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End of the Season: What Went Wrong the Thrashers?

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Tonight marked the 8th Fan Appreciation Night I've attended as at Philips Arena. For me it was by far the most depressing one of all. In previous years I could console myself with the fact that the franchise was still young and the future was bright. All that suffering during the previous 82 games would lead to a high draft pick and a superstar to build around. Here we are 9 years later and the future is all we have to talk about. Honestly it just makes me sick.

When you consider that more than half (8 of 15) teams in each conference make the playoffs each year--the bar is not that high. Unlike say baseball where only 8 teams out of 32 get into the post-season, in the NHL 16 out of 30 do. You only need to be AVERAGE to make the playoffs and yet despite the level playing field provided by the salary cap we've been above average just once.

I think the sorry state of affairs can be summed up pretty succinctly. Out of roughly 500 players in the NHL Ilya Kovalchuk was second only to Ovechkin in putting the puck in the net. Kovalchuk is an elite offensive player. Despite having that singular talent on their roster the Atlanta Thrashers will finish the season ranked 27th out of 30 teams in the NHL. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that this franchise has fundamentally failed to find complimentary talent to fill out the rest of the roster. It doesn't matter whether you look at free agency, drafting or trades there are errors and mistakes on all fronts.

God's honest truth is that the roster wasn't good enough. You can make all sorts of excuses such as the distraction of the Hossa contract or the "surprising" down seasons from Kozlov, Zhitnik, Exelby, and McCarthy. But at the end of the day EVERY team has pleasant surprises and unpleasant surprises. No team has everything go right for them. Good teams evaluate and weight risk, bad teams are frequently "surprised" when things go badly.

The truth of the matter is that the Atlanta Thrashers were unusually healthy. You will not hear GM/Coach Don Waddell tout this fact but go compare the number of games played by the Thrashers stars to some other teams around the NHL. Notice that other teams lost key heart and soul superstars like Lidstrom, Sakic, Crosby or Brind'amour for extended periods of time. Sure Kovalchuk played hurt this season--I can find beat up guys in every single NHL locker room who dress anyway. The Thrashers lost very few man games to injury this year--that is not why they finished among the worst clubs in the league.

What killed this club more than anything is that their older players started playing like--well, older players. The Thrashers organization appears to have put together a roster in which they assumed (or hoped) that every player on the roster would play at or near their peak. That's like opening up a car wash and assuming it will always be sunny and dusty. Any good business plan starts with a realistic model of what to expect. If you assume that conditions will always be favorable you're going to go out of business rather quickly.

You can't assume that everything will work out in your favor. You can't assume that Slava Kozlov, who had a career high 80 points at age 35 will defy Father Time forever and sign him for his age 36, 37 and 38 seasons. You can't assume that Bobby Holik is going to be the same shut-down center at age 37 that he was back when he was 30. You can't assume that notorious slow starter Alexei Zhitnik is going to find the Fountain of Youth at age 35. You can't assume that a 2nd line center like Todd White will remain effective until he turns 36. The Thrashers bet against the house repeatedly heading in the 2007-08 season and house cleaned them out. The Thrashers either need to place smarter bets or they need to find a luckier GM.

Are there old players who remain effective past age 35? Yes, but take a good look at the list of names, most of them are Hall of Fame level talents (like Mark Recchi or Nick Lidstrom or Chris Chelios) those type of players can be expected to remain effective as they get near 40 or pass it. On the other hand, if your name is unlikely to ever appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, the odds are very good that if you're going to experience a performance crash between 35 and 40. You shouldn't be surprised when high-risk investments crash and fail to provide value.

The Thrashers 2007-08 roster betrays an inability to accurately forecast player risk factors in my opinion. A NHL team is a multi-million dollar business and yet NHL teams are run in a seat-of-the-pants fashion that would be unacceptable in many other business fields. Any successful business must make accurate judgments about the risks and rewards associated with their business and take the route most likely to result in a positive outcome.

Again, the Thrashers failure this season is not a failure of any one person or the result of a devastating injury to a key player. The Thrashers failure this season is because the team simply did not properly evaluate the risks associated with their players. Before the season I ran a crude forecasting model of each NHL team and my simple model had the team finishing 11th but within shouting distance of the 8th spot. Basically my model said the Thrashers would need to be lucky to make the playoffs. My model incorporated age related declines for older players and increases for younger guys. It turns out my model was too optimistic since the Thrashers will finish 14th (although my model had Hossa playing a full season). My question is: do the Thrashers even have a model? And if so, are they working on improving it--because it sure blew up this season.

I know that in my day job I'm evaluated every single year. Those evaluations have caused me to change what I do at work, and I think they have made me better at my profession. If I don't perform in a satisfactory manner I don't advance. What about the Thrashers? What is their evaluation of this season? If they just chalk this season up to "bad luck" then they haven't learned anything at all. If they decide to turn over a new leaf and try to be more accurate in their evaluations of both the upside and downside of players, than I would have more hope for the future. Only time will tell.