As you've all heard by now, Grand Shooteur and myself were invited to a sit-down Q&A with the Thrashers' new head coach John Anderson yesterday. Rawhide and the Shooter have already posted their thoughts and impressions, so I reckon it's my turn.
First of all, every thanks in the world to Ben Wright of the Blueland Blog and the forward-thinking staff up at the Ice Forum for inviting us along. All of them are First Class Human Beings. I'm still not entirely convinced I spoke to John Anderson yesterday; part of me is pretty certain it was all a dream.
It was tons of fun to meet our fellow Thrashers bloggers. I had a great time talking about (about many, many other things) the origins of the name "Tampa Bay Lightning" with Rawhide, indie music with the Falconer, and the evils of Jeff Schultz with Sean Grace of Blueland Roar. I met Hockey Wench and Rose Colette, two charming ladies of the Thrashers 411, and I'm ashamed to say that my first ever knowledge of the Thrashers Practice Blog was meeting its author in the flesh yesterday. Apologies, Sir, and know that you'll be linked to on the Chronicle from here on.
It's a shame Mrs. Lehtonen of Fire Wagon Hockey couldn't come. They really do need to build a supersonic railway between Atlanta and D.C.
Now then, comrades, on to the interview itself:
As Big Shooter said, it's impossible not to like John Anderson as soon as you meet him. Not only is he an exceedingly nice and courteous guy (and evidently over-generous with his time), but he talks about hockey with more intelligence and precision than just about anybody I've ever read or even watched on the CBC. The main point of this post, actually, is to draw attention to his precision. It should help the Thrashers immensely.
When a team has as shaky a year, and as catastrophic a collapse, as the Thrashers did last year it becomes easy to talk about them exclusively in generalities. For example, "The Thrashers suck." Or "No one wants to play in Atlanta; we must be awful." Or "We're not going to make the playoffs for another 18 years."
Talking to Anderson made me realize just how useless a lot of those generalities are, even if there's an element of truth in them. To get become "a better team" the Thrashers don't have to transform every last thing about themselves; Anderson pointed out that the team was in first place for a while last season, and that the way to become a better team is as simple (and as complex) as becoming a less streaky team. He said that instead of winning three games then losing three or four or five games, the Thrashers need to expand their winning streaks to five or six games. When they lose, say, two games in a row, Anderson thinks that they should be able to fix whatever's wrong and discontinue their losing streak immediately.
Since their streakiness is one of the team's biggest problems, Anderson will certainly turn things around if he can lessen it or eliminate it. Not that we won't still have losing streaks; he just wants them to be two games or, at the most, three games in a row.
Big Shooter asked Anderson about our defensive strategy. He pointed out that Anderson is known for his highly offensive style of play and wondered how he'd help the Thrashers avoid their previous condition of being out-shot by astronomical numbers every game. As the Shooter said: "It seems counter-productive to just let the other team shoot as much as they want."
Anderson said that the Thrashers have traditionally allowed far too wide a gap between their forwards and their D-men, that the defense has hung back too far down the ice, and that the best way to rememdy this would be to close the gap and make the defensemen part of the attack. I got the impression talking to Anderson that he wants every player on the Thrashers to become as big a goal-scorer as he can: he expects players like Eric Perrin and Bryan Little to have big years, and he said that he wants his D-men to be as much a part of the offense as the forwards. His reigning philosophy seems to be that the best defense is a relentless, explosive offense. His central defensive tactic is the wonderfully-named "mongoosing," in which a defenseman will break up the play of an opposing forward by, er, mongoosing him. Speaking of defense, Anderson said he's surprised at just how offensively talented Zach Bogosian has been in prospect camp. I would think a player like Bogo is ideally suited to Anderson's attack style.
I asked him if there were any players he hasn't worked with before (on the Wolves or in Thrashers development camp) that he's particularly excited about. I mentioned Erik Christensen specifically.
Anderson: "You know, I've been watching films of him and Colby Armstrong all day."
