Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thrashers Put NHL Veterans Behind the Bench

One of my biggest concerns about the Thrashers has been the lack of NHL experience. Nothing has changed in that respect in the front office, but behind the bench the team will have guys who have played in the big show for many years.

We already know that John Anderson dressed 814 NHL games (roughly 10 seasons worth of NHL games) and then had an extensive AHL coaching experience. Today we learned that he will be joined by Randy Cunneyworth who suited up for the equivalent of 11 NHL seasons (866 career games played) and who served as an AHL head coach for seven full seasons. Cunneyworth was someone I wanted to see interviewed for the head coach job, so I'm very pleased to see his name added. They will be joined by Steve Weeks who had 290 NHL games as a goalie and Todd Nelson (just 3 NHL games).

Now NHL experience only gets you so far. Brad McCrimmon had a lot of experience, but he couldn't seem to get much out of the Thrashers defensmen. Curt Fraser had a long NHL resume and his players never played with that the drive he demonstrated in his NHL career (good luck in Grand Rapids Curt!). Translating that experience into on-ice success is the challenge.

Previous NHL playing experience does bring you credibilty with young players. If Cunneyworth leans over and tells a young defensemen "look I played over a decade in this league, here's what you need to do be successful" that is going to get him some respect. But that respect only gets you in the door, if you have experience but you give advice that is bad or unrealistic, then eventually it doesn't really matter. You have to combine that NHL experience with real coaching chops.

Both Anderson and Cunneyworth have had experience (and success) working with younger players. The Thrashers have a much younger roster and both their short term and long term success will turn on the speed and the extent to which their young players mature. Randy Cunneyworth and John Anderson are both coaches who have used systems that generate offensive chances and the Thrashers certainly could have used more creativity in that department under Coach Hartley.

Todd Nelson is probably Anderson's confidant and sounding board. Anderson will be in a new league, facing new challenges with many new players. It is very useful to have someone at your side who has been in the trenches with you before. If Anderson has a bad day as coach or makes a bad decision, my guess is that Nelson is the guy who can tell him that in private. Most managers need someone they can trust to give them honest feedback about their performance.

Steve Weeks is the guy with recent NHL coaching experience. While Anderson and Cunneyworth have extensive NHL experience as players the last time one of the pulled on a NHL jersey was 1998-1999 which is the season before the Thrashers started playing. You need a guy who has been around the NHL recently. Weeks brings that to the table as well as his experience as a former NHL goaltender.

I'm liking this coaching staff more and more. I like the Cunneyworth addition and Todd Nelson makes sense as Anderson's right hand man in the AHL. The biggest concern is the lack of NHL coaching experience in this sense. NHL coaches have be much more nimble than AHL coaches. What I mean is that with NHL CenterIce everybody can see what the opposition is trying to do on the power play and penalty kill, there are few surprises in the digital age you have to adjust quickly.

I still don't anticipate the Thrashers making the playoffs, but as a fan I could get excited about tuning in to watch a young team that plays hard every night. Those kids are going to make some rookie mistakes, but if they go all out they could also steal some unexpected victories and be fun to watch.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Jason Williams Analysis

Jason Williams was an undrafted OHL player who signed with the Detroit Red Wings. He put up few points during his draft year but then took a big step forward at age 19. That was enough to catch the eye of the Detroit organization.

He played a small number of NHL games during his age 20, 21 and 22 seasons but didn't really cracked the roster until age 23 when he appeared in 49 of 82 regular season contests. After the lockout the formerly big spending Wings needed to keep to get under the salary cap and Williams was young and cheap. He became a full NHL season guy in his age 25 and 26 seasons with Detroit. Towards the end of the 2nd post-lockout season (2006-07) he was traded to Chicago. Williams was expected to be a top six forward for the Blackhawks but ended up missing almost half the season with injuries.

This upcoming season with the Thrashers Williams will be only be 28. Along with the Hainsey signing and the Reasoner signing the Thrashers organization appears to have learned from past mistakes and are avoiding older players in their decline phase (which usually starts after age 33--unless you are a Hall of Fame level talent).

Williams is more of an offensive guy since he plays very few short handed minutes and receives significant power play ice time. But he has not received big even strength numbers so far in his career--something that will likely change with his arrival in Atlanta. Those ES ice time numbers could go up sharply if he ends playing right wing with Kovalchuk. Ilya plays roughly 300 more ES minutes than Williams typically does in a full season.

Jason Williams Time on Ice Profile
Year EStoi PPtoi SHtoi
2004 09.18 0.20 .02
2006 10.95 3.93 .03
2007 12.08 2.96 .37
2008 11.84 4.35 .35

While William's Even Strength ice time has been rather moderate (right around the NHL average for forwards) his Power Play ice time has been much higher. The last three seasons, Williams has been in the top 1/3 of all NHL forwards in the number of PP minutes played per game. Last season he moved up into the top 10% of all forwards in PP minutes so he has probably maxed out his potential for PP ice time already. Look for more ES minutes though.

How effective is Jason Williams in his scoring ability? One way to get a handle on scoring efficiency is to simply look at a player's point per hour (which is better than points-per-game because some players get more or less ice time in a game). In Williams case his Even Strength scoring rate per hour was very solid three of the last four season, he has ranked 64%, 79%, 34% and 73% in his four NHL seasons.

