Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Thrashers and the Ewing (Kovalchuk?) Theory

I never read Bill Simmons's column on, if at all, until I met my friend Joe Rauch back in 2007. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that Joe is a big NBA fan and I've always followed hockey a lot more than I do the NBA, which seems to be Simmons' favorite league to write about. (It also might have something to do with my aversion to Simmons' initial "Boston Sports Guy" persona, seeing as I was a fan of New York sports teams -- owing to my birth in that city and my father's rooting for New York teams -- even while growing up in Massachusetts.)

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 Atlanta Thrashers after they defeated the Florida Panthers 4-2 on Tuesday to go 3-1-2 since trading Ilya Kovalchuk. Could it be that the Thrashers will be better without the best player in franchise history than they were with him?

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):
  1. 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).
  2. 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.
This is the 2009-10 Thrashers in a nutshell. The way Simmons describes the theory, the season doesn't necessarily have to be the following one. His prime example is that of the 1999 NBA Eastern Conference finals when Ewing went down with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 2. The Knicks won three of the next four games to win the series against the Indiana Pacers after the Knicks had been written off. Another example includes the Tennessee Volunteers when they won the 1998 NCAA football title the year after Peyton Manning graduated without ever having done so.

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 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."


  1. Great post. Go Thrash go! This time we win some rounds.

  2. Gettin' a little tired of people throwing Kovy under the bus after a whopping 5 wins. Talk to me after we win a playoff game.

  3. Anonymous: It's a just a theory and it's less about Kovy than it is the improved play of his ex-teammates.

  4. I don't see how it's throwing Kovy under the bus at all. Wouldn't it be throwing the rest of his teammates under the bus for not stepping up when he was still on the roster?

  5. Maybe to a degree. But as Hedberg said in the story: When a guy plays 25 minutes per night, leads the league in power play time, he's being put in the position to perform and others aren't to a large extent. Kane can't score PP goals if he's not on the PP. With Kovy gone, everyone has more opportunity and feels more responsible.

  6. Thanks for the reply, John. I understand the theory and the argument, I just don't think an accurate assessment can be made after 6 games. Doing so points the finger at Kovalchuk as the sole reason for the lack of the Thrashers' success (all-time), and that's not fair.

  7. Consistency has never been the Thrashers' strong point. Show me some of that and maybe I'll believe.

    The Thrashers won 5 games WITH Kovy too. Let's see what happens when they go on one of their patented 8-game losing streaks. Who will be to blame then? "Boy, I bet the Thrashers sure wish they had Kovalchuk to help them get the puck in the net and out of this slide."

  8. Anonymous 1:

    Why not throw Kovy under the bus? He lied to the fans of the THRASHERS. I understand if you are still a fan of the guy, that's fine. Personally, I don't want to be a fan of someone that says that he will stay in Atlanta if they do what he wants...and then the management does that...offers him the money, and he leaves anyway.

    Kovalchuk set the bar high, and didn't expect management to deliver. They did, and he ended up being revealed as a liar.

    The idea is that without Ilya Kovalchuk, the team is actually a team, and not centered around a superstar -- and that this team can succeed. It's not throwing him under the bus, it's just stating a fact. The team has been successful in the games since Kovalchuk, and you can't take that away from them. I don't think he's trying to say that IF Kovalchuk was on the team, that they would be any less successful or any MORE successful. There is no way of knowing. He is merely applying the theory to the situation at had.

    It's merely social science.

  9. >> It's merely social science

    And human nature when it comes to group behavior.

  10. All I'm saying is that 6 games is too small a sample size to judge whether or not the Thrashers are better without Kovy. I'll be MORE than happy to celebrate when the team wins a playoff game, but until that happens - until they show me they can consistently play better, as a team, and win, then I'm not drinking the Kool-aid. I think the issues with this team's ability to compete go much farther than a single player. It starts with management. THAT, sadly, hasn't changed.

    As Fox Mulder said, I want to believe.

  11. Team play is team play.....a great piece indeed.

  12. And FWIW, Kovy would've been crucified if he said he wanted to leave. Instead he's being crucified for saying he wanted to stay. IMHO, he was in a no-win situation.

    What player, besides Ray Bourque, has ever been respected for saying he wanted out?

  13. I agree that it's a small sample size, but the results, thus far, are fairly startling. The part of the Ewing Theory that hooked me is that I think most people -- tell me if you were among them, Anonymous -- thought the Thrashers would fall off a cliff after the trade, much as they did after Hossa was traded. But if you compare them to the field right now, I think they've got a pretty good shot.

  14. I'm not sure 3-3 is "startling," though I know a simple W-L record is not the whole story. And don't get me wrong - I'm HAPPY they're playing well; I'm just cynical about it continuing. I'm a Thrashers fan... they've broken my heart before.

    I did not think they would "fall off a cliff," as you say. However, I think they were an average team before the trade, not an excellent team - they didn't have far to fall! They have thus far continued to be an average team, though manifested in a different manner. Time will tell where they end up.

    Would also like to point the team had similar 'positive reactions' (so to speak) after the hiring of Hartley... and the firing of Hartley. Neither of those led to any consistent good play either.

  15. See 2009/10 Colorado Avalanche minus Joe Sakic. Great guy, great player but just look how the whole team stepped up this year. Sacco and Anderson of course are a big reason why, but watching them play in the offensive zone it's clear the overall effort would not be there if Sakic was still the go-to guy.

