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Tobias Enstrom And Dustin Byfuglien Are Atlanta's Top Defensemen: Who's The 'Worst?'

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Making a case for Zach Bogosian's development, and why the hiccup might be over.

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I'd like to say that it all started with Timmyf's post over on Birdwatchers Anonymous the other day:

Trade Zach Bogosian from Tim Fabiniak on Vimeo.

 

But honestly, that would be disengenious. Tim's snarky and eerily accurate video had to be inspired by something. I'm not one for reading comments sections of newspaper articles - usually the article is very well written by Chris Vivlamore, and then the comments that follow make absolutely little to no viable sense at all. Witness:

Regarding our game Wednesday against the Red Wings:

This is where momentum is gained or lost…at some point the Thrash will need to play consistently against top level teams or they will not make the playoffs…again.

Ok. So if we lose to the best team in the league we're not going to make the playoffs. Never mind the effort put forth against the Caps, Pens, and other top-tier teams recently.

They need to trade Antro for someone who can use their big body in the corners. We need MUSCLE.

I’d try to get JVR from Philly. He’s currently in the doghouse and Philly can’t afford their upcoming contracts, so maybe they’d be willing to part with him.

A top line of Kane-Burmistrov-JVR could be EPIC.

What? Wait... what? Oh, absolutely. Antro's horrible, especially since he's been recovering from hip injury, and Philly'll send us JVR for a couple of prospects and Eric Boulton, I'm sure.

I shutter knowing Don Waddell, the worst the NHL has to offer, is still in charge… Awful !

Because DW hasn't been outstanding on the business end of things, doesn't have the respect and friendship of half of the league, and isn't a good liaison between team and ownership. Right.

Ramsey must move Byfuglien back in ofense. Dustin is good scorer, and he many scores as def too, but in defense he is completely ZERO!

Hi, Mr. Roenick. Glad to see you guest-commenting on the AJC. Anyway, that last quote (there are many more to find in the AJC's fan comments, but I'll leave those for another day) segues into my point perfectly - people have an opinion on the Thrashers' defense. It might be misinformed - or ill-informed - but it's there and it's something fans have had for years. The team has never been known to be a beacon of what an NHL's defense should be. In the past they've not only allowed too many shots and have been incapable of fixing that, they've also allowed far too many quality scoring chances. Occasionally they've been known to stand stock still on the ice. They've been asked to participate in systems that emphasize offense with no care being taken to make sure that they're still defensively responsible. Yes, defense has been an issue in the past.

Tobias Enstrom, since 2007-2008, has been the best that Atlanta's blue line has to offer, and he consistently makes his pairing partners better. He has been paired with Zach Bogosian, Johnny Odyua, Ron Hainsey, and Dustin Byfuglien all in recent memory the past two seasons, and during that time (most notably when he was paired with Bogosian) the pundits were quiet. Toby can play offense and he can actually play defense, and whether it's osmosis, training, or what, his partners pick up on Enstrom's techniques and use them well. Bogosian is the most notable example of this. His pairing with Enstrom to begin 2009-2010 was one of the best on the ice. But for some reason Zach fell apart when paired with Ron Hainsey, and even saw himself playing 3rd pairing minutes with Chris Chelios toward the end of last season. What happened?

Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey both often get called out at being awful defensemen - Hainsey because of his rather large contract, and Bogosian because of his status as the third overall pick of the 2008 draft. It also isn't helping Bogosian that Kane is doing so well his sophomore season. Bogosian's numbers dropped off significantly during his second full year. He was a +11 during his injury shortened (49 games) rookie season, with nine goals and ten assists. The following season he was a -18, with ten goals and thirteen assists in 81 games. So far this year he is a -8 with one goal and 2 assists in fifteen games played. That +11 is a tough one to live up to. Should everything after that be measured by his rookie season?

No. Bogosian played in a truncated year that season, most of which came after line-mate Mathieu Schneider was traded away to the Canadiens. That alone helped his numbers stay on the positive side of things. After Schneider left, Bogosian was paired with Enstrom, and his play, like the play of everyone else paired with Toby, improved.

The next season, Bogosian began play with Enstrom and played fairly well. After about a month or two, then-coach John Anderson decided to pair Bogosian with Ron Hainsey, and the wheels fell off his wagon. Anderson continued this pairing - one that even 90% of the fans could see wasn't working and would never have any chemistry - up through Johnny Odyua's arrival in Atlanta.

Oduya was paired with Hainsey, and Bogosian began logging 3rd line minutes because Anderson could not break up Enstrom and Pavel Kubina (who is currently a -2 on the Bolts after ending last season even). Third line minutes with Chris Chelios - who could not keep up with Bogosian if his life depended on it - further hindered Bogosian's development and contributed to poor defensive numbers. Also, being hurt yet still being cleared to play for some inexplicable reason kept Bogosian off of the point sheet and kept him from being able to put himself into the play as much.

This season so far, Bogosian is paired with Johnny Odyua and is putting up middling-ish numbers. he has already missed six games with injury, and is having to completely re-learn a new system. Coach Craig Ramsay has a lot of work ahead of him trying to get old, "incorrect" ways of playing out of his guys' heads. So far, Ramsay's focus has been trying to work on the offense, which after the pre-season was very understandable.

Apparently focus has shifted to the defense, because the Thrashers are allowing significantly fewer shots on goal per game and are still limiting quality scoring chances. Bogosian's not the team's best defenseman by any jump, but he's by far not the worst. None of the top six are really doing poorly this season as a whole - no one stands out as a guy to point the finger at, a la Alexei Zhitnik. Each has had games that they might want to re-watch tape from to see their mistakes, yes, but to blame the defense, especially Zach Bogosian, is to oversimplify any issues this team might be having.

Bogosian is young, and had to be rushed to the NHL level to fill a need. So did Drew Doughty, but he is the exception to the rule. Defensemen usually take a few years to develop, and play better when given a chance to do so than when flung directly into the line of fire. Witness Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, who was returned to Juniors not once but twice. Did the Blues "need" him? It could be said that yes, they could have benefited from putting him in the line-up full time. Did they want to rush his development so he might not be as sharp a few years down the road?

Absolutely not, which is why as St. Louis sits pretty in a playoff spot, Pietrangelo is getting called one of the Blues best, if not their best defenseman. I'm sure working with Al MacInnis has something to do with it, but Petro is an example of patience being a virtue. Some Thrashers fans would do well to remember that adage.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.