He thinks that both Army and Crusher are viable top six forwards. Christensen in particular seems to interest him because he's a talented center that was neglected and overshadowed on a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins. There, he was overshadowed by centers like Crosby, Malkin, and Staal. Here, he has a chance to flourish and prove himself, and, as Anderson said, "become a big leader." He believes in the potential of both Armstrong and Christensen to become team leaders and skilled top six forwards, and I think he relates particularly well to them because he found himself in a situation similar to theirs when he was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. During Anderson's first few seasons with the Leafs he was pretty much overshadowed by stars like Lanny McDonald; when McDonald and co. got traded, he stepped into the role of a legitimate top six forward and scored thirty goals or more every season. He clearly understands players like Armstrong and Christensen because he relates to them: free from the overwhelming shadow of Sidney Crosby, Christensen could very well become a legitimate first line center for the Czar. And Armstrong, says Anderson, could become a real live team leader. Is it too presumptious to say that Anderson sees a little bit of himself in the two of them?
That was at least the impression I got.
Big Shooter mentioned something about our goal-tending situation, how we're "set" on goal-tending and such (meaning we have plenty of talent/trading options) and Anderson emphatically said "Nothing is set in stone." Very very interesting, I say. Does this mean someone is about to get traded?
Another interesting tidbit of relatively inside information: Anderson said that towards the end of last year, when the scenery was really collapsing, the locker room split off into two factions (led by whom, I wonder?). He thinks that the team needs to become united and determined again next season, and the best way to achieve that is to "make them believe in themselves again." Not an easy task, but not impossible either. Anderson said he didn't understand the gloom and hand-wringing over the Thrashers; as he said, "we're not that bad. The team was in first place at one point!"
Around the time the Thrashers were in first place, the future division champions were languishing in third. Much was said about the Washington Capitals yesterday, not least because his best friend Bruce Boudreau is coaching them. The Falconer pointed out that the parallels between the two teams are striking: both teams are young, both have an explosive Russian star, and they're coached by the likes of Bruce Boudreau and John Anderson. Anderson thinks the Caps are definitely the team to beat: "They're big, they're fast, and they're explosive." It would be amazing, wouldn't it, if the Southeast Division crown becomes a knock-down drag-out between the Caps and the Thrash? It'd be an exciting rivalry, but a friendly one given the friendship between Anderson and Boudreau, Kovalchuk and Ovechkin, Enstrom and Backstrom (apparently they went to a concert together the night before last season's All-Star Game). As for the over-hyped Tampa Bay Lightning Version 8.0, Anderson had this to say: "There's no way I'm gonna let Melrose get ahead of me in the standings." It's on!
There was quite a lot talked about generating more interest in hockey in the Atlanta area. The Thrashers organization has a rocky relationship with the AJC; some of the guys we met yesterday complained that our only daily newspaper does a miserable job of covering the work that several Thrashers do in the community: the out-reach programs of Havelid, Kovalchuk, and so on. Apparently there's one in development with Johan Hedberg. What should it be called? Moose's Minions?
The Falconer made a good point: if the folks who work for the Thrashers want something like these out-reach programs covered in the press, why not continue their embrace of the blogosphere and throw information our way?
Which brings me to my final point: I've got to hand it to the Thrashers for being open-minded enough to invite a troupe of bloggers to a long and expansive interview with the new head coach. This could be part of a much larger trend in sports coverage that mirrors the trends in politicial and cultural reporting: certain blogs become as read and as influential, if not more so, than traditional media like newspapers and magazines. Congrats to the Thrashers organization for realizing this and taking advantage of it. Again, I'm still not entirely convinced that I was given direct access to John Anderson yesterday. Did it actually happen?
I admit this is an unfocused and rambling post, but those of you craving more quotes from the man himself needn't fear. Shooter and I recorded the entire conversation, and if all those present consider it kosher, we'll upload the thing onto the Chronicle and let all of you listen in. If I get the go-ahead I'll upload it sometime in the next few days, and yes, I'll identify which voice is Big Shooter's and which one is mine.
A final note: briefly got to see Zach Bogosian play after the interview. The kid is money.