The Atlanta Show: featuring SB Nation Atlanta editor/writer Jason Kirk

Jason Kirk, an editor to SB Nation Atlanta, was kind enough to come on HFA Radio and discuss all corners of the Atlanta sports market.

The Atlanta Show: featuring SB Nation Atlanta editor/writer Jason Kirk.

Atlanta Update: Hawks acquire PG Kirk Hinrich in Five-Player Trade

Whenever we talked about the Atlanta Hawks last week, one of our main issues with the structure of the team was focused on the lack of production from their point guard position.

Seemingly, the Hawks front office heard our points.

Last night, the Hawks acquired Washington Wizards guard Kirk Hinrich and center Hilton Armstrong for point guard Mike Bibby, rookie guard Jordan Crawford and forward Maurice Evans (ESPN News Link). The Wizards also received a first-round selection from the Hawks.

The Hawks desperately needed an upgrade from the aging Bibby. Averaging 9.4 points per game and 3.6 assists, the 32-year old veteran was no longer able to compete defensively against the younger guards dominating Eastern Conference play and wasn’t meshing with his own team at the level he previously had. However, the Wizards view Bibby as an excellent tutor to their young point guard, number one overall draft pick John Wall. The tutoring Bibby can do in an environment where the Wizards aren’t ready to compete is exactly what management had hoped for in the trade.

In Hinrich, the Hawks received an athletic guard who can excel at both guard positions and opens up what the team can do in the fast break. While playing alongside Wall, Hinrich averaged 11.1 points per game and 4.4 assists. With the Hawks, Hinrich will be immediately inserted into the starting rotation and will look to add some offensive punch to a strong base that includes Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. More importantly, Hinrich, known for his strong defensive play, will be able to match up properly against other points in the East. The team also expects second-year guard Jeff Teague to pick up the slack off the bench with Crawford and Evans both leaving Atlanta for DC.

Looking at this trade today, it appears to be an immediate win for both teams. The Wizards add the veteran leadership the team desired to help mold John Wall. The Hawks added a younger pair of legs that can keep up defensively with the other guards in the East, all while not having to give up too much in terms of talent.

With the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets both making huge moves the same day, it will be interesting to see if the stealth acquisition of Hinrich will help steady the ship in Atlanta.

State of the Franchise: St. Louis Blues

Current Season: 27-23-9 (63 points, 13th in Western Conference)

Last Season: 40-32-10 (90 points, missed playoffs)

This being our third week of sports coverage on HFA, we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss a wide-variety of teams. We’ve talked about teams in rebuilding stages (Washington Nationals/Redskins) and teams looking to compete year in and year out (Atlanta Braves/Hawks and this week’s Cardinals).

But, the Blues are our first truly unique situation: remodeling on the fly, in season. Earlier this week, we covered the Erik Johnson/Chris Stewart trade that shifted the direction of the Blues entirely. Erik Johnson had long been considered the foundation for St. Louis success since he was taken first overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Now, the team is looking to move forward with strong play up front complemented by a steady defense.

This season, along with Johnson, the team has also moved their captain, Eric Brewer, as they continue to remodel the product they put on the ice night in and night out. The Blues are a team with strong scoring options, highlighted by centers David Backes (team-leading 22 goals) and Alexander Steen, who leads the team in points (45) and assists (28).

But, most important to the Blues offensive surge is the healthy of fourth-year winger David Perron. A former first round pick, Perron had put up 97 points in his previous two season (35 goals, 62 assists). Perron has been battling injuries all year, but has finally made it back to the ice and is immediately regaining his old form. In his first 10 games this year, Perron has tallied five goals and two assists while posting an impressive +/- rating of +7.

