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Why The Thrashers Fail

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Many Thrasher fans complain that Don Waddell's biggest fault as a GM is the team's record on draft day, but my analysis of the drafts between 1999-2002 doesn't support this. So what does explain the team's failure? The way the Thrashers spend their money on unrestricted free agent market. Since the lockout, the franchise has simply not gotten a strong return on their investment in players' salaries. Let's take a look at the evidence.

Which Team Gets the Most For Their Money?

Since the lockout the gap between the richest and poorest teams has greatly narrowed. Before the lockout the Rangers spent $78 million on their roster (1st in the NHL) and the Atlanta Thrashers spent just $27 million (not including Kovalchuk's bonus money) --which put them around 28th in the league in salaries.

The Thrashers did pretty well that year in terms of getting bang for the buck. They were just 28th in salaries but 21st in the standings. Before the lockout Don Waddell's Thrashers regularly ranked in the top half of the league in bang for their buck. In part that was dictated by financial realities--the Thrashers simply had no shot at the top UFAs so they had to look for bargains anywhere they could find them. After the lockout the playing field would be leveled considerably.

With the end of the lockout the new salary cap put both a floor and a cap on team payrolls. This meant that the Rangers could no longer outspend the Thrashers by a 2 to 1 margin anymore. As a team the Thrashers had the 2nd highest payroll that year (they went over the cap maximum once bonus monies were paid out). The Thrashers were 2nd in salaries, but finished just 18th in the overall standings. In terms of getting bang for their buck the Thrashers finished in the basement ranking just 24th out of 30 team. One reason for the Thrashers poor return on investment is that huge contract given to 3rd line center Bobby Holik who is simply does not prevent enough goals from being scored to be worth that much money.

Part of that under performance is the result of goaltender injuries which exposed the lack of organizational depth at that position. But that poor return on investment also reflects the fact that very little money was spent on defensemen and goaltenders and the Thrashers put more money into forwards than any other team in the NHL that season. The allocation of money produced a great offensive team with glaring defensive problems.

UFA signings prior to 2005-06 season (with ages)
39 Scott Mellanby
37 Peter Bondra
34 Jaroslav Modry
34 Bobby Holik
33 Mike Dunham
33 Steve Shields
29 Eric Boulton
NHL Players acquired via trade
32 Greg de Vries
32 Niclas Havelid
29 Shane Hnidy
26 Marian Hossa
24 Adam Berkhoel
24 Steve McCarthy
22 Mark Popovic
NHL Players Claimed from Waivers
Rico Fata

Again in 2006-07 the Atlanta Thrashers spent as much money as the other contenders, they ended up ranking 10th out of 30 teams in payroll. After some major trades at the deadline, they ended up finishing 12th in the league and making the playoffs for the first time. Their salary efficiency still was only average as they finished just 14th out of 30 teams in terms of bang for their buck. Not included in this are the future costs of dealing prospects and picks who would have provided them with cheap players down the road.

UFA signings prior to 2006-07 season (with ages)
40 Scott Mellanby
35 Steve Rucchin
33 Johan Hedberg
33 Niclas Havelid
32 Glen Metropolit
28 Jon Sim
27 Darren Haydar
Players acquired through trades
34 Keith Tkachuk
33 Alexei Zhitnik
28 Niko Kapanen
28 Eric Belanger
27 Pascal Dupuis
26 Vitaly Vishnevski

After spending more than most other teams the two previous years the Thrashers cut back on payroll in 2007-08 and currently rank 19th out of 30 teams in the league. They have produced a very poor on-ice record ranking just 25th out of 30 teams. Their salary efficiency so far this year ranks them in the bottom third again as they currently sit at 21 out of 30 teams. Signing

This last summer Slava Kozlov was singed to a 3 year deal for his age 35, 36 and 37 seasons at $3.6 per season. This is a perfect example of the sort of mistakes this team makes over and over again. Todd White was given a 4 year deal that will make him a Thrashers through his age 32, 33, 34, 35 seasons. If White loses a step his small size and modest skill level will make that contract another bust for the Thrashers. If you're going to overpay at least do it with a younger guy like a Jon Sim or looking ahead to this coming summer Campbell of Buffalo who will be just 28 years old.

UFA signings prior to 2007-08 season (with ages)
36 Ken Klee
35 Slava Kozlov
32 Todd White
32 Eric Perrin
31 Eric Boulton
28 Pascal Dupuis
NHL Players acquired through trades
24 Chris Thorburn
NHL Players from waivers
40 Mark Recchi

In the three years since the arrival of the salary cap the Thrashers payroll has ranked 2nd, 10th and 19th and those teams have finished 18th, 12th and 25th in the standings. Their team payroll efficiency ranking has been average to below average as they have finished 24th, 14th and 21st so far. You are not going to win very many divisional titles or Stanley Cups when your payroll investment performs this badly.

The data strongly suggest that there is an organizational problem in terms of identifying what is an appropriate price to pay for NHL talent. The organization has repeatedly gambled (and lost) by betting that players 33 or older will continue to produce at a high level when there is a large body of statistical evidence which shows that most players begin to decline significantly beyond this age. For examples if you look at the list of players signed for their age 33 or above seasons (Holik, White, Kozlov, Klee, Rucchin, Bondra, Modry, Mellanby, Havelid, Hedberg) I'd have to say that the Thrashers have broken even on Mellanby, Hedberg and Havelid and they have lost money on the rest of the players on that list.

I have argued before that the organization could stand to learn a few things from basic statistical analysis. I think the evidence strongly suggests that the Thrashers organization has made fundamental errors in their cost/benefit analysis when it comes to player contracts. Teams that get good value from their contracts win Division Titles, President's Cup and Stanley Cups. Teams that get poor value miss the playoffs or just scrape by. So far the Atlanta Thrashers are firmly in that latter group.