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Why the Thrashers have been better than the Leafs Add to ...

Towards the tail end of last season, the Leafs and Thrashers appeared to be two teams headed in similar directions.

Both teams missed the playoffs, with Toronto finishing nine points back of Atlanta with only 74 points. And the Thrashers, long accustomed to having a long off-season, had dealt away Ilya Kovalchuk and cleaned house yet again by bringing in a new coach and GM.

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But 40 per cent of the way into this season, Atlanta is red hot, on pace for a 99-point season and an 11th overall finish in the NHL. Toronto, meanwhile, remains a bottom feeder, 13 points back of the Thrashers and on pace to finish with two fewer points than a year ago.

Here's a look at the three biggest reasons things have gone right for Atlanta this season:

1. Scoring depth

There's a reason this is No. 1.

The Thrashers are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but they lack any real high end goal getters. Their top three scorers (Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd) all have 11, putting them on pace for about 27 on the year -- or about what Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel are on pace for.

The biggest difference is that Atlanta has enormous contributions from its depth, with 13 players on pace for 10 goals or more. Toronto only has six, and everyone else is flat lining. (Colton Orr is eighth on the team in goal production with two.)

The Thrashers are also getting more goals from their back end than any team in the league. But more on that in Part 3.

Thrashers goals per game: 3.18 (5th) Leafs goals per game: 2.19 (28th)

2. Goaltending

The most many NHL fans heard about Ondrej Pavelec was when he fainted two minutes into the opening game of the season.

Lately, however, he's been one of the best goaltenders in the league and currently sits behind only Boston's Tim Thomas in save percentage with a .944. The 220-pound, 23 year old Czech has been regarded as a top prospect for a while, but struggled at times last season and had a .902 career save percentage entering the year.

He's only started 20 games, so it's a bit early to start the Vezina Trophy talk, but his numbers to this point are in that territory. Backup Chris Mason has struggled, but the team's overall .919 save percentage is phenomenal -- and far, far better than what Toronto's J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson have managed.

Atlanta allows the fifth most shots against in the league, making them a "high event" team in that they score a lot, shoot a lot and allow quite a few chances. Teams like that often only win with a solid goaltender, and Pavelec's certainly been that.

Thrashers team save percentage: .919 (5th) Leafs team save percentage: .896 (27th)

3. Byfuglien (and Enstrom)

Byfuglien's getting a ton of attention these days, and it's well deserved. Moved back to defence (where he played his entire junior career with the Prince George Cougars), he is far and away the NHL's scoring leader among blueliners with 11 goals and 33 points in 34 games.

The unsung hero, however, is Toby Enstrom, Byfuglien's defence partner and another unheralded Thrasher who is having a strong season.

While Byfuglien is getting some early Norris Trophy buzz, people around the team say that Enstrom is more deserving, as he has a well-rounded game and is on pace to finish in the top 10 in scoring among defencemen.

"He's what 5-foot-nothing, but he's impossible to get around," Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur said of Enstrom, who he played with briefly last season. "He doesn't get enough attention."

Enstrom tied for sixth among defencemen in scoring last season with 50 points while playing 22 minutes a night. This season, he's over 24 minutes, 18th in the league in minutes per game, and as a pair, the two have been starting to get the difficult assignments every night.

Byfuglien also hasn't been a defensive liability, which was one of the reasons other coaches have been leery of using him on defence at the NHL level. More on that below.

Thrashers goals from defence: 20 goals (1st) Leafs goals from defence: 6 goals (T-28th)

Why Byfuglien was moved to the blueline

I had a chance to chat with Thrashers GM Rick Dudley at length recently about the decision to move Byfuglien back to defence, something he said he always thought should have happened at some point.

"Could I have projected that he would lead the league in scoring by defenceman?" Dudley said when asked if he was surprised how well the transition had gone. "No. But did I think he could be a very good NHL defenceman? Yes, I never doubted that at all.

"In fact, I consistently said when I was with Chicago [as assistant GM] even after we moved him to forward and he had success, that he was a better defenceman than a forward. What people miss in Dustin is they see the size, they see the shot, they see all that, but he processess things so well from back there. He sees the ice."

Dudley also gives coach Craig Ramsay credit for helping Byfuglien evolve into a complete player this season.

"With a teacher like he's got right now -- Craig is as good as it gets when it comes to teaching defencemen," Dudley said. "Dustin's quickly becoming a very, very good defensive player. If he puts all that together, there's really no stopping him.

"People understimate him, that's all. I didn't. I saw him quite a bit when I was in the Chicago organization, I went to Norfolk and watched him play there, and I just always believed there was some special talents there from the blueline."

We're certainly seeing that now.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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