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Thrashers Off Season, Part 2

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I concluded Part 1 of this Off-Season Review by saying the Thrashers off-season moves were a small net positive in my view.

What's the Plan?
The larger question is what's next? Where does this lead us? While I consider all three signings to be positive they are insufficient to make the Thrashers a playoff team. I'm not going it say it is absolutely impossible for this team to get into the post-season, but the Thrashers basically need a ton of good luck to make it. They need all their key players to be healthy, they need a couple of kids (Little, Christensen) to have breakout years, Bogosian to be impressive right away and they need another big step forward by Kari Lehtonen. Could all that happen? Yes. Is all that likely to happen all at once? No.

The Price of Failure
In theory making even small improvements in the club is fine since the team is moving in the correct direction, however making baby stepping towards contention is NOT going to grab the attention of casual sports fans in Atlanta. Last season the Thrashers received around $10 million in revenue sharing money from the NHL and to keep that money coming in they must attain specific revenue and attendance targets. In my opinion, the team will almost certainly miss the revenue target for 2008-09 and could also miss the attendance target as well. Several other teams failed to hit their targets last season and those clubs will see their revenue sharing money cut next seaon. Taking baby steps toward contention will most likely cost the franchise a couple of million dollars in 2009-2010 after they fail to hit the thresholds for a full share of revenue sharing.

"If You Build They Will Come"
For this franchise to succeed in the long term the Thrashers need to grow both their revenues and their fan base. How to draw the fans? Playoff excitement. I did a little study recently where I added up all the playoff wins since the NHL's expansion in 1968 and I think that there is a strong correlation between playoff wins and the passion of the local fan base. Sunbelt teams like Dallas, Tampa and Carolina have all won a Cup and they draw pretty well. The Thrashers probably need to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals to grab the attention of the casual sports fans in this market. That is extremely unlikely to happen in the spring of 2009 or 2010 based upon what I have seen. So in the short run, the modest progress achieved in the summer of 2008 is unlikely to fundamentally reverse the franchise's big problem of poor attendance or weak revenue.

What Does it Take To Contend? Excellence.
Based upon their moves this summer, it seems clear that the Thrashers have recognized that they must develop and play their young talent if they want to build a team that can contend. Historically the Thrashers have been average at the NHL Draft. The bad news is that "average" in a 30 teams league is 15th-16th place. Guess how many teams make the playoffs? Only 16. So if the Thrashers rely solely on their ability to draft they project as nothing more than a team that flirts with getting into the post-season, not as a team that has a chance of winning the Cup.

To build a championship level team you must be above average in either a) free agent signings; b) trading for talent; c) drafting. Right now I would grade the Thrashers as below average in free agency, average in trading (Savard trade was fantastic but Coburn trade offsets that) and average in drafting. If you total those three areas that equals a below average management record which is pretty much what the standings indicate as well.

The Road Not Taken
Now I endorse the strategy of building through youth and smart free agent additions. For a sunbelt market with modest revenues that is probably the ONLY strategy unless your owners are willing to absorb huge losses year over year. In that sense I approve of the fact that Thrashers didn't land an old guy like Rolston this summer and took a chance with Jason Williams who could have a terrific season for us. I also approve of the fact that the Thrashers didn't throw a bunch of long term deals at declining players.

Freshen Up that Front Office
What I don't understand is this, if you're going to "rebuild with youth" how you can keep the same salesman? You know when a GM fires a coach he often says, "Well I still think Coach ____ is a good guy and all that, but the players had just stopped listening to him so we had to make a change"? Isn't the same thing true of fans and their GM? I honestly think Waddell is a good guy, bit he should have been moved up to Team President this summer.

Let a new GM come in and sell the youth movement to fans AND potential free agents. If you're the agent for Brian Campbell and Don Waddell calls you says "we want your client to be part of our young core of talent we're building in Atlanta" doesn't that player and his agent have the right to ask "why should we believe it will work a 2nd time?" Would the Thrashers have landed Brian Campbell if Don Waddell had moved up to Team President and a new GM was doing the talking? Nobody will ever know. But what I can tell you is that Don Waddell didn't land his top two free agent targets. There are three groups that need to be sold on the "new, brighter, bolder, younger Atlanta Thrashers" and they are: prospective free agents; fans; Ilya Kovalchuk and his agent. Right now Don Waddell is zero for one with the fans up to bat this season and Ilya Kovalchuk in the on-deck circle. Anyone want to wager how this is going to turn out?

"Fool Me Once..."
I understand that as a revenue poor franchise in a non-traditional market re-building with youth is the optimal path, but I'm tired of hearing the same song and dance about from the same guy when the past results were so pathetic. I was jilted last time around and the hope, the trust and the confidence are gone. I need a new salesmen if I'm going to buy into to another long term plan.

I'll admit that I'm pretty jazzed about John Anderson and the new Assistant Coaches, but I'd be a lot more jazzed about this team if they had hired away the Player Personnel Director of the Devils, Senators, Sharks or Red Wings over the summer. This team has repeatedly made poor evaluations of existing NHL players--why hasn't there been an effort to increase the hockey brain power upstairs? Based on the team's history I think it is fair to ask why we haven't hired away another team's top professional scout.

John Anderson isn't going to be able to work miracles if the front office continues to have a merely average record in trades, draft day and free agency. To build a contender you need a long term focus in which you become outstanding at something. What you see on the ice as a fan is a trickle down effect of decisions made at the ownership level, the GM level, the Director of Player Personnel Level and the Director of Scouting Level and finally the Head Coaching Level. How many of those were upgraded this off season? Exactly one--head coach.

Look around the NHL. The Blackhawks added Scotty Bowman to their front office. In Edmonton Kevin Lowe made himself President and promoted someone to GM, the Leafs found an experienced hockey man to act as caretaker GM while the next Toronto GM finishes his contract out in another city. How can the Thrashers NOT be able to find someone to help out upstairs? What is the old saying "a jack of all trades and a master of none?"

Show Me Some Excellence
Now it is entirely possible that the entire Thrashers organization has learned from past mistakes and they have turned over a new leaf and that starting tomorrow things will be different. Suddenly we will see an organization that builds excellence and the develops areas of superiority which will create not just a playoff team but a long term Cup contender in this city.

Ownership Must Insist on Accountability
After years of promises, failure and shattered hopes--ownership needs to understand that the clocking is ticking for major front office changes for the vast majority of fans. It is only logical that we are skeptical. Ownership should also understand that by not making front office improvements other than at the Head Coach position, it appears to many fans that ownership does not grasp the magnitude of change that is required. In my opinion Hartley should have been let go in the summer of 2007 for benching Lehtonen in the playoffs. In the summer of 2008 Don Waddell should have been moved upstairs. I'm afraid this is another case of the Atlanta Spirit waiting one year too long to make the correct move.

For Atlanta Spirit this has been a four year experience, but I've been here 9 years and 8 season. I've watched probably 97% of all games in Thrashers history. I am not a fair weather or bandwagon type of fan--I'm a die hard and I'm a lifer--but even I'm at the "show me" stage. "Show Me Some Excellence!" is my motto for this season. I have no more benefit of the doubt left to give.