  16. Anonymous (No. 1): Your cynicism is justified. Count me among those who thought that a very strong chance existed that we would see a repeat of '07-'08 after Hossa was traded, especially with the chance that the Russians might be greatly dispirited (as Kozlov appears to be). But credit has to go to Antropov and Afinogenov.

    The truth is that they might only be slightly above average, but that's about all you need to be to make the playoffs, especially in the East. And there's only 21 games left, so if they can avoid any losing streak of more than two games -- it might be a big "if" -- they might have as good of a shot as any of the teams with which they are competing.

  17. 6-1... make that 4-1-2 since Kovy left.

    Put another way, that's 10 out of 14 possible points. Do that all season and you win the President's Trophy with 116 points.

    They aren't playing "just average" right now. But time will tell -- there are 21 games left. We'll see if they can sustain it.

  18. A Thrasher Fan Lovin Life!March 5, 2010 at 6:11 AM

    OK...They're now in the #8 playoff spot, got scores from MacArthur and Artyukhin in their 1st games with the team, Bergfors scored his 4th goal in 7 games since joining the team (part of Kovy trade), the team scored FOUR goals in the 1st last night against the Isles (a team that thoroughly manhandled them in 3 previous meetings WITH Kovy), and hey, they've moved from pg C4 to pg C2 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (although Jeff Schultz and his grudge continue to try and run them out of town).

    DUDLEY has quietly assembled a very talented team...One that "former" Thrasher fans still fail to recognize. This team can hang with anyone, as proven by the 4-0-2 record over the past 6 games including a 3-game roady against quality opponents. This team presents a PROBLEM for the opposition now because they have no idea where the next shot's coming from (Eric Bolton took 3 shots Tues nt for goodness sake!) The EWING/KOVY THEORY LIVES!!

    One other thing that's not come out in the mainstream press. Kovy and Kozlov were trying to strongarm J Anderson into running the team "the Russian way". The degree of this "mutiny on the Blueland" is still unknown, but it was obviously detrimental to the T-E-A-M. Ever seen an unhappy Russian pout? The removal of Kovy and benching of Kozzie has been referred to on blogs - accurately - as the "removal of a team cancer".

    Not sure how that fits the Ewing Theory, since it assumes the Superstar isn't so powerful that he's "actively detrimental", perhaps even intentionally sabotaging. However, when all the facts come out, that may indeed make it "The Kovy Theory" - Namely, the removal of a "cancerous" Superstar that allows the remaining players to flourish?

    Oh yeah...Artyukhin got the "Play of the Night" on NHL On The Fly for his freakishly dominate breakaway last night! When's the last time a THRASHER got Play of the Night? Then again, who was going to stop him? Not me.

    SELLOUTS are coming to Philips Arena and so are the Playoffs! Playoffs? Playoffs? YES...

  19. Thrasher Fan Lovin Life: You are exuberant. A little conspiracy-minded, but I think there might be something to the fact that Kovy and Kozzy might not have wanted to play the style that Anderson is trying to promote and now they have the players who have the attitude to play it. An important point: When you win, players buy into what you're selling. They're winning right now and so everyone (who's in the lineup) is buying in. Bergfors has been a revelation and Antropov and Afinogenov are playing phenomenal. Let's see if your (irrational?) exuberance can last a weekend of Tampa Bay and Carolina -- which is playing fantastic hockey since Eric Staal was named captain (8-2 in their last 10).

  20. Anonymous #1 here... :)

    Still cynical... but curious. I will go to Sunday's game.

    Would also like to point out that Kovy wasn't the only player missing from last night's romp (over the Islanders, who they SHOULD be beating):

    White and Kozlov were gone too... taking their combined -31 off the ice.

    Everyone's happy when the team's winning! Let's see what happens when they take on some teams with winning records, huh? The stretch coming up when they play BUF-OTT-PHI-PHI-BOS will be a better test.

    And again, just so it's clear: I love the Thrashers and I want them to succeed, with or without Kovy. I'm just not convinced, based on 9 years of Thrashers futility, that this little streak really means anything and I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong by the team.

  21. 'A Thrasher Fan Lovin Life!' is basing his negative comments about Kovalchuk and Kozlov disagreeing with Anderson on comments Kozlov gave to Russian news outlets. K & K definitely wanted to primarily roll two lines, saying the players can't maintain a good rhythm if you are rolling four lines, whereas using two lines allows for a better flow thru the game. Also saying they had tried to get Anderson to change the style of play to more of their liking.

    He said these sort of comments on more than one occasion, based on the translated excerpts that I saw. I imagine you can search and find these articles...or likely they have been discussed on the team boards....yes, here you go


  22. The system that Kovy wanted Anderson to play was basically the one that Hartley employed (surprise, surprise). I think it's been proven in the post-lockout era, for the most part, that with the new rules if you can put together 12 forwards who can skate and forecheck, defenders can't restrain them anymore and you get a lot more chances. Anaheim, for the most part, did it, Carolina did it, Buffalo got to two conference finals doing it. New Jersey tends to do it now.

    Look at what happened to the Rangers by following the superstar model -- as soon as Jagr was gone, they were done. And when teams could stop that one line in the playoffs they also were done.

  23. Anonymous #1 stopping by to, sadly, rest her case.