I was not able to attend the Tuesday Townhall Meeting, but Timmyf and I were at the Wednesday breakfast. Waddell took many questions, but here were the items that stood out to me.
#1 Goaltender Job Hotly Contested
Last year the Thrashers did everything they could do bolster Kari Lehtonen's confidence. Coach Anderson and Waddell both said that he was the number one and they were looking for him to step up his game. But Kari missed yet another full month of the season. Then he had back surgery late in the summer and was not as diligent with his rehab. It appears that the kid glove treatment is over for Lehtonen.
There were a couple of questions about the goaltending spot. Waddell said that Lehtonen is not yet facing shots and they are waiting for the doctors to clear him. Perhaps, even more telling than the words was the tone he used. Then towards the end the frustration became more explicit. "Even when Lehtonen is healthy, he should not assume that the #1 job is his. At this point, I don't think he has earned the right to expect that."
Even Johan Hedberg should not rest easy. Waddell said the best goalies will make the team and that "if a young goalie outplays an older goalie contracts will not decide roster spots"--last time I checked the Thrashers only have one old goalie on their camp roster. Waddell indicated that they did a lot of research on Manny Legace and that he is an established NHL goaltender with a substantial track record. He also said they were very excited about Drew McIntyre. They hotly pursued the minor UFA and offered him a 2 year deal to signal the seriousness of their interest.
One season ticket holder pointed out that it is very important for the team to get off to a good start--and they will play 5 of 6 on the road. He asked, "who do you think will be our starter Opening Night?" Waddell paused, and answered "Pavelec."
Let the goalie battle begin!
The NHL and Thrashers Financial Situation
Waddell was asked about the NHL's salary cap. He said that recent numbers from around the league showed that 20 of the NHL teams were behind on season ticket renewals and the other 10 were either flat or ahead of pace. This is the effect of a bad economy. He expects the cap to fall in the summer of 2010 (which will not be an issue for Atlanta since they are well under it).
In the case of Atlanta, a big concern this summer was luxury box renewals; 49 of the 92 of the luxury boxes at Philips Arena had 10 year leases which expired this summer. The organization was concerned about the renewal rate in a bad economy, but 30 of the 49 boxes have been sold or renewed. Waddell mentioned one other tidbit that actually shocked me. The Atlanta Hawks qualified the playoffs two years ago for their 1st appearance in a long time, and this last spring they made the playoffs and advanced to the 2nd round. Only now have the Hawks passed the Thrashers in season tickets sold! I found that amazing considering that the Hawks have a better record and a longer history in a region with SEC and ACC basketball tradition--and yet the NHL team had more STH?! Waddell said he knows many of the hockey fans in Atlanta are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see a good team and that if they want to sell more hockey tickets they have to win more hockey games on the ice.
He pointed out that the Thrashers were going to add about $8 million in payroll compared to last summer, while the big spenders were required to hold their budgets flat due to the salary cap. Another person asked about the impact on revenue sharing (hopefully a BWA reader) and Waddell said that team payroll would rise by roughly $8 million, and the Thrashers revenue sharing would fall about around $6 million. Ownership was in effect absorbing a $14 million swing by increasing player payroll this summer.
I asked him if staying under the mid point was a significant factor and he suggested they were willing to cross over that line. After the Rangers walked away from Zherdev's arbitration contract, Waddell informed the owners of a surprising opportunity to sign a talented player and they gave him the green light to have talks even though it was not in the original budget. Zherdev ended up signing with Atlant of the KHL and it appears that the dollar amount was one reason. The KHL money goes further because of a much lower tax rate and other benefits that they can offer.
Improving the PK
The Thrashers coaching staff spent their summer working hard to figure out how to fix the Thrashers PK unit. They watched video of the top 10 PK units in the NHL and looked for patterns and strategies. They also want to try spreading the PK ice time out among more players. Fans should expect to see a bigger PK rotation and players such as Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Colby Armstrong and Rich Peverley will see more PK minutes in an effort to keep everyone fresh. (I hope to have a post on this topic soon.)
Ilya Kovalchuk Contract
The Thrashers and Kovalchuk are not discussing a "lifetime contract" ala Hossa's recent deal. The Thrashers don't want a front -or back-loaded contract. And Kovalchuk isn't willing to sign a lifetime contract because he hopes to play perhaps as long as age 40--which would be 13 more years! It sounded like they were talking a term somewhere in between 5 and 8 years, which would then allow Kovalchuk to sign another deal if he desires to play into his late 30s.
Carl Klingberg Update
Someone asked about the Thrashers European players and the European Scout was present and mentioned four players who could contribute at the NHL level: Klingberg, Lasu, Zubarev and the ever elusive Nikulin. Klingberg was impressing while playing in a pre-season Swedish Elite League tournament where he led everyone in goal scoring. It appears both he and Lasu will play at the senior level this year.
NHL teams will play 82 regular season games in 180 days instead of the 185 days used last season. The games will be compressed and (hopefully) this might benefit a younger team like Atlanta. He also mentioned that the overall team fitness in the strength and cardio areas were the best in team history. Slava Kozlov in his late 30s had the best VO2 number of anyone on the roster. "Any player who wants to see what a professional athlete looks like should just watch Kozlov." (I can make a good guess as to who he was thinking of when he said "any player".)