What do those percentile rankings mean? If you're ranked 64% that means that 64% of all NHL forwards were worse than you and that 36% were better than you that season in scoring rate per hour. If you're an offensive (top six) guy you should be above the 50% line and Williams was above that line three of the last four season. One season Williams even cracked the 75% barrier which ranked him with the bottom 1st line players in the NHL (if I recall correctly he was on a line with some high quality players much of that year in Detroit).

Jason Williams Scoring Profile
Points per hour of ice time
Year Total ES PP
2004 1.69 1.73 0.00 (very little PP ice time in 2004 with Detroit)
2006 2.92 2.33 4.59
2007 1.60 1.46 2.08
2008 3.03 2.00 6.10

In terms of Power Play scoring efficiency, Jason Williams has been up and down, but was VERY good last season. His Power Play Scoring Efficiency Rankings the last three years are 68%, 58%, and 95%. Those numbers indicates he was above average, barely above average and way above average the last three seasons. His numbers last year in Chicago were extremely good and the coaching staff keep giving him more minutes on the PP.

Should we count on Williams being terrific on the power play next season in Atlanta? Not necessarily, PP scoring rates are much less consistent from season to season than are ES scoring rates. I expect that Williams will better than the NHL average for forwards but not necessarily an elite PP guy.

So what do we have here? A player still in the peak section of his career. A guy who has demonstrated above averaging scoring ability, but is not really an elite 1st line scoring threat. A guy who probably will see more even strength ice time here in Atlanta and if he stays healthy could put up new career highs in points.

Overall I give this signing a thumbs up. Every player comes with upside and downside risks. In the case of Williams there appears to be more upside potential than risk of collapse. On the other hand, Williams is not an elite/impact sort of guy, he's more of a 2nd line NHL forward on a playoff team and you can't expect him to push the Thrashers into playoff contention by himself. If expectations are kept in check, he will likely end the season in the "pleasant surprise" category for many fans.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Panthers Raise Ticket Prices and Fans Approve

I saw this story on the Craig Custance news roundup. A story in the Palm Beach Post indicates that the Panthers will add a surcharge to certain popular opponents such as the Red Wings--however, if you're a season ticket holder there is no extra cost. Now that's a way to add value to your ticket packages.

"The only feedback I've heard so far on the premium games has come from the season seat-holders, and they've said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' " Yormark said. "They've felt it's really enhanced the value of being a season seat-holder."
That has been a major point of irritation for this particular season ticket holder over the last five years. Every year I bought seats ahead of time only to see great single game specials appear regularly during the season. Last season it got out of completely out of control with discounts for lower bowl seats and weekend games completely devaluing the STH package. The Thrashers have already said they're going to have some 2 for 1 deals on weeknights. I look forward to using those this coming season, that and not having to pay for games I'll miss over the Christmas holidays. What's that old sports cliche? Oh yeah, we're going to take this season "one game at a time."

2008-09 Thrashers Schedule Analysis

The 2008-09 NHL schedule was released yesterday and I've done some quick and dirty analysis to get a feel for the tough and easy parts. First thing I did was put into my spreadsheet the points earned last season by each Thrashers opponent.

Looking at the schedule this way (see below) we can see that the toughest months are early (OCT) and late (MAR) with the middle section pretty normal and the final 6 games the weakest by far.

Thrashers Opposition Average 2008-09 Points by Month
93.8 OCT
89.3 NOV
90.1 DEC
90.7 JAN
91.3 FEB
94.8 MAR
86.5 APR
91.2 Season

Now all this assumes that last year is a good indicator of the upcoming season. Generally speaking that is usually true from one season to the next. Most teams only make small shifts up or down the standings.

The next thing I did is work up the Thrashers Expected Win Percentage by Month. Again this assumes that last season will be a good predictor of next season (which broadly speaking is likely to be true for most teams). (You can skip the next paragraph if you don't care how I calculated this.)

What I did is put in the GF-GA figures for each team (this is a more accurate measure of talent that season points which are more affected by luck factors at play in the SO and OTL points). I worked up a monthly Opponents Expected GF-GA ratio and then projected the Pythagorean Win Percentage for each month for the opponents and then subtracted from one to get the Thrashers expected win percentage based on the opposition goal differential rate from last season.

Thrashers Expected Win % in Regulation by Month
OCT .480
NOV .509
DEC .516
JAN .497
FEB .496
MAR .471
APR .508
Season .497 (81.5 points in regulation)

The numbers above suggest the Thrashers are in for a very tough first month. If they can simply come out of October with an even record in regulation that would be a huge plus for the team. The next two months are very favorable and the team then needs to make a move up the standing if they hope to still be in the playoff race. Things get a bit tougher after New Years but March could be an absolute killer month if the club has not built a points cushion earlier in the season. April's schedule is softer if the team manages to survive the brutal March schedule, so if they still have a shot at it the last six games are favorable on paper.

I mentioned before that my projection model has the team in the 83-84 point range (including OT/SO extra points). The addition of Marty Reasoner bumps the Eric Boultons and the Brad Larsens further down the depth chart which moves the Thrashers up closer to 85 points now.

I find it interesting that my expected win percentage work here came up with a very similar projection to the one using Alan Ryder's Player Contribution scores. Based on the quality of opposition I would anticipate the Thrashers earning 81 points in regulation with additional points for SO/OT wins. So roughly speaking the strength of schedule analysis points to the team finishing in the mid to high 80s in points right now.

