Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why Jeff Schultz is Both Wrong and Lazy

Some of the folks on the message boards are hyping Jeff Schultz's recent blog post in which he said that Don Waddell should be fired instead of Hartley. The Waddell haters love to harp on what they perceive to be his draft day record.

Now I think Don Waddell has made some mistakes as the Thrashers GM. In my post on Wednesday I pointed out exactly what I consider to be Don Waddell's chief failures as GM 1) a propensity to acquire players in their declining years 2) an inability to construct a roster that fits together so that it has an overarching identity or strength.

Those people who continue to harp on the draft simply are barking up the wrong tree. Let's take a look at some of the player development "facts" Jeff Schultz trotted out in his article. A central theme of his post is that Don Waddell has been terrific failure when it comes to developing talent. For example Schultz says: "What’s wrong with this picture? Don Waddell, the general manager who has drafted 28 defensemen but has only two to show for it on the Thrashers’ roster, stays."

That sounds pretty damning doesn't it? Just two defensemen on the roster after all those drafts years!!! Any reader who sees that is going to think, "Wow! That Don Waddell must be a total idiot when it comes to evaluating talent" right? There's just one problem, while the facts are correct, the implication is very false.

Of course, if Jeff Schultz had actually spent more than about fifteen minutes writing this blog post and gotten his hands dirty by cracking open the NHL Guide and Record Book or gone to www.hockeydb.com or some other hockey website it would have only taken him a few minutes to discover this basic fact: there is absolutely nothing unusual about the Thrashers only having two draftees playing defense.

One thing that always annoyed me when Jeff Schultz was the beat writer assigned to cover the Thrashers is that every other week he would get some basic fact wrong in his coverage. I don't have a lot of respect for him as a professional journalist. I'm not a paid journalist, but I did crack open a few books and used a few websites in my time away from work. In fact I spent several hours of my free time going through every single NHL team's current roster and here's what I discovered.
  • Three NHL teams have zero defensemen drafted since 1999 (that's when the Thrashers had their first draft) on their current roster.
  • Seven NHL teams have just one defensemen drafted since 1999 on their roster.
  • Nine NHL teams have just two defensemen drafted since 1999 on their current roster.
What does this mean? The Thrashers are right at the league average in terms of defensemen drafted since 1999 on their roster. No more and no less--just average. In fact the Thrashers have more rostered defensemen drafted since 1999 than:
  • 2007 Stanley Cup Champs Anaheim
  • 2006 Stanley Cup Champs Carolina
  • 2006 Stanley Cup Finalist Edmonton (who is playing all their kids now)
  • 2004 Stanley Cup Finalist Calgary
  • The New Jersey Devils (frequently cited as the best drafting team in the NHL)
Do you see what I'm getting at here? In Schultz had bothered to do about 5 minutes of research before going off about the Thrashers ONLY HAVING TWO DRAFTED NHL DEFENSEMEN ON THEIR ROSTER!!!!! he would have found this out for himself.

Schultz goes on to say: "Player development has been dreadful. There is little to show for nine drafts and 82 players. Of the 28 defensemen drafted, the only two here are Garnet Exelby (eighth round, 1999; blind squirrel, meet acorn) and Tobias Enstrom (eighth round, 2003; just got here)."

If Schultz had actually looked at the output of the farm system instead of tossing out lazy accusations he might have been able to tell his readers that the Atlanta Thrashers developed four additional defensemen who are currently in the NHL. Three of those defensemen were traded in exchange for quality NHL veterans including one third of our current defense corps.
  • Brian Pothier (traded for Shawn McEachern)
  • Kurtis Foster (traded for Nic Havelid)
  • Braydon Coburn (traded for Alexei Zhitnik)
  • Mike Weaver.
So in reality the Thrashers farm system accounts for four of the six starting defensemen on the roster: Enstrom, Exelby, Havelid and Zhitnik. That puts thinks in a bit of different light doesn't it? Not exactly "little to show" is it?

