into previous relationships, making the Thrashers the main beneficiaries of the Chicago cap-enforced sell-off. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager were all snatched up by Atlanta’s new GM.
Vast changes aside, I personally wasn’t sanguine about the Thrashers chances to compete this year. The club still features a lot of kids and a lot of cast-offs. However, I’ve been forced to re-investigate my assumptions recently with Atlanta capping off a five game winning streak and vaulting into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. How are they doing it?
It’s not via puck possession. Atlanta remains one of the very worst teams in the league at keeping the puck at even strength. Only two of their regular skaters are in the black in terms of corsi so far: Niclas Bergfors and Dustin Byfuglien. Everyone else is under water – most deep under water. The Thrashers also give up the most shots against per game in the league (35.1), tied with the awful Edmonton Oilers. So it’s safe to say they spend a lot of time in their own end of the rink.
Two things have conspired to grant the Thrashers their unlikely success recently: firstly, Ondrej Pavalec has been channeling Dominic Hasek. After suffering a bizarre fainting spell and concussion to start the year, the 23-year old has probably been the best goalie in the league since returning. His ridiculous .949 SV% is buoyed by an above average .899 short-handed save percentage and even more incredible .955 SV% at ES.
To say those are unprecedented results in Pavalec’s career is understating things. His best work prior to this season was the .906 SV% he managed in 42 games last season. His best save rate in the AHL was .911 back in 2007-08. And yet, the former second rounder has allowed just three goals against in the last five (!) games played. Were I a betting man, I’d place my money on this outburst being more Steve Mason than Patrick Roy. Pavalec doesn’t have the pedigree to suggest he’s suddenly turned into one of the best puck stoppers in the league. As we’ve seen before, even mediocre NHL ‘tenders can have sudden spikes in their save percentages over relatively brief spans. At some point, Pavalec is bound to come back down to Earth, which will cause problems for a club that gives up as many shots as Atlanta does.
The other factor sustaining the Thrashers currently is their oddly potent power play*. ATL is firing at 24.7% right now, good for third in the league behind Minnesota (25.0%) and Vancouver (25.3%). Only Tampa Bay has scored more goals (22) than the Thrashers (20) a man up so far. Guys like Dustin Byfuglien (7.66 PPP/60) and Andrew Ladd (6.64 PPP/60) have better power play production rates than Pavel Datsyuk, Dany Heatley, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. That is some heady company for Big Buff and Ladd to be keeping. Both are capable NHL players, of course, but like Pavelec, neither is likely to continue to be amongst the league’s elite in the long-term.
*hands up anyone who thought that losing Kovalchuk would improve the Thrashers PP.
In short, the Thrashers current run probably isn’t sustainable. It’s impossible to know how much longer Pavalec will stop everything he sees and the club will shoot lights out on the PP, but “not for much longer” is my bet.