Is this written in stone? Of course not. There is variance in the real work that is very difficult to model. If the team is unusually healthy (as they were last season), and they get to more OT/SO games and some players have break out years they could contend for the playoffs. But all of those things probably must happen. A more sober and realistic assessment is that they are more likely to finish in the high 80s (out of the playoffs) than in the high 90s (playoffs)

Coming Attractions: I'm looking over the numbers for both Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner and should have some analysis up over the next few days on both of these new faces.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How Much Does Coaching Matter?

My last post where I attempted to model the upcoming season resulted in two posters (Tony and anonymous) asking about the effect of new head coach John Anderson. This is a great question, but also one that is hard to answer so let me take a crack at it.

Coaching is one of the great mysteries of performance analysis. Let me start by talking about baseball where the statistics allow us to break down the game much more precisely. Most baseball analysts find little evidence that managers make a big difference. Their conclusions is that if coaching matters it tends to show up a) bullpen usage b) strategic choices (bunting, pinch hitting, etc) in close ball games.

For a real world example consider the case of famed Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone who moved to Baltimore. A number of baseball analysts were curious to see if he the Baltimore staff would show evidence of "unexpected" improvement with Mazzone's arrival, but that turned out not to be the case. There was no dramatic improvement in Baltimore's pitching beyond what you might expect based on their talent level and margin of error.

What about hockey? You could make the case that in team sports like football and hockey coaching matters more than in baseball where it is a one-on-one confrontation between a single batter and a single pitcher. In hockey and football the guys may play well together as a unit to achieve success.

My own opinion is that coaching in hockey probably most strongly manifests itself in special teams. Why? Because pre-designed "plays" are most likely to show up in PP and SH situations on a regular basis. When you're on the PP you can count on maintaining possession of the puck in the offensive zone for an extended period of time. In contrast, at even strength it is much more difficult to keep puck possession and run specific strategies or plays--yes you can do it, but player raw skill and improvisation abilities also matter a great deal at ES.

If you look around the NHL every year you see some skilled teams that struggle with special teams and you also see weak teams with great special teams. That suggests to me that more than raw player skill level is at work here and these oddities are caused by either coaching or luck.

You also have to consider coaching within a competitive environment. Certainly John Anderson will be doing everything he can to get the most out of his roster--but the same thing can be said for every opposition coach. So when you're attempting to forecast all the Eastern conference teams I have a hard time giving the Thrashers any extra points over say Tampa who will also have a new coach as well as new players.

Is there any empirical evidence that coaching makes a big difference? Perhaps. Take a look at the list of winners of the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) and you will see that that vast majority of them are coaches who took over bad teams and the team showed a big improvement. So there is some anecdotal evidence of a "new coach bump" out there in the data.

But if you look hard at some of these "Coach of the Year" cases what you see at times is the new coach getting credit for things he might not deserve to get credit for. Let me try and explain. In some cases the "new coach" bump is just random luck--for example if a team was riddled with injuries the season before and they return to being healthy the following season--that team should be better--but almost invariable the hockey media is going to credit that improvement to the new coach when in fact it is health (a luck factor) at work. Likewise players have a certain skill level but they also have variation around that fundamental skill level. If a team had several players with down years (i.e. Kozlov, Exelby, Havelid) and those players return to their previous level of performance the coach usually gets the credit--when it is could be that the player had a hidden injury or off-ice distraction that depressed their performance the previous season. Again the coach will usually be credited for this rebound. In many cases when people say "coaching" produced this, they simply capturing luck or rebound performances with the coaching variable.

Does every coach produce a "new coach bump"? No. Some new bench bosses see their teams struggle and get fired after just one year. If you're a new head coach taking over a club without any major injuries or down years by key players the year before, look out because you may be on the short road to a pink slip.

So if you're trying to forecast how do you handle this? Should I assume that both John Anderson and Barry Melrose will get that "new coach" kick, or will it just be Anderson? Because I don't have any feel for this right now I'm just assuming that it will be within my margin of error for the forecast.

So that's a long explanation but until I see empirical evidence to the contrary I tend to think that most of the "new coach bump" can be at the player level--you project an injured guy to be healthy or a slumping guy to rebound some. Special teams are the key area where Anderson might be able to squeeze out some extra points not predicted by the team talent level.

Let me conclude by saying this. I'll be more than happy to write a post at the end of the 2008-09 season titled "why my model/prediction was wrong" if that is the case. But last year my model had us around 10th in the conference and we finished 14th (mostly because Zhitnik was much worse than I expected). If we make the playoffs I'll be more than happy to say I was wrong, but right now I'm not sweating it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What to Expect from the 2008-09 Thrashers

With signing of the Jason Williams this weekend it seems that the Thrashers roster appears to be coming into form. There is still a good chance the team will add another player by making a trade with a team in cap trouble. For example, Mike Knuble is one player who might be available due to his contract.

Today I did some rough estimates of what to expect out of the current roster. First I've been working with Alan Ryder's Player Contribution scores as a way of predicting the up coming season. I have been back testing this approach to see how well it would have predicted the 2007-08 and it did fairly well for 11 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams, but missed badly in the case of Washington. I'll do some more posts in the future on forecasting the upcoming NHL season.

For now let's cut to the chase, first you have to figure out the value of the players subtracted (Hossa, Holik, Dupuis, Recchi, Zhitnik, McCarthy) and then the value of the players added (Armstrong, Christensen, Williams, C. Stuart, Hainsey, Bogosian). Well at the moment using Player Contribution scores adjusted for games played (with injury risks evenly spread across all team members) I have arrived at a prediction of 83 points for the Thrashers.

