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Kovalchuk Trade: More Day After Analysis

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Last night I published my immediate reaction to the Kovalchuk trade. Twelve hours later everyone (including myself) has had a bit more time to digest this deal. Chris Vivlamore has also published a full transcript from his talk with Don Waddell that provides more detail on the perspective of Thrashers management team. I'll quote from this interview below as I consider some key questions.

Did the Thrashers get good value?

Jon Fischer of In Lou We Trust had this reaction:

Basically, the Devils just traded a talented defenseman who has been underperforming after signing his big contract with the team in the past summer (Oduya), a rookie forward who has hit the wall in the worst way and hasn't been able to get back on track in over a month (Bergfors), a prospect center who's been suspended for elbowing a player in the face and had upside of a two-way center to begin with (Cormier), and a first round pick that will be late anyway.   All this for one of the best pure snipers in hockey. Lou Lamoriello rules.

Pierre Lebrun of ESPN had this reaction:

As for Atlanta, I doubt Waddell could have done better under the circumstances. Kovalchuk was going to walk as an unrestricted free agent on July 1; the Thrashers had to not only get something in return for their most important asset but also do it while not pulling the plug on their chase for a playoff spot. That's a balancing act, and acquiring a top-four blueliner in Johnny Oduya and a decent second-line winger in Niclas Bergfors to help the team right now was paramount.

So which is it?

Did the Thrashers receive talent that is of equal value to Ilya Kovalchuk in his prime? Absolutely not. Was any team offering them talent equal to Kovalchuk in his prime? Absolutely not. To get full value the Thashers needed to make this trade in the summer of 2009 or even the summer of 2008.

Did Don Waddell take the best offer? Who knows. Unless we learn what the other finalists were peddling we simply have no way of knowing. Certainly DW took the offer he liked the best. For myself, I really wish Atlanta had received a 1st line scoring forward or prospect in return, instead the best piece here is the defenseman Oduya--a position of some depth for the organization. If the Devils advance to the Eastern Finals the draft pick will be in the bottom four of the 1st round. The Thrashers record with late 1st round picks (Jim Slater, Alex Bourett, Daulton Leveille) is very discouraging.

On the other hand, if you're cynical, you might say that since the Thrashers defense is locked into place for the next several seasons all they have to do is find offense--and any rookie hockey fan can read the G-A-PTS to identify the scorers--so hard can it be to fill in the offensive holes, right?

What is lost?

There are some big losses with this trade:

  • The team can no longer market an appealing star player to fans.
  • The team will take another blow to fan enthusiasm.
  • Season ticket base will probably get even smaller this summer.
  • The team will miss out of the rest of Ilya Kovalchuk's offensive production.
  • The Atlanta Thrashers franchise is once again branded with a giant "loser" label among fans here and in other cities.
  • The Thrashers will likely have to pay the "loser's premium" to get top UFA to sign here.

What has been gained?

The losses entailed in the Kovalchuk trade are easy to recognize and list off. In contrast, I think what has been gained might be less obvious to most fans.

The Thrashers avoid the decline years of Ilya Kovalchuk. Ilya Kovalchuk relies on his raw speed to generate most of his even strength scoring chances. Someday he will lose a step of that speed and when he does he will be a much less useful offensive player. For example, Sergei Fedorov used to rely on his speed for offense. Fedorov was a consistent point-per-game NHL scorer and then at age 34 he suffered a big decline. After 33 he never averaged more than .66 points per game--and yet he received a big salary. Realistically, I think Fedorov is a comparable player to Kovalchuk and Ilya probably has about 6 elite years left in him and once the speed declines the fall could be steep. Fedorov was a great two way player who could still help at both ends of the ice after his decline, when Kovalchuk slips he will become a real liabilty, an average offensive player with lousy defense.

The Thrashers avoid making a big cap mistake. In any sport with a salary cap the key to winning in the regular season is getting the most bang for your buck. It is very difficult to do that when a team pays a single player 20% of their maximum possible payroll. Lidstrom in his prime was probably worth that much, but in my opinion Kovalchuk is not. Kovalchuk stats are inflated because he plays the easy minutes (regularly leads all NHL forwards in PP minutes, receives relatively favorable shift starts in the Offensive Zone). His stats would take a significant hit if he played more hard minutes like say Ryan Getzlaf is doing this season.

The trade unblocks some wasted talent. The Thrashers have four pretty good puck-moving defenseman in Enstrom, Bogosian, Kubina and Hainsey. Because Kovalchuk played nearly every minute at the left point on the PP and only Enstrom has received any substantial PP ice time. And yet the Thrashers are paying Hainsey and Kubina for their offensive skills--so that was wasted money and wasted talent. Now all four of the Thrashers top 4 D should get their crack at playing on the Power Play now. Salmela's offensive skills were also larged wasted in Atlanta and his trade really opens a roster spot for Arturs Kulda to step up to the NHL level next year. On a so-so Chicago Wolves team, a team where most players are even or slightly plus, Kulda was been leading the entire AHL with a +19 last time I checked. (He has also benefited from playing with Chelios all seasons.)

