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Taking A Look at the Roster Pre-Free Agency

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NHL free agent signing period is now just two weeks away so it seems appropriate to take a look at the possible line up and the money situation. First I will look at the Thrashers roster without any free agent additions and which will give us a sense of how much money could be available to spend.

Age/Name/Cap Hit in millions (* notes an RFA salary estimate)
25 Kovalchuk $6.4-21 Little $0.9-33 White $2.4
24 Sterling $0.7*-25 Christensen $0.8-26 Armstrong $1.2
38 Kozlov $3.7-33 Perrin $0.8-26 Stuart $0.5
31 Larsen $0.5-25 Thorburn $0.5-26 Slater $0.8
24 Enstrom $0.9-35 Havelid $2.7
27 Exelby $1.4-37 Klee $1.3
22 Valabik $0.9-36 Zhitnik $3.5
25 Lehtonen $3.0*-21 Pavelec $1.4
22 LaVallee $0.5
20 Kulda $0.5
20 Holzapfel $0.9
Current Cap Hit= $36 million

This hypothetical roster is both young and rather cheap. The total for this roster is around $36 million which is below the expected NHL team salary minimum for 2008-09 of $38-39 million. So no matter what the Thrashers will have to spend more money than what they currently have committed. The maximum will be around $55-56 million with the midpoint set at $47 million.

I'm going to guess that the Thrashers internal salary budget will beset at the midpoint (around $47 million). If that guess is in the ball park the team would have essentially $10-11 million to spend on two or three un-signed free agents. If Zhitnik is bought out that would free up $2.3 more in cap space this year.

If I were GM I would buy out Zhitnik which would leave a shopping budget of $12 million for the summer. If the Thrashers believe that whoever they take with the #3 overall pick in the NHL Draft is NHL ready then that supplies them with another fairly cheap roster player. If they take Doughty or Bogosian then that fills one defenseman slot for roughly $1 million (although they wound need cap room for possible incentives worth up to $4 million).

Now you still have around $11 million to go after a defenseman and forward. Now the team could either spend the big money on D and go lite on the F spot or vice versa. Let's say they spend big at D and offer Campbell $6-7 million (assuming the Sharks don't re-sign him before the deadline). Campbell has good puck skills and can skate and best of all he is 28 which makes him one of the youngest quality UFA defensemen out there. If you could land Campbell for $6-7 million that only leaves a small amoung for the F spot. I'm strongly against signing too many old players but given the youth of this roster it might not be bad to add a veteran at the forward slot. Rolston (34), Straka (34) or go with a younger Jason Williams (26) if he hasn't re-signed.

If the Thrashers go the other route they might be able to land one of these defensemen for say $5 million per year: Mara (27), Rozsival (28), Kalinin (26), Liles (26) Hejda (29) Streit (29) and then have enough money to make a pitch to Demitra (32) to add some more punch to the top line.

The third option (quite likely in my opinion) is that we see the Thrashers make a trade on draft day involving some combination of picks, players, prospects which brings the team somebody already under contract. Guessing the identity of such a player is nearly impossible so I will not attempt it here.

No matter what the Thrashers seem likely to be get much younger with the departure of Holik, Recchi, and pehaps Zhitnik if he is bought out. In development terms players typically improve until they reach their peak between the ages of 25-29 and then begin to decline. There is a chance of dramatic improvement in players younger 18-25 and a chance of a sharp decline in players over 33. The Thrashers roster would break down as follows:

4 Players ikely to Improve 18-24
8 Players In Peak Years 25-29
5 Players In Decline Years 30-40
3 Unknown Free Agents Players

This is a much better age distribution than we have seen on some recent Thrashers teams. Now just because you are young doesn't mean you are talented enough--this team might not have enough raw talent to make the playoffs. But betting on young players to improve is much more likely than betting on old players to maintain their production.

Forwards by age
21 Little: great defense, really young so hopefully the offense will appear with time.
24 Sterling: could put up some nice numbers if kept at LW and given PP time.
25 Kovalchuk: amazing to think he is just now entering his prime will he get good passes?
25 Christensen: could improve sharply in ATL with more ice time and PP time.
25 Thorburn: team needs more scoring out of 4th line.
26 Slater: snakebit most of the season, he could rebound a little
26 Stuart: adds great speed to checking line, minors suggest not to expect much scoring.
26 Armstrong: scoring rate actually higher in ATL than PIT, probably a 40 point guy.
33 White: Scoring rate has fallen two straight years can he rebound?
33 Perrin: probably had career year, might lose some SH points with Dupuis and Hossa gone.
38 Kozlov: fell so far last year that might rebound a bit, keep your expectations in check though.
?? UFA

Defense by age
18 Doughty or Bogosian: rookies make mistakes but they both could add some speed and flair.
24 Enstrom: hard to top great rookie year, probably see less PP ice time, mild drop.
27 Exelby: terrible year, could be much more valuable on 3rd pairing.
35 Havelid: very solid with Enstrom, getting up there in age, but smart player.
37 Klee: long in the tooth but knows he isn't fast, would be better on 3rd pairing.
?? UFA Defense

Goal by age
21 Pavelec: would be great to see he and Lehtonen push each other for starts all year.
25 Lehtonen: could benefit from some competition and more rest.

22 LaVallee: not sure how he scored in juniors but good physical checker.
22 Valabik: looks ready to play when inevitable injuries hit.
31 Larsen: must work hard every night to stay in the big show.

Personally I'd like to see the Thrasher sign Campbell and Straka, but I suspect that Straka will get a big multi-year offer from someone. I think the Thrashers would be smarter to offer Recchi a one year contract and not get tied up in another multi-year deal to someone or the wrong side of 34. If they did land Campbell, Rechhi and Bogosian in the draft the lines would shake out as follows.
25 Kovalchuk $6.4-21 Little $0.9-40 Recchi $1.0
24 Sterling $0.7*-25 Christensen $0.8-26 Armstrong $1.2
38 Kozlov $3.7-33 Perrin $0.8-33 White $2.4
26 Stuart $0.5 -25 Thorburn $0.5-26 Slater $0.8
24 Enstrom $0.9-35 Havelid $2.7
29 Campbell $6.5-18 Bogosian $1.0
27 Exelby $1.4-37 Klee $1.3
25 Lehtonen $3.0*-21 Pavelec $1.4
22 LaVallee $0.5
22 Valabik $0.9
31 Larsen $0.5
Zhitnik buyout hit $1.2
Current Cap Hit= $41 million

If the team were to field the following line up they could make MAJOR strides on the defensive side of the puck. If they had four quality guys in their rotation and two quality net minders battling each other for starts we could see the Thrashers reduce their goals against very significantly. The problem will be the offense which would will be "Kovalchuk and cross your fingers" all season. But if you're going to gamble better to gamble that one of your young forwards will break out and take a big step forward. Furthermore, the following roster will only cost about $41 against the cap which leaves plenty of room for either wavier pickups or trades at the deadline if the team is still in the race.