Perron, along with the acquisition of Stewart, who has posted three goals in his first three games with the Blues, plus the continued development of Matt D’Agostini, who has already set career-highs in points (27) and assists (15), the Blues have the necessary offensive pieces to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

While trading Erik Johnson seems like a step backwards for the Blues defensive squad, outsiders must first look at the Blues line-up as a whole before passing judgment. In 2008, the Blues made defenseman Alex Pietrangelo the fourth overall pick in the draft. At age 21, Pietrangelo is getting his first full season of NHL action, and is impressing everybody. He has a +/- rating of +3, along with his 33 points, all while averaging a staggering 21 minutes of ice time a night.

Also, the second player the Blues acquired in the Johnson trade, 22-year old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is fifth among rookie defenders in points (28). Paired with defensive-minded blue-liner, 24-year old Roman Polak, the Blues have maintained a young core that will only get better the more the unit plays together this season.

Between the pipes, the Blues believe they have a long-term solution for the first time in a very long time. After carrying the Montreal Canadiens to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jaroslav Halak found himself in new digs this year, playing for the Blues. In his first season as a number one goalie in St. Louis, Halak has performed well, with a win-loss record of 19-17-6 and a goals against average of 2.63.

But, due to a hand injury, the Blues have been forced to shelf Halak on the Injured Reserve list and play the likes of veteran Ty Conklin and Ben Bishop. It is unclear when Halak will be able to return from this recent injury, and the Blues will look to tread water until he is able to play once again.

For the season, it’s going to be awfully difficult for the Blues to get into the playoff picture. While they sit only five points out of the eight and final playoff seed, there are four teams sitting between them and the Los Angeles Kings. Leap-frogging four teams in the span 22 games is a tall order to ask for.

More importantly to Blues fans, though, is the constant development of this young nucleus. Yes, it is likely they won’t make the playoffs this season. But, this team is remodeling itself as the season progress, and is finally coming together as a cohesive unit with a strong direction in place. St. Louis may be only a year away from listening to some sweet Blues playoff music once again.

Interview with Jason Kirk, Regional Editor, SB Nation Atlanta

Interview with Jason Kirk, Regional Editor, SB Nation Atlanta.

Here’s our interview with SB Nation Atlanta Editor Jason Kirk from Thursday’s HFA Radio. Make sure to check out Jason’s work on SBNation.com for more on Atlanta sports!

Week Two Summary: Atlanta

On Thursday, we wrapped up our Atlanta week with a great interview with Jason Kirk, the Regional Editor at SB Nation Atlanta. Jason helped fill us in on the pulse of the sports fans in the ATL, particularly the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Thrashers, and the UGA Bulldog sports culture. We would like to thank Jason for his insight and time on Thursday. The link to the whole interview can be found at the bottom of this post, but here is a short summary of the interview:

BRAVES
Kirk asserts that the people of Atlanta are definitely sad to see the end of the very long Bobby Cox era at Turner Field, but are mostly optimistic about the future. In regards to new manager Fredi Gonzalez, Kirk gives two separate vibes in regards to how fans are seeing the new skipper. A fan coming from the first vibe would argue that Gonzalez is “just like Bobby Cox,” in that he is too much a disciple of Cox and some Braves had begun to tire of Cox’s “micro-management” towards the end of his tenure in Atlanta. A second vibe from Braves fans would also argue that Gonzalez is “just like Bobby Cox,” but that is a positive factor, as Cox was well-liked by players, and was responsible for many playoff successes in Atlanta. These similar arguments with very dissimilar reasoning represent the high emotions of all in seeing a dugout without Cox in it come spring training.

FALCONS
When asked about any potential for a Michael Vick “hangover” in Atlanta, Kirk confirms that Vick is still very much a story in Atlanta, but despite that, the fandom and spirit is by no means diminished for Falcons fans. Coming off a few solid recent seasons, particularly a 13-3 regular season in 2010-11 in which the Falcons claimed to not be taken seriously by the football world, Kirk stated that the fans are excited in Atlanta, but still recognize the gaping holes in the rosters which need to be filled in the off-season. Although every team obviously has weaknesses, the Falcons’ gaps, particularly in the offensive arena, were absolutely exposed in the playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. That game came as an embarrassment to many in Atlanta, but given the obvious potential to rebuild and bolster the personnel in the off-season, Kirk asserts that “it’s time to start believing” in the Falcons now.

