So it was Joe who first mentioned to me Simmons' "Ewing Theory."Actually, Simmons credits his friend Dave Cirilli with inventing the theory, but I'd say that Simmons is probably a little bit better known. Simply elucidated, the theory states that college and pro superstar Patrick Ewing's teams always played better without him -- a truism for almost all superstar-dominated teams.
I started thinking about how this might apply to the
Remember, it's just a theory, not a law. But the more I started looking at Simmons and Cirilli's theory, the more I found how well it suited the Thrashers. Two crucial elements must be in order for the theory to apply. They are (and I'm excerpting now):
- A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
- That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
The central point of the Ewing Theory is that when teams have a superstar, the rest of the players tend to stand by passively as bystanders waiting for said superstar to do his thing. I first started thinking about this in relation to the Thrashers when I wrote a story for NHL.com last week about the state of the team coming out of the Olympic break.
Forward Jim Slater, who played on the same teams as Kovalchuk for five seasons, said of Kovalchuk, "Maybe we relied too much" on him. Goalie Johan Hedberg agreed. Coach John Anderson basically did also.
In some ways, it's a case study on different methods of how to build a team. Shortly after the Thrashers traded Dany Heatley in 2005, a player said to me, "Now they just need to get rid of the other guy" -- the other guy, obviously, being Kovalchuk. A philosophical debate ensued about whether it's easier to win with a team built around superstars or one built, in this player's words, with a team of all $2 million players, a salary about 33 percent above the NHL average at the time.
At times when I have searched my mind to find successful examples of the mythical team of $2 million players, I end up settling on the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes who won the Stanley Cup -- lots of above average players who meshed together flawlessly. Of course, the team of $2 million players is an impossibility -- an ideal, really -- that would necessarily have to have some exceptions to exist in the real world. For the '06 'Canes, Eric Staal, one of the NHL's top forwards, and Rod Brind'Amour would represent two of those exceptions. But a look back at the team's defense would hardly reveal greatness. Bret Hedican was the 'Canes' No. 1 that year. Aging Glen Wesley, Frantisek Kaberle, Anton Babchuk, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward hardly represent as a collective anything near the backline of the great Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s.
That Carolina team rolled four lines and got contributions from everywhere. In their very brief run of success thus far without Kovalchuk, the Thrashers are doing the same. Defensemen like Pavel Kubina are scoring. Two forward lines are scoring (Evander Kane-Slater-Colby Armstrong, which was why Armstrong was not traded at the deadline; and Bryan Little-Nik Antropov-Niclas Bergfors), as is the power play.
If the Thrashers can maintain this level of play, they will have a better than average chance to make the playoffs. They hold three games in hand on seventh-place Montreal, which they trail by two points; and stand one point behind the New York Rangers, who are tied for eighth with Boston, while holding two games in hand on the Rangers.
The Thrashers also have a favorable schedule with 13 of their remaining 21 games at home. They are getting solid goaltending from Hedberg and, for the first time in their history, the strength of the team is its defense.
If they make it, another chapter could be written in the history of the Ewing Theory. Maybe hockey fans will come to call it "The Kovalchuk Theory."