Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Road to Contention Begins with Keeping the Pick

Right now I'm sure Don Waddell is getting quite a few phone calls about the #3 overall pick. That pick carries with it the opportunity to draft one of the next franchise defensemen of the 2010s. Trading that pick would be a franchise crushing mistake in my view, here's why.

Under the salary cap every GM is playing the same game, the game is called "get the most for your money." If the NHL were run like a fantasy baseball league we would have a big auction every summer and every franchise would bid on the players they wanted. The teams that spent wisely would get into the playoffs and those that spent poorly would miss the playoffs.

But the real NHL doesn't really operate that way (except for the summer of 2005 after the lockout). Only a small number of players reach the free agent markets. Most of the elite level players are locked up in advance of the opening bell of summer free agency (The Thrashers Marian Hossa being perhaps the biggest exception to this trend--which says something about either Hossa or the Thrashers).

Now here's the thing about the free agent market; every team is looking to get good value for their money. No GM wakes up on July 1st and says "today I will grossing overplay some stiff to play for my team for the next five years!" In Econ 101 we learn that free markets are (at least in theory) efficient--which means that finding undervalued players will difficult. Yes, you may find one every now and then, but assuming that you can do it year after year is probably unrealistic.

Take for example the Carolina Hurricane's GM Jim Rutherford. In the summer of 2005 he pulled a major coup signing Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman to cheap contracts and he got a great return on that investment. Such a feat is very difficult to repeat year after year. For example, last summer Rutherford signed Jeff Hamilton to a low cost contract. But Hamilton bombed and now there is talk they might buy him out even.

Really the key in free agency is to avoid franchise crippling contracts (example: Bobby Holik) and yo find players who will at least provide a fair return on the money invested in them (example: Ken Klee). You can't count on finding great bargains year after year (example: Eric Perrin).

So let's come back to the Thrashers situation. Attendance is low and so team revenue is also very low compared to other NHL teams. The team losses money every year and therefore is rather unlikely to spend to the upper limit of the salary cap. I assume that the Thrashers plan to spend around the middle point between the salary cap and the salary floor--since the Thrashers are spending less than say the Flyers it is even more more critical that the Thrashers find inexpensive players.

Because the Flyers bring in millions more in revenue, they can spend to the cap maximum and they can still make the playoffs even if they get almost nothing out of a big contract player like Simon Gagne (who was hurt much of last year). The Thrashers really can't afford to waste any of their contract dollars like that--which is one reason why the Bobby Holik contract was such a franchise killer the last three seasons.

Now to bring this back around to the NHL Draft tomorrow. Here's the thing about the #3 pick, the Thrashers will have an opportunity to take either Drew Doughty or Zack Bogosian at that spot and both are considered to be potential #1 defensemen. The Thrashers must keep that pick and take one of them because the players of their caliber are impossible to trade for (Pronger being the rare exception) and or very expensive on the free agent market (examples: Chara, Jovanoski, Nidermayer, Brian Rafalski, Rob Blake) and usually they only want to sign with the top teams.

A young franchise defenseman can provide great value a very good price up. Take for example the Florida Panthers who basically have three impact players on their roster Bouwmeester (D) Jokinen (C) and Luongo/Vokoun (G). For the Thrashers to contend they much acquire better defensemen. To purchase the services of a Mathieu Schneider or Brian Rafalski the Thrashers would have to pay millions more than the Ducks or Red Wings did last summer.

So the most cost-effective strategy is to keep that pick and rebuild the defense around Enstrom and Doughty/Bogosian for the next decade to come. With Lehtonen and Pavalec in the system this could put the team on the path to respectability on the defensive side of the puck.

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