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Make or Break Week for the Thrashers

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At noon on Tuesday the NHL Free Agent signing period will open. Arguably this is the most important non-regular season week in franchise history so far. As of this moment the Thrashers sit at a crossroads.

In their nine year history they have made the playoffs just once, they have won zero post-season games. In a front-running sports town like Atlanta with millions of transplants winning is the shortest route to box office success. There simply hasn't been enough winning around here so far.

Even worse the "loser" perception extends beyond casual sports fans in Atlanta to hard core hockey fanatics. Every franchise has their skeptical fans but the level of dubiousness and cynicism about this team is at an all time high. I know a very large number of local hockey players who are sitting on their wallets saying "show me something."

The people I'm talking about play hockey multiple nights a week, invest in the NHL CenterIce package or buy a large HD TV just to fulfill their hockey habit. Even among this group the attitude toward the Thrashers is simply UGLY. Based on what I'm hearing the bean counters at the Thrashers are probably looking at some scary season ticket renewal numbers right now.

One of the biggest mis-perceptions out there among fans is that Atlanta Spirit is not willing to spend money. The more conspiratorial folks suggest that the owners are trying to wreck the franchise so as to lower the price the winners of the intra-owner lawsuit has to pay to the losers.

But here are the facts. In the first season that Atlanta Spirit controlled the Thrashers franchise Atlanta spend OVER the salary cap. The cap was set at $39 million and Peter Bonrdra's performance bonuses pushed the Thrashers to $40.2 million. Your Atlanta Thrashers were #1 in the NHL in cap spending--and missed the playoffs.

The following year the cap rose to $44 million and the Thrashers spent $43.7 million--again right up close to the limit (they ranked 10th out of 30 teams that year). Last season the cap rose to to $50 million and the Thrashers spent about $44 million which ranked them 23rd out of 30 teams (they shed some salary in the Hossa for Christensen + Armstrong exchange).

If you combine the three post-lockout season during which Atlanta Spirit has owned this hockey franchise they have spent $127.5 million (and made the playoffs once) while the salary cap limited them to a maximum of $133 million. Over that three year span the Thrashers rank 13th out of 30 teams in money spent on payroll.

Here are the facts:
  • The Thrashers have spent a lot of money on players.
  • The Thrashers have not gotten good value for their money.
Which brings us squarely to the General Manager Don Waddell. In the past he has made many poor decisions in the Unrestricted Free Agent Market. He has favored declining veterans (Steve Rucchin, Byron Dafoe), he has grossly misjudged the value of players (Bobby Holik), he has favored penny pinching bandaids that failed to fix gaping roster holes (Jaroslav Modry, Ken Klee).

Has Don Waddell learned anything from these errors? The answer to that question is enormous.

It is enormous because if DW has another poor free agent summer, Ilya Kovalchuk will probably leave Atlanta in two years. If DW has another poor summer the fans stay away and this city gets the "failed NHL market" label. The Thrashers will either return to the playoffs and excite the fans and their star Ilya Kovalchuk or another fatal spiral will begin. If DW has another poor summer the team will miss the playoffs, the GM will probably be fired, Kovalchuk will probably refuse to re-sign and a new GM will take over with a giant rebuilding project on his hands during the 10th anniversary season of the Thrashers. (Happy 10th Season Thrasher fans!!!!)

I like Don Waddell as a person, but I'm really tired of seeing a bad hockey product out there on the ice. The clock is ticking. This is a make or break week for Don Waddell, the Atlanta Thrashers and perhaps even NHL hockey in Atlanta. I know I'm not sleeping well thinking about all this, I'm guessing he isn't either.