Comparing The Team Under Two Thrashers Captains: Ilya Kovalchuk And Andrew Ladd

Ilya Kovalchuk and Andrew Ladd have totally dissimilar playing styles, and captained very different Thrashers squads. How’d they get their guys to rally around the Blueland flag? NHLHS Atlanta Thrashers correspondent Laura Astorian gives her take.

There’s no denying that the addition of some former members of the Chicago Blackhawks to the Atlanta Thrashers this off-season was one of the big moves in hockey.

The acquisition of playoff star Dustin Byfuglien overshadowed that of Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, and that makes sense. Big Buff was explosive for Chicago in the playoffs, scoring 11 goals and five assists after a season where he scored 17 goals. He scored six fewer goals in 22 games in the postseason than he did during all 82 regular season games. So far for the Thrashers, he’s the team’s impact player and go-to guy, scoring six game winning goals (three in overtime) and with his move back to defense is now leading the league’s defensemen with 16 goals and 41 points.

It’s justifiable that Byfuglien is hogging the attention, and there’s a good chance that Atlanta’s turn around this season has a great deal to do with him, but there’s someone else who is just as deserving of attention: the Thrashers’ newest captain, Andrew Ladd.

Ladd came from Chicago as well, though later than the rest, on July 1st. He was expected to be a solid role player, a locker room leader, and to add a bit of a scoring depth – probably at a higher rate than he did in Chicago. What he wasn’t expected to do was come in and give the team motivational spark like they hadn’t had for quite some time, but that’s exactly what he did.

The Thrashers needed a captain to replace Ilya Kovalchuk, who played his last game with the Thrashers on February 2nd, 2010. The team had gone captainless since then, and Ron Hainsey, Nik Antropov, and even Rich Peverley’s names were suggested as replacements since practically the end of that season.Kovalchuk was thought to be an irreplaceable player, but though the team was viewed by some as “Kovy’s team,” he wasn’t necessarily an irreplaceable captain.

Ladd being named as the replacement was surprising, but looking at the two captains, there might be some similarities. There might even be a bit of improvement in motivating factors for the team.

Kovalchuk, while he was with Atlanta, was the identity of the team. The team’s hardship was obviously  reflected in his own frustrations and he worked to carry the team through it. Nowhere is that more obvious than the spark that the team felt after he was named captain at Casino Night on January 12, 2009. For whatever reason, making his leadership official helped the Thrashers to a second-half turnaround, helping them go 21-17-1 and finishing with a winning record in the second half (though not on the season – the first half of the year was an unsalvageable train wreck).

Keep in mind that the team’s 21-17-1 record took three months to amass. Andrew Ladd’s captaincy (he was named team captain on November 18th) has already seen a record of 14-6-3 in a third of a time as Kovalchuk’s. Also, during Kovalchuk’s time as captain in 2009-2010, the team put together a losing record of 24-26-7 in what was very nearly a playoff season for the team. Total as captain, Kovy’s record was 45-33-8, which is a respectable total for about a season’s worth. It’s a playoff record, good for 98 points at the very least. While I’m not going to predict that this year’s Thrashers team hits 98 points – the team’s broken me of trying to predict anything after last season  - it is still a very strong possibility. They’re already nearly halfway to that total already, and it’s the mid-point of the season.

I can’t comment on leadership styles – neither individual is particularly vocal in the press, and their locker room persona is all speculation and hearsay, which is something that I don’t encourage. Kovalchuk took an arguably less talented team than the one that the Thrashers are now and rallied it around his offensive skill even as just an initial motivator; Ladd seems to be able to do the same thing in a shorter period of time with a more talented team. Yes, the team’s talent is going to factor in to both captains’ records, so it’s unfair to compare them in a way. But looking at the two players’ styles, Kovalchuk’s motivating factor to the team was his output. As it shrank through December while the contract talks were getting hammered out, the team’s shrank too. Ladd is on pace for a career season no doubt, but that doesn’t seem to be why the team woke up and went for a solid stretch of play after his captaincy was announced. It has to be more than offense with Ladd, which is a good thing. As we’ve seen with Kovalchuk this season, scoring comes and goes.