Last season Toronto finished with 83 points which ranked them 12th in the Eastern Conference or 11 points out of the playoffs. With respect to the entire NHL two clubs finished with 83 points (Phoenix and Toronto) which tied them for 23rd/24th place overall.

In some ways I think that Phoenix could end up be a pretty decent comparable for the 08-09 Thrashers. The Coyotes played hard for Coach Gretzky and were decent defensively but the young squad simply couldn't score enough to stay in the playoff hunt. I see a very similar fate for this upcoming Thrasher squad.

I can see the Thrashers taking a major step forward on defense if Nikulin finally signs and Bogosian makes the team. Those two additions plus Hainsey would push the Klee/Exelby/Valabik group down the depth chart. Suddenly the Thrashers defense starts to look pretty interesting although Bogosian, Valabik and technically Nikulin would all be considered rookies.

Last year the Thrashers finished tied for dead last with Tampa in Goals Allowed at 266. If the Thrashers could reduce that number by 30 down to 236 that would be a huge improvement and would leave keep them in a lot more games (with a chance to win more extra points in OT and the shootout). Last year St. Louis allowed just 232 goals while giving rookie defenseman Erik Johnson a lot of ice time. If the season goes well for the Thrashers they might be able to hit that mark.

The offensive side of things is where I see this club taking a step back. As much as people grumble about Hossa dogging during his final season in Atlanta his point production will be difficult to replace. I spent some time estimating the Thrashers offense. Young forwards like Erik Christensen, Jason Williams, Colbey Armstrong, Bryan Little and Colin Stuart will all benefit from increased ice time with the departure of Hossa, Holik, Recchi and Dupuis. Also Ron Hainsey projects to produce more than Zhitnik--however if Hainsey is a regular on the PP unit either Enstrom or Kovalchuk will probably see fewer minutes (If Kovy slides down to LW on the PP unit he can't play the full 2 minutes like he did at the point--I cut Kovy's minutes some and kept Hainsey at the same level he played in Columbus). Even after I handed out those increased minutes I still the Thrashers offense declining from 207 Goals in 07-08 to 201 in 08-09.

Now the hardest part about young forwards is estimating how much they will improve. One of things that the Thrashers have finally gotten right is that they have loaded up on young guys who are likely to improve instead of old guys who are likely to decline. Coach Anderson and Don Waddell both mentioned expecting a step up by Little and Christensen and that might happen.

Let's say that that improving youth somehow manages to replace the other missing Hossa goals and the Thrashers manage to hold steady at 207 Goals Scored. Where would a team that scores 207 Goals and allows 236 finish in the standings? Well that's roughly what St. Louis Blues did last year and they ended up at 21st overall in a 30 team league with 79 points in the standings.

So right now I'd put the Thrashers current roster in the 79-84 point range. There are lots of variables that could change that. If the team is unusually healthy or unusually banged up that could be swing things a few points in either direction (A healthy Kovalchuk for 82 games would add 8-9 points right alone). If the Thrashers keep games close and get on a roll in the shootout like Edmonton did last year or Dallas did back in 2005-06 they could maybe steal another 4-6 points. But you can't count on being usually healthy or lucky in the shootout. It is just isn't realistic. So all things being equal, the Thrasher project as a 83 point team.

Will they be a young scrappy team like Phoenix and St. Louis were last year or like the disappointing and disinterested Toronto Maple Leafs? If they are the former the games could still be exciting to watch even if they don't make the playoffs. It is up to the players, coach and GM to put an interesting hockey product out there for us to watch.

PS: How much of a difference would it make if they Thrashers added Mike Knuble? Using the Ryder PC model he's worth about 4-5 standing points and if his addition knocks Brad Larsen out of the lineup (worth essentially zero standing points) that pushes the Thrashers closer to the 89-90 point territory where a string of good fortune (health and shootouts) could have them fighting for the playoffs.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Blond Ambition: John Anderson Takes on Atlanta

I had the opportunity to hear new Head Coach John Anderson speak on both Friday and Saturday during Prospect Camp. Friday was the season ticket holder event and Saturday was a blogger Q&A with him. My thanks the Thrashers organization for holding both events and allowing me to gather the material that appears below.

First my notes on the Friday event. Anderson was introduced as coach by Don Waddell. DW mentioned that he had interviewed five candidates and wanted to conduct a through search despite all the fan hubbub about the slow process. DW said that when Anderson was announced, Kari Lehtonen was excited about having his old coach back again. At this point, Anderson started talking. He spoke in a calm matter-of-fact manner without any bluster.

Anderson said he wants to see the team do a better job shutting down the passing lanes so Kari sees more long shots from the blueline [and the stats confirm that the Thrashers surrender more shots from high scoring areas than the average team] and that his defensemen have the green light. That when Mark Popovic played for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks they noticed what a great skater he was but scored very few points. After he was acquired by the Thrashers he asked Popovic "why so few points?" Popovic had been told to stop at the blue line. JA said he told him "well if you have open ice you have the green light to skate up here" and his points saw a big increase. He said he wants to see less rimming the puck around the boards and more outlet passing (hello Garnet Exelby!)

JA also mentioned that he knows not only many of the young kids but also veteran Todd White who played for him back when he was in the Blackhawks system. At one point White asked Anderson if he was good enough to make the NHL. He told him "you just need someone up there who believes in you and who will give you an opportunity." He said he already told White that 11 goals [last season] just wasn't good enough and he should shoot for 30 next year.

