Constructing the Post-Kovalchuk Thrashers

Up until very recently, I expected the Thrashers and Ilya Kovalchuk to come to some sort of agreement. Recently I've heard some rumbling that make me more doubtful that he will be re-signed. If Kovalchuk departs most Thrashers fans will be deeply depressed. I am not one of those people. Because of his style of play, I've never thought Ilya Kovalchuk was the sort of guy you could build a Stanley Cup contender around. As a fan, my number one goal is to see Lord Stanley's Cup awarded to my team in June before I die.

Seeing Kovalchuk exit stage right could actually speed up the process of getting closer to Lord Stanley. Whether the Thrashers get closer or further from Lord Stanley largely depends on how the team reacts. There are many things that are difficult to predict in professional sports. But one thing that is predictable is that young players improve on average and old players decline. If the Thrashers react to Kovalchuk's departure by adding a bunch of over-32 veterans then I might just give up on this team. However, the team could leverage Ilya's departure into a very exciting young team that could contend in a couple of years--here's my plan to construct the next the first Thrashers Cup contender.

Step One: Leverage Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov and Colby Armstrong into draft picks and quality players under age 30. The ideal situation would be something like this, you trade Kovalchuk and Afinogenov to the LA Kings for Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and future considerations. Dustin Brown is a very underrated player. He consistently leads the NHL in penalties drawn. He hits people and they retaliate which gives his team more Power Play opportunities. If Dustin Brown got credit for all the Power Play Goals he brings to his team his stats would look much more flashy.

Jack Johnson is a great skating defenseman who also loves to hit. With this trade the Thrashers would become a much more physical team (something needed in playoff hockey). When you think about Evander Kane maturing into a power forward over the next years and the arrival of hard hitting Carl Klingberg--holy cow!! Brown, Johnson, Kane and Klingberg are a quartet that could physically intimidate the opposition for the next half decade...a very exciting thought.

Step Two: Everyone around the NHL knows that the salary cap will remain flat or perhaps even decline slightly. Everyone in the NHL also knows that the Chicago Blackhawks need to toss overboard $9 million in salary just to get under the cap after re-signing their young stars. Chicago needs to trade Versteeg, Barker and Byfulgien for non-NHL considerations (prospects and picks). The Thrashers will have loads of cap room--they need to be the team where this talent lands. Trade the picks obtained in dealing Afinogenov and Armstrong at the deadline (and picks for the weak 2011 Draft) and get this deal done.

Step Three: Todd White is in the final year of his contract and adds neither scoring nor hitting to the team. Frankly every game he plays is a waste of ice time that ought to go to a young player who might be part of the next great Thrashers team. Signing a Todd White to a four year deal that paid him into his late 30s was a bad idea from the start. Buyout his final year and free up a roster spot to give ice time to a younger player who might be part of the next contending Thrashers squad.

Step Four: Assuming the Thrashers have a team payroll of $52-54 million (including all potential bonuses), the team will have $5-7 million to spend on two free agent forwards. For the sake of filling in that blank spot, I have the team signing UFA Alexander Frolov for $5 million. To be honest I'm not sure how much Frolov will receive on the UFA market or if he is a good fit a tougher version of the Thrashers. If not Frolov, my budget leaves a big chunk of salary for a 1st line caliber player to be added to the roster.

Final Roster: The Thrashers have show an increased appreciation for the age curve in recent years. My hypothetical roster would be a massive step in exploiting the career curve. The vast majority of the roster would either be in the rising part of the age curve (18-24) or the peak years part of the age curve (25-30) leaving just on player (Marty Reasoner) on the decline side of the age curve. Some people might argue this is too much youth, in which case you can swap out the money I have allocated to Frolov and spend it on a sage veteran type. Below is a table showing my 2010-11 Atlanta Thrashers complete with Age, Career Stage, Salary Cap #, Career Points Per game, Games Played, Expected Points (based on 82 games and their NHL career). (Note: Scoring rates for Machacek and Holzapfel are NHL Equivalency projections)

 

Line Player  Age Career Cap # Career PPG GP Expected PTS
D1 Enstrom 25 Peak 3.75 0.50 82 41
D1 Bogosian 19 Rising 3.38 0.39 82 32
D2 Hainsey 29 Peak 4.50 0.37 82 30
D2 Johnson, J. 23 Rising 1.43 0.24 82 20
D3 Barker 24 Rising 3.08 0.41 82 34
D3 Valabik 24 Rising 0.76 0.09 41 4
D4 Salmela 25 Peak 0.61 0.21 41 9
F1 Frolov 27 Peak 5.00 UFA 0.71 82 58
F1 Versteeg 24 Rising 3.08 0.63 82 52
F1 Antropov 30 Peak 4.06 0.60 82 49
F2 Peverley 27 Peak 1.30 0.59 82 48
F2 Kane 18 Rising 3.10 0.56 82 46
F2 Brown, D 25 Peak 3.18 0.47 82 39
F3 Byfuglien 25 Peak 3.00 0.43 82 35
F3 Little 22 Rising 2.00 RFA   0.41 82 34
F3 Reasoner 33 Decline 1.15 0.37 82 30
F4 Machacek 22 Rising 0.86 0.29 82 24
F4 Holzapfel 22 Rising 0.82 0.19 82 16
F4 Thorburn 27 Peak 0.66 0.19 82 16
F5 FA Checker

1.00
XX White 35 Decline 0.79 Buyout 0.60 0
G1 Pavelec 22 Rising 2.00 RFA   PTS 615
G2 Lehtonen 26 Peak 3.00 RFA   Goals 228
TOTAL $$$ 25 52.51

 

Now here's the real kicker, this Post-Kovalchuk roster would be cheaper than the current Thrashers team that is currently sitting out of a playoff position. It is a cheaper team and a team with a much greater upside over the next 5 year window. This is the type of young foundation needed to construct a Cup contender. Furthermore this $52 million roster is well under the cap which leaves open the possibility of adding talent and salary at the trade deadline in they are in contention. In the long run it also leaves room for pay increases to emerging stars like Bogosian and Kane as the hit their 2nd NHL contracts.

This Post-Kovalchuk team projects to score fewer goals--but they would only drop from 7th to 11th in offense. The offense projection is likely going to UNDER estimate the team's offensive production because on average young players will meet or exceed their career average as they develop and hit their peak years. It is entirely possible that a young Post-Kovalchuk roster could actually match or exceed the production of the current team that contains Ilya in a year or two as the talent matures.

The gains on defense are much harder to estimate but simply removing Kovalchuk from the lineup would improve the defensive side of things (harsh but true). Adding in hard-hitting tough-nosed player like Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson would certainly make playing against Atlanta a lot less fun for soft opposition players. The arrival of Carl Klingberg and physical maturation of Evander Kane will amplify this physical dimension of the team (which is largely missing from the current version of the Atlanta Thrashers).

Conclusion: Trading away Ilya Kovalchuk will be excruciating to many Thrashers, but every low point is also a potential turning point. Two years ago the Thrashers were one of the oldest teams in the NHL and needed a full-scale rebuild. If the team can make a few crucial moves they can complete the youth movement and construct the foundation of genuine Cup contender. Can the team turn lead into gold? Can they covert a crisis into a transformational moment? This trade is going to hurt many fans--MAKE IT COUNT!!!

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