OK, while we are at it let's take a look at how the Thrashers compare to all 30 NHL teams in terms of draftees (since 1999) who are on their current roster. This includes forwards, defensemen and goalies. Here's how it breaks down:
  • 12 Players: SJS
  • 10 Players: WAS, MIN, PIT, EDM
  • 9 Players: DBJ, DET, BUF, OTT
  • 8 Players: DAL, MON, NYR
  • 7 Players: ATL, NAS, VAN, CHI, COL, STL, FLA
  • 6 Players: PHX
  • 5 Players: TBL, NYI, LAK, TOR, ANA, CGY, PHI
  • 4 Players: BOS, CAR, NJD
Once again we see that the data clearly indicate that the Atlanta Thrashers are just average in terms of players drafted since 1999 on their current roster. I said this last spring when I did my analysis of the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 drafts (clink on the links if you want to see a more hard core analysis of those drafts). The Thrashers have not been great, nor have they been terrible, they are simply average. Even when you adjust for picking high in the first round they still just average.

Conclusion

Don Waddell has made some mistakes as GM, but most people I read seem obsessed with the draft which is the wrong place to look. If you want to criticize Don Waddell at least know what you're talking about. He hasn't been a terrible GM in terms of drafting and developing talent. He's been rather middle of the pack. The NHL is not Lake Wobegon--not every GM is going to be above average. Now maybe you expect more than average--that's your perogative as a fan--but saying he is terrible at drafting is simply not correct.

10 Comments:

  • I think you're missing an important point here. The Thrashers sucked for a long time and had a lot of high draft picks, and they DO NOT have a lot to show for it. 50/50 in the first round and worse than that after.

    If you truly believe the Thrashers have done well drafting, then you've been reading one too many Holly Gunning articles! It's one thing to be average (more like below it), but when you finish as low as the Thrashers did for several years, you have to do better than that.

    Don't expect you to publish this, just food for your thought.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:34 AM  

  • falconer, great post. thanks for taking the time to clear this up. what surprised me the most is that while driving up to the game the other nite, kincade gave me the impression that he was in schultz' corner. i would think that someone like kincade would take the time to know the facts as well, but i guess it's easy to cast the first stone that it is to point and click for a few minutes to determine whether your "intuition" is correct after all!

    By Blogger robbie dee, at 10:59 AM  

  • The Falconer vs. Jeff Schultz, not a fair fight!

    By Blogger chris, at 11:51 AM  

  • All valid points about Don Waddell, Falconer. Many fans don't understand that the draft is an inexact science (to put it mildly) so it's easy to cherry-pick the wrong data to make a point (as Schultz did).

    Playing devil's advocate, however, the frustration with Waddell stems from some valid criticisms. He is the sole architect of a team that has one playoff appearance (zero wins) in seven seasons. Although we're in better shape than Columbus, we have lagged behind expansion brethren Nashville and Minnesota (if only slightly). Waddell hasn't found a #1 center or true complement for Kovy since Marc Savard left, nor has he been able to build a stellar defense (who is the greatest d-man in team history???).

    Like most GMs, Waddell has had isolated successes (stealing Savard from Calgary) and failures (giving up on Chris Kunitz after two games/two weeks) but the reality is it takes time to build a perennial NHL contender.

    Be patient, Thrashers fans. The 0-6 start notwithstanding, the team has a decent talent base and is on a pretty good trajectory.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:53 PM  

  • 1st Anonymous: If you go look at the first round the top 10 picks have have something like a 20% failure rate, the middle 10 1st round picks roughly 50% failure rate and last 10 picks in the 1st round around 60-70% failure rate. There is a very widespread misconception that 1st round picks are a slam dunk but they are not. You're drafting 18 year olds who are on the line between boyhood and manhood and there are many errors made. The failure rate is SO HIGH that a serious cost/benefit analysis suggests that trading a late 1st rounder to get a high quality NHL player is probably a wise thing to do from time to time. The NHL draft is not like the NFL draft where all the players are older, even MLB you can draft guys coming out of college who are more physically mature.