The Thrashers now have an opportunity to become a different kind of team. This has been the Ilya Kovalchuk Show since Hossa departed. This has been a wide-open high-risk team for the last 8 years. Both Don Waddell and Coach Anderson prefer the up tempo style, even though that is a very expensive route for a poor team to travel. I don't expect the Thrashers organization to embrace defense without major changes in the front office or behind the bench. In the short run though the focus will really be on the TEAM and not just relying on Kovalchuk to carry the offense. Everyone must score and everyone must play defense--now that's something I can embrace. Don Waddell intimated the same thing in his talk with Vivlamore: "This team has to take a different identity. We’ve been building around one player for a long time now. We need to build this around a team. I think this gives us an opportunity to do it." This is a big test for Coach Anderson. Can his system still produce offense without a superstar in the lineup?

Who is to blame?

I wrote on Twitter that I really dislike the blame game. Fans always want a scapegoat. But Grossman and Kovalchuk thought he deserved $11 million per season and the Thrashers thought he deserved $9-$10 million. I'm NOT going to call one party "greedy" and I'm NOT going to call the other party "cheap"--grownups sometimes disagree. NHL hockey is a business and this was a business decision by both parties.

But if you must hang it on someone I suspect that ownership has to take the brunt here. They own a multi-million dollar corporation with a valuable asset that is going to expire. They should have made him a serious offer in July and if he didn't sign bite the bullett and make a trade in September. Instead ownership appears to have been distracted by their mutual lawsuits and then by an effort to bring in a new investor. They fiddled and the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team is much poorer for it. Well run companies maximize their assets, poorly run companies miss opportunities and squander their assets.

Has Atlanta correctly valued these players?

I think that Thrashers made Kovalchuk a fair offer (perhaps even more than I would have) and they probably got the best deal available given a bad situation (which they allowed to develop). My biggest concern is whether they have evaluated these players correctly.

In many ways we might think of this as the first mid-season Rick Dudley trade. Waddell has been very busy with the Kovalchuk contract talks and Dudley has been his pro scouting eyes and ears since being hired. Dudley is apparently quite high on Cormier and I presume he likes Bergfors as well. Waddell told Vivalmore:

Bergfors is a first-year player. He has 13 goals. We think that will get even better. He’s on pace for basically a 20-goal season as a first-year player. We’ve watched Kane as a first-year player, how he’s gotten better throughout the year. We think the player is only going to get better as he gets more maturity, gets more experience in the league. Whether that’s a 20-, 25-goal scorer on a regular basis is what we hoped. Cormier is probably ideal for a second-line center because he plays both ends of the ice very well. He’s a hard-nosed player, He plays hard as we know, unfortunately suspended right now. Even his game style, he plays a very aggressive style. As Rick Dudley says he’s the kind of guy that every organization wants to have on its reserve list. It was hard for New Jersey to give up this player.

I have some big concerns about the paragraph above. It is true that Bergfors is on pace for 20 goal, 40 point rookie season. Those would be very exciting numbers for a 18 or 19 year old rookie, but Bergfors is already 22. Most NHL players show improvement in the 18-25 period and hit their peak performance level at age 25. Bergfors is much closer to 25 than he is to 18, he has a much lower ceiling than say Evander Kane.

Furthermore, Bergfors scoring numbers in the AHL are VERY underwhelming. On average an AHL player will retain roughly half of his scoring rate when he makes the jump from the AHL to the NHL. If you apply that to Bergfors, his AHL career screams "3rd line forward" to me. Of course there are error bands and some players retain more than half of their scoring rate and others less. If Bergfors turns into Erik Christensen II--well then this trade was an unmitigated disaster.

I have the exact same concerns about Patrice Cormier. He plays in the QMJHL which is the highest scoring of the three major junior leagues. A typical player who jumps from the Q to the NHL only retains about 30% of his scoring rate. If Cormier is a typical player, then that makes him a 3rd/4th line guy  who will score 18-22 points in a full season. I see nothing in his statistical profile to suggest he will contribute anything to the team's offense. He would only be a 2nd line center on a very bad hockey team. My expectation is that he will be a 3rd/4th line agitator pest in the NHL, anything more would come as a surprise.

Now that I've laid my doubts out on the table, I will to point out that Waddell/Dudley deserve credit for some unexpectedly good player decisions of late. Afinogenov was better than I expected. Antropov is having a career year in Atlanta and Kubina was a great addition this summer. Peverley was phenomenal waiver pick and Schubert a very solid wavier grap as well. This team is not in the playoff mix without those all of those decisions. Credit given where credit is due. So if you're a Thrashers fan you have to hope that Cormier and Bergfors turn out more like Peverley than Christensen. Time will tell the tale.