Anderson was asked which AHL guys might surprise Atlanta fans. He prefaced his remark by saying every AHL guy has to earn their way to the NHL and the highlighted Boris Valabik, Colin Stuart, Bryan Little and Ondrej Pavelec. He told a little anecdote about teaching Little to use a cut back move to make opposing defensemen move laterally which would allow Little to get around them for a shot on goal. He said that Little has the potential to take a big step forward this season. [He listed the same players on Saturday at the blogger roundtable and Sterling was absent both times FWIW.]

When a questioner criticized Ilya Kovalchuk for being a minus player, Anderson interjected. He said that plus/minus was very much affected by the quality of the team and that best way to interpret plus/minus is look at players at the extremes. "If someone is way ahead or behind the team average that tells you something about that particular player." He pointed that Kovalchuk was on a team were most players were minus and he was pretty close to average in that respect. [As a stats guy I endorse Anderson's use of the plus/minus statistic in this way. It is MOST useful in comparing teammates to one another, comparing players on different teams is a mistake.]

Anderson also addressed the criticism that the Wolves-Thrashers affiliation is a big organizational problem. He said that the person who wrote the article that first appeared in Toronto never spoke to him before writing it. He credited Craig Custance (AJC) for coming to Chicago watching a game, practice and talking to Anderson. "I explained the Thrasher system and the Wolves systems and let him judge if they were the same or not." He also pointed out that certain plays which are designed for Kovalchuk or Enstrom would not work in the AHL "because we don't have anyone like Kovalchuk or like Enstrom--we have to plays that fit the people we have." He mentioned that communication between the levels had increased notably after the lockout and that he spoke weekly with Bob Hartley on the phone.

When there was talk about whether Kovalchuk would stay in Atlanta, Anderson volunteered that it was his objective to change the culture in the locker room. "we have to make this a place that he wants to be. In the future, if a player does leave Atlanta we want that to be a hard choice [because he liked it here]."

Here are my questions on Saturday.

Thrashers Talons: You mentioned watching Thrashers first periods up in Chicago before taking the ice with the Wolves. When you were watching did you have any ideas about how you would handle the team if you were in charge?

John Anderson: Well, one thing about being a coach is that you can't just sit back and enjoy a game, you're always analyzing what is going on. That goes for both teams, not just the Thrashers but also the team they are playing. One thing we want to be careful about is 'if it's not broke don't fix'--we'll try some things that worked for me with the Wolves and if that doesn't work we'll try something different.

(Falconer's Take: Sometimes coaches are strongly committed to a particular way to play hockey. After hearing Anderson speak twice it is very clear that he is not wedded to any one particular 'system' or approach to hockey. He takes an attitude of being open to change and being flexible. Anderson emphasized that winning is what matters and he will employ whatever system that seems to work the best.)

TT: You had success at every level you coached but you had to wait a long time before getting your shot in the NHL. Did you have any previous moments where you though you might come to the NHL?

JA: Back in the [Wolves'] IHL days, I was interviewed for the job in Anaheim. After we won the Turner Cup, Pat Quinn interviewed me [for Toronto]. Then Dave Lewis talked to be about coming to Boston, but then he was fired at the end of that season so perhaps that turned out for the best.

TT: I've have a chance to watch your Wolves teams play on the road and opposing fans often gripe that the Wolves have better players. Certainly the Thrashers are not favored to win, how does being an underdog affect your approach?

JA: Bad teams don't win championships. When Hershey won and Milwaukee won and Hamilton won the Calder Cup they were not favored to win. Our owner in Chicago had very high expectations. When Kevin Chevaldayoff built our practice facility he modeled it on the Thrashers NHL facility. We have an underwater treadmill--and we're not a NHL team. People come to Chicago and then they don't want to play anywhere else.

Another reason we won is that Atlanta allowed us some flexibility. Our relationship may not have been perfect--much of what has been written is just not true. We have different skill level than in the NHL so we don't always use the same plays. But we spoke weekly about both individual players and systems. Bob's bark is a bit bigger than mine so sometimes it was useful to have him reinforce certain points with players.

(Falconer's Take: I got the impression that Anderson has heard the "the Wolves won because they have better players" charge too many times for his taste. But I thought it was fair to ask him about it. Anderson is correct that it takes hard work to win--even if you're talented. The other team is not going to bow down, you have to take it too them. Most years in the NHL the regular season champion does not win the Stanley Cup.)

TT: You have mentioned before that you are good friends with Washington Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. His team in many ways is similar to yours--a Russian superstar with a young players--did he tell you anything about what to expect at this level such as 'this is harder' or so forth?

JA: After the first game I spoke with Bruce and he said "you know it's not THAT much different" then they played Philadelphia and he said "wow--this is MUCH faster [than the AHL]." We were talking about the fact that we face each other the very first game of the season, and I said "you know we should just link up at center ice and duke it out--it will be our first real NHL fight of our careers [laughter in the room]. He said to me that it wouldn't be a bad year if you [meaning the Thrashers] finish second in the division, I told him I'm not going to let Melrose beat me! [more laughter]. But to be serious for a moment, they will be a tough challenge, they are big, fast and explosive and he knows how to take advantage of that--but we're good too.

(Falconer's Take: Well, we certainly can expect these two coaches to go at it pretty hard each time we play the Capitals. With Barry Melrose being added to the division the pre- and post-game press chats could end up being very entertaining.)

My Anderson Assessment
To be completely candid, I was not wild about the hiring of Coach Anderson at the time (I liked the coaches that San Jose and Florida ended up hiring better.) I expressed some concerns about him in this post. I still worry that his offensive approach will only worsen the Thrashers historic defensive woes. Time will tell, I suppose.

