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Thrashers Off Season, Part 1

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We can now take an overall look at the Thrashers off season roster makeover. I was waiting to write this until the Ilya Nikulin situation was resolved--and he is now playing with his old club in Russia. Barring some dramatic change I believe we can scratch him off the list of potential Thrashers in 2008-09.

Not All Franchises Are Equal in Free Agency
First I want to start with an observation: not all organizations have the same off season opportunities. The Detroit Red Wings have a strong fan base which provides them with sufficient revenue to spend to the cap maximum every year if they choose to do so. Players like Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios and now Marian Hossa have all taken less money to play for them. This is the residue of past success. The Wings organization was able to leverage their structural advantages into on ice success (something the Rangers could not do) and now in the cap age Detroit effectively has a higher cap because guys like Chelios will take less money to play there. Lesson: good management results not just in wins on the ice but cheaper players in the future.

Going with Plan B
The Thrashers pursued two high profile free agents this summer Brian Campbell and Brian Rolston and reportedly made very competitive offers, but ultimately signed neither. Don Waddell said "players get to choose where they play" in free agency--which is a true statement but also one that lacks context.

You can't pin this all on vagaries of free agents. Just as good management in Detroit has led to that franchise signing players at a discount, poor management in Atlanta has forced the Thrashers to offer more money than their competitors. Outsiders look at this franchise and see the past mistakes and therefore the team has to more money than other teams to attract impact players. As Coach Anderson said "we have to make this a place guys want to come to" which is not true of Atlanta at the present.

Good Bets versus Bad Bets
In the face of their failure to executive Plan A (sign a couple of impact players that address specific team needs) the Thrashers turned to Plan B and signed three bargain players. The good news is that all three are "good bets" to turn in a decent performance.

"Show Me the Money"
None of the new players was signed to an insane contract that will cripple future teams. There were many stupid long-term deals handed out this summer that will bind NHL teams to players in their decline years. The Thrashers avoided making that mistake.

Youth Will be Served
I've raked the Thrashers for making bad bets on aging players and they broke with that patten as well. Age is strongly related to changes in a player's performance level. Young guys (18-25) tend to improve, then they hit their peak years (26-30) and begin to decline after 30. As players age they eventually see a sharp decline in their effectiveness or their health. The precise moment of this end-of-career collapse varies significantly. For example checking line guys often see their career end by 33, scoring line guys 35-37 and Hall of Fame level players often can play past 40.

The Thrashers avoided signing "bad bets" in terms of the age curve. The 2008-09 roster will be younger than in the three post-lock out seasons (but the team even close to being as young as say Chicago). There are many uncertainties in the NHL, but if you're going to take a gamble it is wiser to bet on a younger player than an older one.

Both the Rangers and Thrashers paid Bobbly Holik big money to be something he was not. Holik is a great third line center, but he's not a scoring line center nor is he a leader of men or an extraordinary penalty killer. The Thrashers are not asking the new guys to do something new or amazing, they just want them to keep doing what they have done the last two seasons. Jason Williams is to be a scoring forward and power play guy. Ron Hainsey will be a power play point man and top four defender and Marty Reasoner will be a checking line guy with PK responsibilities. These expectations are reasonable and the Thrashers will likely get what they paid for.

Playing the Kids
Another positive is that the Thrashers didn't block their young talent by bringing in some old battle worn veterans to eat up the ice time. I liked Mark Recchi and what he did for the team last season, but if the Thrashers are not contending for the Cup they ought to be giving ice time to young guys like Christensen, Little, Colin Stuart, Zach Bogosian, Brett Sterling and Boris Valabik. Someone once wrote "if you're not contending your rebuilding" and last season the Thrashers were not contending. Unfortunately, the phenomenally weak Southeast Division provided the mirage of contending for the playoffs and the team failed to sit some veterans and take a good look at more of the kids in the 2nd half of last year.

Last summer the team re-signed Slava Kozlov for nearly $4 million a season which wasn't a great gamble considering that Kozlov's age. Very few players have the best year of their career at 34 and then sustain that level for three more years. Kozlov was healthy enough to play 82 games but produced just 41 points. My personal opinion is that the Thrashers could have gotten those same numbers with that same ice time from either Darren Haydar or Brett Sterling and for less than $1 million in salary. The Thrashers would have been better served playing either Haydar/Sterling and spending the cash they gave Kozlov ($3.7 million) and Klee ($1.5 million) on a better quality defenseman ($5-6 million available).

Big Picture Time
Basically I give the Thrashers Plan B signing a qualified endorsement. They struck out in their attempt to get impact players, but rebounded nicely by signing some solid bargain guys. There are some other GMs who might have responded by making terrible deals just to create the impression they were doing something. The Thrashers took some small steps forward.

In part, I'll look at what might be the consequences of those small steps.