HAWKS
Although Atlanta had often been a big basketball town, considering the huge popularity of the NBA in the 1980’s, there is “no vibe about the Hawks,” according to Kirk. Atlanta fans recognize that the Hawks are often going to be decent, but they are not a big team to care about, even given the large numbers of basketball fans residing in the area. The Hawks’ problem is that they play with “no fire,” and are constantly operating in the shadow of geographic and divisional rivals in the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.

THRASHERS
When asked about the hockey vibe in Atlanta, Kirk immediately asserted that Atlanta is not a hockey town, but “is a college football town.” People have very little interest in hockey, and have essentially refused to buy into the hockey vibe, especially given the highs and lows of the other high profile franchises in the city. Just one day after our interview with Jason, we posted news regarding a potential move of the Thrashers back up to Canada. If this move goes through, it looks like Atlanta won’t even need to feign being a hockey town for much longer.

UGA BULLDOGS
Unlike our city of the week last week, Washington DC, Atlanta has a largely focused and unified fan base around a college program, particularly the Georgia Bulldogs, especially when it is football season. Kirk gives that although the Dawgs were 6-7 in 2010, there was an “eerily high vibe” given a losing record from a perennially SEC powerhouse team. In the off-season, the Bulldogs are refocusing their notoriously formidable recruiting efforts, directing them mostly toward homegrown talent, which is customary in Athens. Given the fact that UGA plays in the SEC, which Kirk calls “the greatest league in any sport,” all games are competitive and spotlight some of the best players in the nation. “Nothing’s better,” Kirk claims.

We conducted another email interview this week, with this one spotlighting the input and perspective of a fan. Sam Daniels, a 2008 UGA graduate and member of the student booster club during his time at the school, spent a large majority of his college years organizing pep rallies, large-scale tailgate parties, and devising obnoxious cheers to distract and belittle the visiting teams. He called the Georgia fan culture “a contagious and completely tradition-based way of life.” Football games are “the be all and end all of social life in Athens,” Daniels asserts. “We eat, sleep, breathe, drink, talk, and can’t ever get enough of the Bulldogs. Yeah, we care about the Braves when it comes time for baseball, but college football is the real deal. For most of us, our older siblings did what we did, and our parents before us. Gameday tailgate parties at the crack of dawn; that this is how it has always been done here. And we would not trade it for the world. Being a Dawg is who we are, forever.”

CULTURAL IMPLICATIONS
Given the varied success levels of the Atlanta sports franchises, as well as the added variable of the highly popular Georgia football team, we have two separate trends to observe and comment on, given our research and interviews from this week.

The first trend in Atlanta involves the passion and hype generated from the success of homegrown talent, whether it is in the form of local boys doing well for the Bulldogs football team, or locals bridging the gap into the professional realm, exemplified perfectly by the Braves’ Jason Heyward, whose fantastic rookie season put all eyes on the homegrown talent that the Braves managed to keep in the area. Fishing for homegrown talent is the modus operandi of many teams, and utilizing the Bulldogs as a case study, it works. Seeing a local kid blossom into a star under the watch of the people who he grew up around not only puts fans in the seats (not that the UGA football program needs help doing that), but it also perpetuates a cycle of young children looking to these local stars as heroes and role models. It is absolutely a unifying factor in sports culture, and an ever present dynamic in Atlanta life.

