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A Fork in the Road

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One week ago I wrote that the team was entering perhaps the most important non regular season week in team history. Fan apathy is very high, the hockey product is not very good and unrestricted free agency was a good opportunity to change the momentum of the franchise. A week later nothing has changed that negative momentum.

I've been doing a lot of work on the numbers but today I'll just post an overview. Free agency is still going on and things can still happen so we can't close the book on UFA just yet.

Thrashers Projected Payroll
Right now I have a 22 man Thrashers roster at $36-37 million with Lehtonen probably due a $1-2 more than his qualifying offer. (Before I was doing projections on a 20 man roster, but with injuries most teams need to carry 22 men.) As of this moment the Thrashers are basically tied with the LA Kings for last place in the NHL in cap salary for 2008-09:

Projected NHL Cap Expenditures Rank
25 $42.5 NYI (salary in millions)
26 $41.6 VAN
27 $41.6 CBJ
28 $40.0 NSH
29 $36.7 ATL
30 $36.5 LAK

Thrashers Talent Base
I'm working on a forecasting model for the next season. It is far from perfect but I'm generally satisfied with the results. The Thrashers are improved on the blueline with the Hainsey for Zhitnik swap but Armstrong and Chirstensen do not replace the scoring of Hossa an Dupuis (not to mention Recchi) so my model has the Thrashers finishing in the bottom five in the NHL again. Here are the bottom five NHL teams according to 2008-09 projections. The Thrashers are much closer to competing for a top 3 lottery pick than they are to making the playoffs right now.

2008-09 Projected NHL Standings (bottom)
25 ATL 81 points
26 STL 78
27 PHX 78
28 LAK 76
29 NYI 73
30 CBJ 73

The Next Move
Which direction is this team headed? The harsh reality is that the talent level on the Thrashes is so far removed from that of say the Red Wings that this club is not going to be a Stanley Cup contender by adding a 2 or 3 players. They might make the playoffs by adding 2 or 3 quality players.

Really there are two strategies the Thrashers could pursue: 1) win now to try and draw more fans and keep their revenue sharing money; or 2) go with the kids and play Sterling, Armstrong, Christensen, Stuart, LaVallee and likely struggle but give these kid a look in the NHL and figure out who can play at this level.

Based upon the promises made at the last Town Hall Meeting, where season ticket holders were told to expect "two defensemen and a forward" to be added via free agency or trades, I anticipated the franchise spending $46-48 million on payroll and pursing the "win now" strategy. In fact, it looks does appear that Thrashers took that approach and offered substantial sums to Brian Campbell and Brian Rolston who turned us down for other clubs.

Let's pause for a moment and imagine that the Thrashers did sign Campbell, Rolston and Brendan Morrison (C) for around $15-16 million combined. That pushes the payroll up to around $48 million. Would it have been enough to contend? Well, my projection model puts that team at 93 points which would have the team rank 16th in a 30 team league or right on the cusp of returning to the playoffs. If the Thrashers had signed three quality players last week it would not have made them a Cup contender, it would not have even made them a lock for the playoffs. That's how far down this team is right now.

Rebuilding Again?
If I were a deep pocketed owner I'd choose option #2 and attempt to build a real genuine Stanley Cup contender rather than a marginal playoff team. That pathway requires absorbing multi-million dollar losses in the short run in order to build a championship level roster. I'd play the kids this year and knowing that the club will probably end up in the front row of the deep 2009 NHL draft and then have my core of talent needed to build around. I'd play the kids this year knowing the team is almost certain to lose a chunck of their revenue sharing monies the following season (which seems almost a certainty at this point).

The major problem with strategy #2 is that you run a risk of losing your marquee (and best) player Ilya Kovalchuk who may not have the patience for another year of losing. If you don't think Kovalchuk will re-sign in the summer of 2009, the team is better to deal him now and get maximum return rather than hold another rental sale in the spring of 2009-2010 season. Of course, trading away your marquee player for picks and prospects will also cost the franchise more money in unsold tickets in the short run. At this point the Thrashers have been selling "the future" for so many seasons that few fans in Atlanta are going to get all tingly about watching the kids.

What Next?
Don Waddell is holding one of the Meet the GM events on Friday and it will be interesting to hear (well sort of--I'm really sick of hearing just talk at this point) about the team's "strategy" or "vision" for the future. It certainly looks like they attempted to execute a "contend now" blueprint on July 1st only to have it blow up in their face.

If the team is still intent on the "contend now" route, the available options are dwindling fast. There are a couple of clubs in cap trouble and they will be looking to move high salaried players--and if the Thrashers organization has anything it has cap space, so trades are the most likely route to roster improvement.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the team with the most cap trouble and they appear to be a team the Thrashers could exploit--until you look at their roster. They need to move a goaltender and the Thrashers already have Lehtonen, Hedberg and Pavelec. So there is no room to absorb the Bulin Wall unless a goalie is traded away. Now I can imagine a scenario where the team acquired Khabibulin for cheap (or perhaps Chicago would even give us a pick to take his fat contract), play him in goal for the final year of his deal year and move either Lehtonen or Pavelec for a quality young player or prospect--Ottawa and Detroit still need a young goalie and have D prospects that make my mouth water. But all of this is just speculation on my part and not that likely to happen.

At this point it is very unclear what the Thrashers organization is trying to do. After promising season ticket holders major improvements very little has happened. Atlanta has now joined Edmonton and NY Islanders as one of the three least desirable places to play in the NHL. Faced with this unpleasant reality, what will the team do? Will they stick to option #1 contending and go after Demitra and others who remain unsigned? Or will they take option #2 and absorb the financial hit, play the kids, perhaps trade Kovalchuk and then draft Hedman or Tavares next summer?