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The Puzzle of Jim Slater

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So I'm starting to think about the off-season and give some thought as to what the 2007 Thrashers team might look like. I'm plugging some salary numbers into my handy Excel spreadsheet and making estimates about how much money certain players will receive and I get to Jim Slater.

Slater was a very late 1st round pick and signed an entry level contract that pays him close to the maximum allowed for an entry level contract. This summer Slater will be a restricted free agent which essentially means that as long as the Thrashers make him a qualifying offer he is extremely likely to sign a deal with Atlanta.

Slater currently makes $900,000 a year according to Irish Blues exhaustive salary website. The Thrashers qualifying offer has to include a 5% raise. The team must send Slater a written offer for a contract with a salary of 945,000 in order to qualify him. Slater can decline the offer or sign it (If he declines it the Thrashers retain their right to match any offers made to him by another team.) But the problem is that he will be way overpaid at $945,000 a year.

Using Irish Blues NHL salary data I collected together a list of all NHL forwards making between 1 million and 800,000--players who make about the same amount of money as Slater (and were regular NHLers--minor league prospects were excluded). I came up with 39 players in Slater's salary neighborhood and then looked at their points-per-game. Jim Slater is right down the bottom of the list of comparables. I have him ranked 33 out of 39 just behind Patrik Stefan's .268 PPG and just above Brian Sutherby's .246 PPG. To be perfectly honest Slater is getting paid nearly $1 million a year because of where he was selected in the draft rather than his NHL performance.

So if you're the Thrashers is it worth it? Do you make him a qualifying offer that pays him double what he is worth or do you let him walk? Slater was in effect a checking line player most of the year making twice as much money as most checkers (who often make around the NHL minimum of $450,000). Is Slater really equal to Vigier and Larsen combined?

Slater has great speed but very poor balance. I can't think of a NHL player who falls over every single game like Jim does. He is fast but lacks lateral quickness because of his balance issues and thus he is not used as penalty killer. He doesn't score all that much. In the playoffs he centered our 4th line. Can this team afford a $1 million 4th line guy?

Now you might say that Slater was poorly used and he has the potential to do more, and I would probably agree with that statement. But Bob Hartley is coming back as coach I have no reason to think he will used in a significantly different fashion in the coming season. After all the Thrashers had a gaping hole at center all year and Hartley never gave him more than occasional chances to show what he could do. If DW signs some more centers I can see Slater being buried on the 4th line all next season.

The harsh reality is that in a salary cap league every dollar you overpay for a player is a dollar wasted and the Thrasher wasted their money on Slater last year. He gave them nothing that a 500,000 checker couldn't have provided. Two years ago the Thrashers faced a similar problem when Stefan's contract expired. Stefan ended up taking a slight pay cut in exchange for a two-year deal. To put it nicely, that didn't work out very well. The team would have been better off to let him walk and spend that money on a cheaper more effective guy.

Personally I'm much rather see those dollars go towards resigning Pascal Dupuis who was a solid PK guy, crash line member and even got some PP time late in the playoffs. I'd rather see those dollars go towards bringing Jon Sim back for another season. But the team found it hard to give up on a former 1st rounder last time and I doubt we will see them let Slater depart for nothing either. Slater probably has more upside than Stefan did, but it still requires a bit of "wish-casting" (as opposed to "forecasting") to justify his salary requirements.