The second trend in Atlanta, as we discussed in length in both our HFA Radio show and podcast interview with Jason Kirk, involves the concept that most, if not all, of the Atlanta teams seem to be operating in the shadows of ghosts of seasons past. This looks very different for each team, with the new Braves team playing in the shadow of the Bobby Cox era in the upcoming season, the Thrashers playing in an attempt to fill the shoes left in Kovalchuk’s departure, or the Falcons playing in the shadow of the Michael Vick debacle. Seeing a long tenured manager of a team retire, or saying goodbye to a staple player of a successful franchise, either on good or bad terms, cannot possibly bode well for the well-being and outlook of the fans in that city. Atlanta has seen sports success in a number of venues, but when chapters of those notable eras come to a very abrupt or definitive end, it leaves one feeling confused, down, and truly wondering “What’s Next?” Shadows come quickly in the life and times of a sports fan, and quite often, they last for a good amount of time. The histories of the various Atlanta franchises have left fans with a hangover…not necessary out of hope, but absolutely wondering “Hey! What’s next?” This question is one that is a heavily deciding factor in the dictated sports pulse in the ATL.
Bye-bye, Bobby. Falcons making a statement in the regular season. Hawks mediocre at best, yet again. Goodbye to hockey in Atlanta? And a fresh start for the boys in Athens come August.

So, what’s next?

Thrashers in “Panic Mode”?

The Atlanta area has gone through the process of losing a hockey team before when the Flames boxed up shop and moved to the Great White North.

Now, it is very possible the Thrashers could be on their way out as well. Owner Michael Gearon Jr. stated that the team is looking for additional investors, but hasn’t put a timetable on finding partners to help solidify the teams finances. Such a decision could determine if the team is forced to move out of town or stay in Atlanta (ESPN News Link).

Gearon and other team owners have said that since 2005, the team has lost around $130 million, and that the current ownership group as it stands cannot survive another season in which the team loses $20 million.

In response to the possibility to Atlanta potentially losing their second NHL team in as many tries, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was non-committal in his comments. While he stated that he wants the team to remain in Atlanta, he mentioned that if the bleak financial situation doesn’t improve, the Thrashers will become a situation “ultimately will have to be dealt with”.

The Thrashers began play in the NHL in 1997, 17 years after the Flames left Atlanta for Calgary. Since their induction into the league, the team has struggled to generate significant buzz in the Atlanta area. They’ve qualified for the playoffs only once in their young franchise history, and have never won a playoff series. In our talks with Jason Kirk of SBNation Atlanta, many Atlanta fans were skeptical of the Thrashers from the get go due to the ownership group that owns the NBA’s Hawks also owns the Thrashers. Kirk said, for better or for worse, the fans never bought into the notion of the Thrashers because they struggled to accept the ownership of the Hawks. Where one team struggles, he said, it seemed to carry over to the other Atlanta franchise.

Jason Heyward At a Glance

Yesterday on HFA Radio, Kaiti Decker and myself talked extensively about the rookie year Braves outfielder Jason Heyward had, and what Braves fans can expect from the phenom.

His rookie year, Heyward finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting, behind world champion Giants backstop Buster Posey. His line of .277, 18 home runs and 77 runs batted in for a player that didn’t turn 21 until late August is beyond impressive. Mark Bowman of MLB.com sat down with Heyward when he arrived in Spring Training and talked about what the second year pro will need to do to improve on those numbers (link).

Year two, as we mentioned on air yesterday, is pivotal in a player’s development. Many players go through what is known as a “sophomore slump”. In recent history, one has to look no further then back to the San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval. After an impressive first full season line of .330, 25 home runs and 90 runs batted in, Sandoval fell to a lowly .268/13/63 last season.

In recent Braves history, one can look back on the hot start the team’s previous right fielder got off to before petering out. The Braves rushed Jeff Francoeur to the majors, when at age 21 “Frenchy”, as he’s known in the locker room, posted a .300/14/45, good enough for a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Francoeur would have a strong sophomore season and a productive third season, before falling off the map entirely and eventually traded out of the Braves system all together.

For Heyward, it becomes a matter of perseverance. He has all the talent in the world, and it will be up to him to adjust as the league adjusts to his game. He has the ability to do it, and it will be fun for all those in the Atlanta area and the nation to watch this young player develop into a star.