    Robbie Dee: Kincade gets a lot of attention because he is the ONLY person on radio who cares about hockey. That said, he is rather poorly plugged in to the hockey scene. He has never broken any substantial stories that I can recall. I've never been that impressed with his hockey analysis (how often does Kincaide say something that makes you think "Wow I've never thought of it that way"). He acts like he is well informed about the team, people that really know what is going with the club realize just how little Kincaide knows. I rarely see Kincaide at practice or at home games unless he is getting paid to work there--I'm willing to bet the guys who talk about UGA, Falcons or Hawks actually go to the games more than Kincaide does.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 3:48 PM  

  • Anonymous #2: I would agree that DW deserves some criticism. One playoff appearance in 8 years is not very good (even considering being an expansion team, the Snyder death, etc.)

    On the cuff I'd say the data shows Don Waddell to be average on draft day, above average in trading and below average in roster construction/free agency/waiver wire usage.

    Each of the three post-lockout season he has started the season with a team that COULD make the playoffs if things went right for them, but the team could just as easily miss the playoffs if they didn't get some breaks.

    In 2005-06 they didn't get the breaks and missed out, in 2006-07 the did (with the help of some trades, when they probably should have fired their coach Hartley for his ineptitude with special teams).

    This year's club is a borderline playoff before the season started but now they are in the whole and may not make it.

    If a GM spends about the same amount as the other GMs in the league and misses the playoffs 2 out of 3 years in the post-lockout era I don't think he is doing a good enough job in my opinion. On the other hand if he makes it 2 out of 3 years while spending the same or less as other clubs I'd say that is a doing a good job. We will have to see what happens to find out with 2 for 3 it is going to be with Waddell.

    The other thing that NOBODY ever talks about (and they should) is that DW should have traded one of those prospects or 1st rounders back in 2005-06 for a goalie when he knew Kari would be out for an extended period of time. If the Thrashers trade a 1st rounder for Martin Biron they make the playoffs that year--simple as that. If they make the playoffs we sell more tickets the following year and get the money from those playoff games.

    But he gambled and the team missed the post-season that year. We might not have needed to trade a 1st rounder and MORE for Tkachuk if we had dealt a high pick for a solid #2 goalie the first year after the lockout. Food for thought.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 4:05 PM  

  • Well said, Falconer.

    One other fact about Don Waddell's career at Atlanta. The timing of the 3 critical disasters -- the lockout, the Snyder death and the Heatley trade -- all occurred in consecutive years.

    The lockout took its toll across the league. But the two newest franchises were hit harder. Atlanta had just finished its 5th on-ice season, and Columbus its 4th.

    After the lockout, the NHL was ready to resume, and Atlanta was shocked by the death of Dan Snyder, and the injury to Dany Heatley. Heatley subsequently missed the majority of the season. Suddenly and without warning, the team needed 2 additional players.

    When everything looked normal again, Dany Heatley decided that he could not play in Atlanta. Under extreme duress, Don Waddell traded Heatley for Hossa, getting as much as possible talent in return as could possibly be expected.

    This 3 year stretch, 2004-2006, really curtailed the team's ability to acquire talent, through a combination of unfortunate incidents and league-wide labor difficulties.

    In addition to this, the initial Thrasher's entry draft was perhaps the weakest in league expansion history, and the initial two seasons were solely devoted to acquiring talent. I don't know that any other GM in the NHL could have done better, and many could not have done half as well as Don Waddell.

    By Anonymous icescout377, at 6:25 PM  

  • icescout, the lockout came after the Snyder/Heatley accident, but your point is still valid and a very good one at that!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:48 PM  

  • Scout pretty much hit it all on the head! I do grow tired of listing these same points continually.
    I would add however, that the rules changes had a dramatic effect on our draft production... as well as the unsettled ownership mess with acquisitions! DW's not perfect but he's still done one helluva job considering the adversity he's faced. I'm still very proud of the way he handled the Snydes tragedy.
    It would be nice if this organ-i-zation could finally leave all the damned drama behind and JUST PLAY SOME GOOD OL' AWKEE!!!!!!

    Nice read Falconer.

    By Blogger lordstan57, at 4:23 AM  

  • The Boston Bruins actually have 5 players drafted since 1999 on their current roster (and the roster at the time of the blog entry).

    Kessel, Bergeron, Lucic, Stuart, Krejci.

    By Anonymous bb74, at 6:27 PM  

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