Having said all that, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised after hearing him this weekend. I was very impressed with how he carries himself. He comes across as a very genuine and very balanced sort of guy. He strikes me as someone I would WANT to play hard for. He seemed very steady and self confident without being cocky or preening.

I worry that he is too optimistic about the Thrashers roster and talent level ("we have one of the best scorers in the NHL and one of the best goalies") and I'm afraid he could be in for a rough games. There are going to be many nights where the Thrashers might play their hearts out and still lose because the other team simply has more talent and sometimes talent trumps effort.

But here's the bottom line -- if John Anderson can get his young roster to buy in and believe that they can win, that will become a huge plus for this team. Some coaches can get player to run through walls for them and Anderson just might be that sort of guy. I still wouldn't place any money on the team qualifying for the playoffs, but if Anderson can motivate a collection of young guys to play their hearts out -- they could be an entertaining team to watch in 2008-09 season.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Meet the GM Summary 7-10

Don Waddell had one of his Meet the GM events before Prospect Camp this morning. I attended thanks to a long time poster over at who let me tag along. Here is a summary of key points that I found interesting. I'm been typing this up for a while and have to leave to go play hockey in 5 minutes so please ignore the typos.

DW started off as usual with a recap of recent events and the situation. His demeanor was very subdued and he probably expected some angry responses. He ran through the Hainsey signing and Anderson hire and the possibility of trading with teams in cap trouble. He mentioned that Valabik may be the meanest player he's ever seen play hockey (which makes me wonder why we just re-signed Boulton since nobody is really afraid of Boulton's fighting skills). Bogosian has the skill, body and mindset for the NHL (sounds like he is highly likely to make the roster out of camp). The Nikulin contract is simply waiting proof of the out clause in his Russian contract and a signature on a Thrashers contract.

Sometimes at these things the most interesting thing isn't the exact words DW uses but how he delivers them. One example was his discussion of the salary cap which rose to $56.7 million this year. He mentioned how the team spent over the cap max when it was set at $39 and $44 million. Based on body language and inflection I think both he and the owners were genuinely shocked at how quickly the cap has gone up and he indicated that they will not be anywhere close to hitting the maximum.

For those of you interested in the financial side of things check out the Forbes November 2007 estimates. The Thrashers probably saw solid revenue growth last year but may very well see a decline in revenue this year (speculation on my part). Even with revenue sharing in $10 million neighborhood it is hard to see how they make any money this season.

The first question was about why the Thrashers did not sign any restricted free agents (RFA) to an offer sheet--"are you afraid of making Brian Burke angry?" (laughter in the room). DW said that most teams would match and that if the player was of high quality it might cost three 1st round picks. Under the current CBA you MUST develop your own players and losing three 1st rounder is simply too much to pay in most cases.

He also spoke to the issue of UFA misses and said that certain cities are more appealing and that "at end of the day the players get to choose" some guys only want to play in Canada or in certain regions. He said all the Southeast Division teams get disrespected to some degree. (blogger editorial comment: Florida landed Stillman, Washington Theodore, Tampa signed what seems like 35 forwards--the division explanation only goes so far. Back in 2005 players wanted to come here because of our young talent, things have changed.) In the case of Brian Campbell, the family is from Ontario and playing for an original six team really meant something to them. He concluded by saying "we have to make this a place where players want to be" which seemed to me to be a tacit admission that it is not right now. "Last year we had a bad year, we're not starting over, but we do have a 'fresh' start."

Later he mentioned that they had been active in targeting some free agents but they were unwilling to add extra years on the end of contracts. "Giving 34 + players five year deals is something we're not going to do." (editorial comment: Hainsey was one of the youngest UFA and I endorse a shift away from signing veterans entering their decline phase. Notice that the Sharks almost never do this.)

Question: If we're rebuilding why didn't we deal more veterans at the deadline? Even if the team sneaked into the playoffs they weren't going anywhere? DW: "The return on the Hossa trade dictated our strategy, if we received mostly draft picks we probably would have made some more trades, but we wanted to give the new guys and the remaining guys a shot at the playoffs even if it was a long shot. I can tell you we didn't turn down any 1st round pick type offers, the offers were for lower picks."

The question about whether Kovalchuk would re-sign or not came up. Someone also suggested that given his plus/minus maybe Kovalchuk shouldn't be kept. There was zero indication from him that they are considering trading Kovalchuk. "He's the most important player on our team and we have to find a way to support him." He indicated that he talked to Kovy while in the head coach hiring process. He said Anderson's style should fit Kovy's love of scoring. But more than scoring Kovy wants to win and we have to do more of that.

Someone asked about being below the salary floor. DW "We're at the floor--well, we will be once you figure Lehtonen's contract. We're at $36-37 million now and Bogosian's incentive clauses will add up to nearly $4 million, we'll probably be in the mid-$40 [million] range." This is another indication that Bogosian is likely to make the team. The only thing about that statement is Bogosian is unlikely to achieve all of those incentive bonuses so his end-of-the-year cap number is highly likely to come in below $4 million even if he has a fantastic season.

Perhaps the most distressing part of the morning for me was when someone said "I understand that the team doesn't want to make crazy offers to UFA, but surely there is someone out there who could have improved our collection of forwards?" In response Don Waddell said they were still looking at C and RW free agents. Then he ticked off the roster of forwards. A short version of it went like this: "Kozlov-should be better, Christensen-should be better with more opportunity, Perrin--could improve, Todd White--should be better, Chris Thorburn--showed us he can play at a higher level, etc."

