Should The Thrashers Be Buyers or Sellers at Trade Deadline?

I have been a reader of Tyler Dellow's site Mudcrutch79hockey for years now. We share a common interest in bring some statistical analysis to our favorite sport NHL hockey. After the Kovalchuk trade Tyler wrote this piece arguing that in the short run (the current season) trading away Ilya Kovalchuk was a very costly move because it greatly harms the Thrashers chances of making the playoffs. Missing the playoffs costs the organization additional revenue and positive marketing buzz that come with the post-season.

In particular, Tyler references a concept called "marginal points", an argument I first encountered on the site www.baseballprospectus.com. Simply put, the concept goes like this--not all wins are worth the same to a franchise. If it takes 88 points to quality for the post-season (and gain at least two post-season home games worth $2+ million more in revenue) then the last win that pushes a team up from 86 to 88 points is worth far more than a win that takes a team from 84 points to 86 points.  It is worth paying something to gain those last two points.

Now if you're the Atlanta Thrashers management you face an incredibly important question--how many points will your current roster of players win? The answer to that question is enormously important for the franchise. If the Thrashers, without Kovalchuk, are just an 84 point team, then the Thrashers should conduct a fire sale and trade away pending UFAs like Afinogenov, Armstrong, Schubert for picks and prospects that will help the franchise contend for a playoff berth next spring or in the future. Keeping those assets and coming up short of the playoffs would be a big mistake. For example, I thought the team should have dealt Bobby Holik back in the spring of 2008 but they kept him on.

On the other hand, if the Atlanta Thrashers, without Ilya Kovalchuk, are really a 86 point team and the playoffs require just 87-88 points, then the team should think long and hard about dealing some picks, players or prospects to add a scorer like Alexei Ponikarovsky or Ray Whitney.

This is one reason why the next three games before the Olympic Break are simply enormous. The Thrashers looked pretty good in the post-Kovalchuk loss to Washington and win against Florida. How they fare against some quality teams out West will be a good measuring stick for what this roster can do.

Waddell has mentioned the favorable home schedule in March--which is nice--but games don't win themselves. Almost every team they face will be desperate and nobody is going to roll over and give away 2 points just because they're in Philips Arena. The favorable home schedule only matters if the TEAM is competitive without Kovalchuk.

It is very tough to make an assessment of the Thrashers future based on 5 post-Kovalchuk games. Life is not fair and that is exactly the task before Waddell, Dudley and Anderson. The Trade Deadline is March 2nd and Atlanta needs to know if they are buyers or sellers when trade talks are fast and furious after the Olympics.

After last night's games, Club Sport Stats put the Thrashers playoff odds at 36%. Right now it looks like 87 points is the Threshold to qualify for the post-season. This is an unusually low target number in the post-lockout NHL, but the East is so competitive this season and the teams have not really spread out as they usually do by this time of the year.

To get a sense of just how precarious things things are look at the table below. Club Sports Stats projects that 6th place will require 91 points and the Thrashers would need to go 16-8-1 to hit that number so their odds of doing so are just 9%. On the other hand, 8th place will likely require 87 points and a Thrasher record of 14-10-1 the rest of the way and the odds are slightly better than 1 in 3 that Atlanta could do that.

 

East Rank Odds Win  Losses OTL Point Projection Odds
6th 7% 16 8 1 91 9%
7th 12% 15 9 1 89 21%
8th 15% 14 10 1 87 36%
9th 17% 14 11 0 86 53%
10th 15% 13 11 1 85 68%
11th 12% 13 12 0 84 80%

 

And now we see how this short three Western Conference road trip becomes so CRITICAL for the Thrashers. If they were to get zero points in those three contests, that would require the team to run off an insane run of 14-7-1 record after the Olympics. If the Thrashers get just 2 points, then they would need a daunting 13-8-1 run which is slighty better. If the Thrashers were to manage to scrap up 4 out of 6 possible points that gives them a much better shot post-Olympics of pulling off a 12-9-1 record need to make the playoffs.

Conclusion: The Thrashers organization will have to make some big decisions about whether to buy or sell at the deadline. The final three games before the break could make one of these options much more likely depending upon how the team performs.

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