The Thrashers are a playoff team right now. Barely. Playoff teams don't win five out of eighteen games, which is exactly what the Thrashers accomplished over the past month or so. After a terrific November and a pretty good December, the gas went out of their tank. In a season that saw them start as a dark horse candidate for the playoffs, then progressed to them being the story of the league and a positional lock, they're on the decline and fans can't seem to figure out why.
Blaming one individual player for the team's problems is unfair, as hockey is a team sport the team as a whole is responsible for any collective egg-laying. Individuals and their level of contribution from game to game apparently are being questioned by their teammates. As we all know from working with individuals who don't pull their weight, it ruins the workplace with resentment. Why should you double up on what you're doing when Bob in the cubicle over there is on Facebook all day? Professional hockey is a job, and whether or not fans like to admit it, the same things that tick fans off upset the players.
The players had a closed door meeting after last night's 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders, with Coach Craig Ramsay's press conference delayed twenty minutes. Some players, either through frustration with their teammates or through frustration with the coaching staff holding people accountable, came to Ramsay after the game and spoke with him. They felt like they were holding up their end of the bargain, but some teammates were not. Ramsay said after the game:
"I just talked to a couple of guys that came to me. It comes down to our willingness to battle. We just don’t follow through with details. We turn pucks over at their blue line. … We didn’t compete when we had to. Our work ethic - our commitment - is lacking."
When pressed for how he was holding players responsible for messy play, Ramsay replied that he used their ice time to send a message to that player and the others on the team that sloppy play gets you on the bench for a few extra shifts:
"[The players] see it. You look down there, and it’s hard sometimes to bench your top guys, but if they continue to make those same mistakes, then that’s what has to happen. We talk about accountability. We talk about it during the game. We show it before hand, errors by players.
"The only real hammer you’ve got is to sit them on the bench for awhile and let them watch somebody else play, and we have to trust in some of the guys that haven’t had as much ice time."
If you look at the ice time for each player, as Ben Wright of the Blueland Blog pointed out on Twitter last night, you can gauge the players that Ramsay felt weren't holding their own. The following players had their TOI drop between the first and third periods by more than forty seconds (time is difference between TOI in the third period and TOI in the first):
||Goals Scored While On Ice
|Brent Sopel||approx. 2:30||1GF, 2 GA (2nd Period)
|Evander Kane||1:30||1 GA (2nd Period)
||1:20||1 GA (2nd Period)
||1:11||1 GA (2nd Period)
||1 GF, 1 GA (2nd Period)
||2 GA (2nd & 3rd Periods)
||1:16||1 GF, 1 GA (2nd Period)
It wasn't entirely goals against that got players benched though. Turnovers, sloppy play, and general malaise were the catchphrases du jour, though in Kane and Antropov's cases their decrease in ice-time might still be injury related. If you look at the game summary, the only player who was on the ice for both of the rapid fire goals against (in under two minutes!) was Brent Sopel. That could very well explain why his ice time was cut most dramatically. The others, it isn't traceable to any one goal. There were players who saw their ice time increase (i.e. Andrew Ladd and Johnny Oduya) who were on the ice for the second of the two goals.
Brent Sopel seems to be a culprit as far as poor play goes last night, but to call him out as the reason for the team's overall play in January being sub-par is unfair. It is, though, true that he did not have a good month at all. Only twice, on January 2nd's win at Montreal and January 22nd's OTL against the New York Rangers, was Sopel a plus player. The rest of the time he's either been even or a minus - the worst being the -3 against Tampa Bay in the 7-1 drubbing.
Rich Peverley also has not been playing well defensively this season, and this month has been rough. If you include the -3 he was at the 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils in with the month of January, Peverley is a -8 in his past 13 games. He tends to get a pass from the fans because of his solid offensive output and faceoff wins, but to score five goals and one assist in that same time period means that he was on-ice for fourteen goals against during that time period. His neutral zone and defensive zone face-off percentages last night were painfully not good, going two for five and four for ten, respectively.
I'm not claiming that Sopel and Peverley were the players spoken about regarding accountability or the lack therof. However, their play as of late hasn't been spectacular. The team's play as a whole has been lackluster, and Sopel (who is temporarily wearing the A while Enstrom is out) and Peverley are viewed as leaders of the team. If they play well, chances are good the team's going to have a spark.
The accountability that needs to be shown isn't necessarily coaches holding the players accountable after the game, or even during the game with benching and decreased ice time - though that is very effective. The accountability should be manifested in the play of the player; if they know they're accountable, they need to produce. They need to hold themselves accountable every shift to play as well as they can, not just after they've sat a shift or two. Be it fatigue or something else, the team as of late has lost that. It's easily regained, as some of it comes from confidence. But the time left for the Thrashers to get that confidence is growing a little short.