Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE TRAP: zzzzzzzzz

After watching the Minnesota Wild and their trapping system last night in Atlanta, one can only hope that the "new order" of coaches around the league will continue the trend of free-wheeling, offensive minded systems.

Tuesday's game between the Thrashers and Wild put the sport back about 10 years as Wild coach Jacques Lemaire locked it up defensively all night long.

Everytime the Thrashers would set up their breakout play, the Wild would robotically set up shop in their patented 1-2-2 or (as was the case later in the game with Minnesota in the lead) 1-4 defensive configuration.

It was the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils fashioned the left wing lock some 10 to 15 seasons ago. Since then, teams have bought into the system as a means of winning games. The strategy was an easy sell for many of the coaches around the league. And considering the shelf life of coaches, many have seen the style of play as a means of prolonging their coaching careers.

But what fans had to sit through at Philips Arena Tuesday night was downright painful. Right up there with a root canal......or having to watch CSPAN-2 for seven straight hours. As a former broadcaster for the Wild, I sat through an entire season of it. I always made sure the coffee pot (fully caffeinated) was ready to go.

Fortunately, there are more and more coaches coming into the league that detest such a style of play. The Thrashers John Anderson wants to play up-tempo and up the ice, engaging his defensemen in the rush. Florida's Peter Duboer is on-board as well. And out west, the Edmonton Oilers have always played wide open.

Unfortunately, for every Anderson and Duboer, there's a Lemaire and a Hitchcock.

Saturday's Thrashers game in Florida was a thing of beauty. Both teams raced up and down the ice, trading scoring chances and combining for 72 shots. The fans loved it and will likely return for more in the future.

Tuesday night, the Wild spread the neutral zone defensively and waited to pounce on turnovers. Sure enough, they got a few and were able to turn them into scoring chances. It had all the excitement of sitting in the duck blind and waiting for a quale to spring from the weeds. The poor fan who just paid $90 to sit in the lower bowl has forever scratched the Wild from his "must see" list of teams.

To borrow a phrase from the late 1980's, here's hoping more and more coaches around the league continue to embrace a "glasnost" policy when it comes to their approach to the game.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Hi everyone. I wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know I'll be guest blogging later tonight during the Thrashers game against Minnesota over at the Thrashers website: Feel free to stop by and fire off some questions to yours truly.

One follow-up thought regarding the NHL debut of Atlanta coach John Anderson this past Friday night. I could only imagine what must have been running through his head when his name was announced to the sell-out crowd during the pre-game introductions. Here's a guy that had a solid career in the National Hockey league, then coached for what seemed to be forever in the minor leagues.

His first job was in the Southern Hockey league at Winston-Salem. The GM of the Mammoths literally begged him over the phone to take the job after the person that had been hired to coach the team ( a video coach from rival Greensboro) backed out because of a fear of being in over his head. Anderson took the gig, then was stiffed out of about $20,000 by the team at the end of the season. It left such a bad taste in his mouth that he almost quit coaching to help run a friend's marketing company in Canada. Instead, he took another shot, landing in Quad City and then Chicago. He was passed over twice for the Thrashers head coaching job before getting the call from general manager Don Waddell this past summer.

I love the stories that come out of the minor leagues, probably because I'm a product of such enviornment. In 1985, I took my first broadcasting job in Flint, Michigan for $12,000 a year. The team was awful, finishing 16-66-0 which ended up being the worst record of all-time in the now defunct International Hockey League. Halfway through that season, ownership was ready to fold the team if we didn't all agree to 50% paycuts for three weeks (players included). We agreed to the pay cuts and my salary was cut to $125 a week for a brief period that February. By April, we were all out of a job. So in theory, my salary wasn't $12,000 but more like $7000 for seven months of hell.

It's a bond that Anderson and myself have shared for years. When you work, coach or play in the minors, you're always hoping for that one shot at the big time. That's why you keep plugging along, sleeping on busses sans heat for 10 hour roadtrips, dining at Denny's on Christmas night in Salt Lake City. You have roommates that help cut expenses.

You drive Chevettes. You hold out hope.

My Uncle John was a sportswriter that covered Notre Dame for years. Early in my freshman year at college, we had a heart to heart. I was an accounting and finance major at Michigan State who was having a tough time with the required math courses. For years, I had considered a career path in journalism or broadcasting. After heading home for Christmas break in December, 1981, we sat down and I shared my dilemma. Should I stay a business major or should I follow my dream? He looked at me and said casually, "well, you never want to look back 20 years from now and say 'what if'".

His words literally changed my life. And at some point many years ago, Anderson experienced a completely seperate, but similar life changing event that only those with minor league memories can appreciate. Here's hoping he enjoys every minute of the "bigs".

Monday, October 13, 2008


For a team picked by many to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, one would have to say the Atlanta Thrashers season opening weekend turned out to be a rousing success.

First, there was the opening night win over Washington, a 7-4 onslaught in which 12 different players hit the scoresheet. Defensively, the team held Alex Ovechkin in check in front of a sellout crowd at Philips Arena. Kari Lehtonen stopped Ovechkin on a penalty shot, which was the turning point of the game.

On Saturday night, Jason Williams tallied his first goal in an Atlanta Sweater to tie the game in the third period before David Booth scored in overtime for the win.

Overall, the Thrashers took three of a possible four points on the weekend.

But early on, things seem different for this edition of the Thrashers under new head coach John Anderson.

First, the system is completely different. Anderson encourages his defensemen to jump into the rush to aid the offense. This strategy paid off in the Friday opener when blueliner Ron Hainsey scored in the opening period on a put back in front of Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore. The system also incorporates a completely different set of responsibilities for defensemen defending in front of their goaltender, one which puts additional responsibilities on the defending forwards.

Secondly, the gap control over the first two games has been a thousand times better than what fans saw last season. The team has allowed very few odd man breaks over the weekend and has eliminated the room opponents have created for shooting opportunities once they enter the Atlanta zone.

Anderson is an offensive-minded coach who put up solid point totals during his NHL playing career. It was refreshing to watch two games this weekend in which the coaches opened it up. Washington coach Bruce Beaudreau and Florida head coach Peter Duboer like to play it loose similar to Anderson. One can only hope this becomes a trend around the league.

Finally, balance is a word that accurately describes this Thrashers team through the first couple of games. How else can you explain seven opening night goals, yet not a single one of them registered by the team's sharp shooter Ilya Kovalchuk? He set up a goal in the Friday win and did the same on Slava Kozlov's tally Saturday night. Look for Kovalchuk to continue developing his role as a setup guy as the season progresses.

Some other opening weekend observations:

It looks as if Anderson has chosen to use Niclas Havelid and Toby Enstrom as his defensive pairing against the top forward unit of the opposition. Both had strong games Friday against Washington, then struggled a bit against Florida on Saturday. When I talked with the Atlanta coach late last week, he told me he's more interested in matching defensive pairings against the opposition's top line rather than matching line for line.

The Atlanta penalty killing unit was excellent Saturday at Florida. Newcomer Marty Reasoner and returnee Eric Perrin led the surge and should help the Thrashers improve in this special teams category, which killed off all five Panthers powerplays.

Tuesday, the Minnesota Wild roll into Atlanta for a rare appearance. Former Thrashers Andrew Brunette and Eric Belanger will be back in town. The Wild play the ultimate team game incorporated since Day One of the franchise by head coach Jacques Lemaire. The team lost Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra to free agency, but still have plenty of talent in the likes of Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu and Brent Burns.