Editorial Comment: essentially he emphasized the upside of every returning forward. I assume this was a bit of rose colored glasses for the season ticket holders but and not an accurate picture of the organization's internal risk/reward assessement. His answer didn't include any of the downside risks at all such as, Perrin (I love him) probably had a career year and will be hard pressed to top it. Or the possibility that Kozlov will continue the downwards trend towards Zhitnikville as he gets closer to 40.

Someone asked if the NHL could intervene like the NBA recently did to try and facilitate a settlement in the dispute between ownership. DW indicated that both the NHL and the NBA have encouraged the litigants to reach a settlement and it was not for a lack of trying.

Then we got to the big ball of wax question by the poster DucksThrashers of SmirkinChicken. The heart of the question went something like this: "After ten years at the helm you have very little success with the Thrashers and the US Olympic team--either you're the unluckiest GM in the business--or you're just not up to the task. Why should you still have a job?"

The answer went on for a while. He began by saying that they had been unlucky in some instances such as the Snyder death, then he started talking about Curt Fraser and Bob Hartley as his head coachs--this part I found confusing because it seemed like he might be saying that the coaches hadn't gotten the most out of his roster--then Anderson interjected and said something like "finally he made the right choice for coach" which got some laughs in tense room. After that Waddell regrouped and shifted away from coaches and said "fans don't like to hear this but we are a business and I'm upfront and I've made some moves that worked and some that didn't but we've never miss our budget. Some organizations take on huge contracts with big long term risks and I've always been very conscious about balacing our needs today with needs five years down the road. I've been conservative, maybe too conservative at times about making a big move. I guess if anything you could say I've been too cautious." Editorial comment: full credit to DucksThrashers for asking the question that needed to be asked. I found DW's respone that he has been too cautious to be accurate, but after seeing the team do very little this off season--so far--there is no evidence that he is breaking with that pattern in terms of fixing the team's significant needs.

Believe it not, there were even more things said but theses were the things that struck me as most interesting. Next I'll post some things that Coach John Anderson said.

I want to finish with this final note. I think the Thrashers really needed to get some of this stuff out there. I know many fans were very curious about what the organization was thinking after we came up mostly empty in free agency after hearing some big talk at the townhall meeting last spring. Question on salary cap, re-signing Kovalchuk and other things needed to be addressed.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

GM Translator 2000 EZ

Just in case you missed the Canucks and Blues GMs had a cute little bit of brinkmanship this week as each signed a RFA player from the other's team. Both GMs choose to match the offer sheet (and in both cases overpaid the player in my opinion).

This was a much more civil and amusing exchange than the recent Brian Burke versus Kevin Lowe insult fest. Well St. Louis Gametime has an amusing post in which he uses the GM Translator 2000 EZ which tells what each REALLY meant as opposed to what he said. What the GM Translator reveals is not exactly PG-13, but it certainly made me laugh.

Who knows I may have to use this device at some during the Thrashers upcoming season.

Thrashers Prospect Camp July 9th

I headed up to Prospect Camp in Duluth today to check in on the young guys. In the past the rink was always meat-locker-cold but today you could get away with wearing a t-shirt.

I said hello to Wolves GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and asked him about Grant Lewis. He said Lewis had a strong second half for the Wolves before injuries derailed him and when he was healthy again Arturs Kulda was in the lineup and playing well, so he sat out the rest of the playoffs. No decision on a new coach for the Chicago Wolves yet.

I also meet the father of John Albert who had made the drive from Ohio to watch his son play. John Albert was a freshman forward for Ohio State this year and put up 21 points in 41 games as a 18/19 year old. Many college players spend a year or two in junior B leagues like the USHL and don't start their freshmen year until 19 or even 20, so it is a positive sign that Albert averaged half a point per game at that age in the CCHA.

Before I being comments on individual players I want to make two disclaimers for all the many friends and family of camp attendees who will google "Prospect Camp" and end up reading this blog post:

  1. It is simply impossible to see everything that is going on out there on the ice, so whatever I write here is going to impressionistic rather than comprehensive. Just because I don't mention somebody doesn't mean they are having a bad camp. I only have one set of eyes and there many players out there.
  2. Prospect Camp is more important for some players than others. Last year I was worried about Tobias Enstrom's play at Prospect Camp but he had alread signed a contract and he was simply using it to warm up for the NHL camp. This year Riley Holzapfel appears to be taking the Enstrom approach. In contrast, players without contracts have more of an incentive to impress team officials who are watching in the stands.

First Impressions.
The first day of camp it is hard to just sit back and watch all the players. I walked in today with a keen interest in new faces such as the 2008 draft picks and the Europeans who have never come over before like Enlund, Lasu and Lucenius. So here are my impressions.

Zach Bogosian: I expected him to look a bit bigger. This guy has a strong skating stride. His shot is low and hard. In the 4 on 4 scrimmage he aggressively pinched towards the net with the puck. He scored a nice tap-in goal as the finisher on a 2>1 play. Later he carried the puck behind the offensive net and tried a warp around. Then he bulldozed past a forward-turned-defender and drove right to the crease with the puck. On the defensive side of the puck, he just ate up some of the opposing forwards when they tried to carry the puck against him. He looked very good to me.

