Hockey Headlines

Thursday, 19 April 2007

The Reaper In Disguise

The image to the left is not a joke. The New York Euro-Circus Rangers may have written the final chapter in both Don Waddell's career and Bob Hartley's career in Atlanta. The Rangers systematically made the 3rd-seeded Thrashers look like an AHL team by skating circles around them at every point in the four-game series. Being swept is one thing; being swept by a team that struggled down the stretch and mortgaging your future on two superstars who did nothing in the four games is a recipe for swift, brutal termination. Looking at some of the moves made in this series, Atlanta showed their lack of playoff experience over and over. What makes it hard to stomach is that the men leading the team have experience, but made inexcusable mistakes that lead to the sweep.

Bob Hartley has won a Stanley Cup. He coached Colorado to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2001. Don Waddell was the assistant GM in Detroit in 1998 when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Assistant coach Brad McCrimmon won a Stanley Cup in 1989 as a member of the Calgary Flames. How is it that these three men couldn't coax a win out of such talented players as Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Keith Tkachuk, Kari Lehtonen, and Alexei Zhitnik?

Here's where things get ugly. Don Waddell traded Glen Metropolit, a 2007 1st-round pick, a 2007 3rd-round pick, and a 2008 2nd-round pick to get Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis. Tkachuk scored one goal and two assists in four games while posting 12 PIMs and a +2 rating. Don Waddell traded the young and highly-regarded defenseman Braydon Coburn to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Zhitnik had no points in four games while posting 4 PIMs and a -4 rating. Don Waddell swapped tough defenseman Vitali Vishnevski to the Nashville Predators for Eric Belanger. Belanger had one goal in four games while posting 12 PIMs and a -6 rating.

Now, I'm not saying that Waddell is to blame alone. The track record of Tkachuk is nothing new. He didn't show up in the playoffs for Winnipeg, Phoenix, or St. Louis, so why should this surprise anyone? Zhitnik played an important role for Buffalo when they went to the Finals against Dallas, but has since gone unnoticed. Belanger played a key checking role for Carolina's run to the Cup last season, but was forced into an offensive role on Atlanta due to injuries to Steve Rucchin, and this is not something he made a name for himself with in the NHL. Waddell acquired pieces that are (a) aging and slowing down, (b) have poor playoff track records, and (c) being used in a capacity they should not be. As the GM of this team, it's his job to bring in the best people for the job to fit his team's chemistry. For all that he gave up, he could have done better, and this should be the reason for his dismissal.

Bob Hartley and Brad McCrimmon are also to blame. Hartley pretty much shattered Lehtonen's confidence by removing him as the starter after Game One, and leaving him for seven goals in Game Three. This is a kid who, at age 23, stepped in to be the team's full-time starter, going 34-24-9 with a 2.79 GAA and a .912 save percentage. He will be a full-time starter for a very long time. To yank him after a game in which the team in front of him didn't play very well showed some panic on the part of Hartley. To let him get shelled in Game Three when the Thrashers played terrible hockey reminded me of the Patrick Roy-Mario Tremblay incident in Montreal when Patrick Roy informed Montreal Canadiens' President Ronald Corey that it was the last game he'd ever play for Montreal after Mario Tremblay kept him in net during nine Detroit goals. If I were Lehtonen, I'd be angry and frustrated with Hartley.

I'm also blaming Hartley and McCrimmon for the Thrashers' poor special teams play. The Thrashers allowed five powerplay goals in 24 chances, killing off penalties at a 79.2% rate. When five teams are killing penalties at a 90% rate of higher, that's simply brutal. The Thrashers' powerplay scored one goal on 17 chances, scoring at a 5.9% rate. When six teams are scoring powerplay goals at a 20% rate of higher, that's inexcusable, especially with the talent that the Thrashers have. All of their stats were lower on the road than at home, and both Hartley and McCrimmon know that you have to win on the road to win a Stanley Cup.

Here's another telling stat of how Hartley and McCrimmon failed to motivate their stars. Hossa, Kovalchuk, Kozlov, Tkachuk, and Zhitnik, who were Atlanta's top five scorers in the regular season, combined for two goals and four assists in the series while posting 47 PIMs and a futile -15 rating. New York's top five scorers of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan, and Sean Avery combined to score 10 goals and 16 assists in the series while posting 29 PIMs and a dominating +17 rating. When Marcel Hossa outscores Marian Hossa, is it any wonder who swept the series?

If all three men keep their jobs, Atlanta will not win a playoff series ever. I like the exciting hockey they played in the regular season, but they are light years from being a threat in the playoffs. My prediction of Atlanta in five games was certainly wrong. I just didn't think that the Thrashers' five best players would disappear at the same time in the same series. Nor did I expect Johan Hedberg to get two starts. Nor do I expect Waddell, Hartley, and McCrimmon to have their jobs come September.

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!

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