The news of the Peverley for Wheeler (with Valabik and Stuart as less-important pieces) trade has come at an inopportune time for me on a personal level. I first read the news while clearing immigration control in the Philippines. I’m attempting to write some quick thoughts from Narita airport outside Tokyo. I have just a short time to say quite a bit (and I’m having some Taketsuru whiskey, distilled here in Japan, to boot, so don't expect anything earth-shattering.)
I have been saying – perhaps longer than anybody else I’m aware of – that the Thrashers should trade Rich Peverley. This isn’t anything personal against Peverley; in fact, I like him quite a bit, both as a person and as a hockey player. Grabbing him off the waiver wire is widely viewed as one of this franchise’s best moves, but I think we overlook the better one: taking him seriously and giving him a chance to succeed.
Rich Peverley wasn’t an unknown quantity: he was a roster player with the Nashville Predators, but due to their strength at center, Peverley was stuck playing either third-line center or second-line wing, neither with much success. It is a credit both to this organization that we gave him a chance at Top-6 center and to Rich himself for seizing the opportunity. He came here, worked hard, and earned the nickname "Point-per-game Peverley" for his almost superhuman ability to steadily earn one point every game under nearly any circumstances.
That was 2008-2009. Since then, Peverley has remained an integral part of the Thrashers, but his production has steadily diminished. Worse, his plus-minus (a stat that alone tells you very little but when compared between teammates tells you a great deal) has gotten worse to the point that he is ranked last – or near it – on the team. Plus-minus is not the only measure of success, but when your top "two-way center" is dead-last in the category, it’s a sign there’s a problem.
I can’t say with any certainty that the problem is Rich Peverley. Other than some questionable passes and minimal physicality, there isn’t even much wrong with his game. Perhaps it has been his linemates or the situations he’s been placed in. Either way, it’s not working.
Heading to Boston will give Rich a chance with a different team and a different offensive and defensive scheme. I can only wish him the best. Likewise for Boris Valabik, a first-round pick that never seemed to find his feet with the Thrashers. Despite being given a few opportunities with the big squad, Valabik was hampered with injuries, limited playing time, and a body slightly too large for his level of coordination. Big guys, big defensemen especially, take time to develop. Our timetable for Boris and the time he needed to develop seemed to be out-of-sync. There’s only so many times you can be sent back to the AHL before you feel like you’d do better elsewhere. Boris deserves a clean slate and a second chance and he’ll hopefully get both with Boston.
This brings us to the guys we’ve brought in: Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. I’ve not watched Stuart much, to be honest, though I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve noticed him. He’s certainly not a flashy defenseman, but he should be a solid bottom-pairing guy for us. His addition makes it easier to move one of our other defensive assets – likely one of Hainsey, Oduya, or Sopel – this year. Stuart is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so he has the option to walk if the fit isn’t right. Given that, I can’t imagine he’d be a piece of this trade unless we intended to clear room for him.
And no, I don’t think Zach Bogosian is the room we’ll clear. I’m skeptical as to whether the reports from Sportsnet are true. Even if we assume they are, I’d wager we move Zach after the season, not at the trade deadline.
Blake Wheeler is big. He’s not really a big hitter, but he’s got a large body. Nik Antropov seems to be a fair comparison. Like Nik, he’s a 15-20 goal guy who will be expected to do more with the Thrashers. He killed penalties with Boston in addition to seeing limited power play time, but don’t expect him to help get our PK unit out of the NHL’s sub-basement; we just lost one of our best penalty killers in this same trade, after all.
What Wheeler really brings is moderate offensive production with defensive responsibility at the right age: 24. If this team has a playoff run to make, it’s not this year. It’s probably not next year either. This team is setting itself up for a strong run in 2012-2013 – hopefully still in the city of Atlanta – and Wheeler will likely still be a part of the team at that point. I haven’t yet had the time to crunch stats, but from the times I’ve investigated him before, I was pleased. (Good plus-minus but disappointing Corsi, if my whiskey-altered brain remembers correctly, but that could have just as easily been Patrice Bergeron.)
Moving Peverley for Wheeler, we gained youth and size without sacrificing versatility. I don’t think this move makes us more competitive this year – we’re almost certainly going to miss the playoffs yet again – but it sets us up nicely for next year.
Rick Dudley has said that he won’t trade the future to make the playoffs this year. I was concerned that he would. This deal has assuaged those fears: he smartly took on some salary and cap space to make this team a stronger contender over the next five years. It is sometimes cold to think of hockey players as "assets" – they are, of course, people with families and friends and lives. From a simple X’s and O’s analytical perspective, this is a good deal. It is great asset management. With any luck, it will also take us one step closer to cheering for a winning team in Atlanta.