Enlund: Looked the most confident of the three Europeans. In the shooting drills he was very deliberate about pausing and picking a spot to aim for. I'm not sure if he does this in games but the pause is too long and NHL defensemen and goalies will take advantage of this. Maybe it was just a shooting drill habit--I'll try to watch his release in the next scrimmage.

Esposito: Very flashy stickhandler. At times he dekes his way around defenders. He obviously has a lot of skill but you could see the downside too. Often times he would make a couple of great moves and then waste it all by making a bad pass or a turnover.

Postma: He looked pretty solid in the scrimmage. He picked the puck off of Esposito once. I need to watch him more next time.

Will O'Neil: A couple of times he was almost beaten wide but managed to just barely stay even with the opposing forward. I'm afraid that when he moves up to the next level quicker forwards are going to just walk around him.

Riley Holzapfel: He wasn't nearly as impressive as last camp. Then again he has signed a contract and doesn't need to impress this week but in September when NHL camp opens.

Spencer Mahacek: I like his chances of becoming a 3rd/4th line NHL player. Not flashy at all but determined and competitive. Appears to be willing to go to the slot area on offense.

John Albert: Unleashed two really nice shots that I noticed. Makes me wonder why his college stats were so assist-heavy and goal-lite, he looks like he can fire it.

Rylan Kaip: Getting pretty old as a prospect, but he still has some potential as a 4th line checker. He protected the puck well in traffic and was good along the wall. If he has a future it is as PK guy and defensive specialist.

Vinny Saponari: I didn't watch him much today, but he made two nice offensive plays that got my attention. On one play he made a very tight curl out of the offensive corner for a quality scoring chance.

Arturs Kulda and Grant Lewis: I liked them both last camp and haven't changed my mind. Lewis has a NHL sized frame and smoothe stride. Kulda has the ability to make plays quickly and under pressure. Kulda scored a goal at the end of breakaway drill for Team White and was mobbed by his teammates like he had just won a major victory for them. Not sure what that was about but it was funny to watch.

Zach Redmond: When a guy is picked in the 7th round I keep my expectations low. I wasn't watching for him but Redmond made a couple of nice plays that surprised me. One time he drove hard to the net past a defender and fired for a decent scoring opportunity.

Painchaud: The positive--he was very involved and did a lot of good things out there. The negative--he has the most pro experience of anyone at camp and therefore ought to be a bit more polished.

Matt Siddall: Much like Kaip, if he has a NHL future it will be as a defensive specialist. He made some nice subtle plays, but he's nearly 24 and almost all NHL players make it by age 25-26.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Scott Burnside Gets It Half Right

Scott Burnside writes in his latest ESPN column that NHL owners got the economic system they wanted after the lockout. The switch to a cap/floor system limited the rate of growth on player salaries. It also fundamentally transformed the NHL into a "get the most for your dollar" salary efficiency landscape. Burnside is absolutely correct about this:

League officials have quietly said the beauty of the cap is it creates a "survival of the fittest" environment. They were talking about the on-ice product, suggesting that with a narrow gap between what teams must spend to reach the floor ($40.7 million this coming season) and the ceiling ($56.7 million), only the best hockey people will succeed

I've mentioned this before, but smart teams are going to develop sophisticated approaches that help them squeeze every bit of value of each dollar they spend. The Thrashers employ a more "seat of your pants" style and results have been pretty much a disaster. In the three season under the salary cap, the Thrashers cap payroll has ranked #1, #10 ,#23 and yet the team has finished #19, #12, #29 in the standings, a poor return on investment. Burnside correctly names Atlanta as one of the three teams most mis-managed in the cap era.

The bottom line is, if you don't know how to run your team -- Atlanta, Florida, Toronto, come on down -- then you reap what you sow. [b]In most markets, except Atlanta, that means a changing of the guard; and the team, in theory, brings in smarter hockey people who make better decisions and the team gets better[/b] and makes more money and stops complaining about the salary cap going up.

Burnside goes on to argue that the New NHL shouldn't just be about the survival of the fittest among GMs but markets themselves.

If teams can't cut it, even with revenue sharing and cost certainty in place, they should be gone. Simple as that. Shut the doors and say good night, Irene.

Can't hack it in South Florida? See ya.

Made a hash of it in Atlanta? See y'all later.

Fans won't turn out in Phoenix? Put that cactus in a box and catch you later.

At the very worst, if these franchises can't make it under the system they shut down the game to put in place, the NHL should turn out the lights and turn them on again in places that care about the game.

Now I'm all for accountability, but there is problem of logical inference here. We simply don't know if Atlanta or Florida will support a decent NHL team, why? Because they've never had any sustained hockey product worth getting excited about. Name me more than 5 NHL markets that will sell well if the hockey product is poor? Other than Toronto or the NY Rangers you can't do it. When the Red Wings trotted out terrible teams fan stayed away and Illitch had to give away cars at games. When the Blackhawks moldered the fans sat on their walletts. Heck, the Bruins regularly field decent regular season squads but fans still don't step up and fill that arena.

Burnside takes a perfectly legitimate argument--the cap puts a premium on good management skills (a trend also apparent in the NFL and NBA)--and then goes all "Bitter Canadian" on southern markets who have never seen a good hockey product. I'd like to say that I'm shocked and surprised by this, but anyone who spends more than a hour at HFBoards Business of Hockey Board has seen this tired routine before, "the south won't support hockey, move those teams back to Winnipge, Quebec, or Hamilton!" or this one "the market has spoken the south won't support hockey" which conveniently ignores the fact that Winnipeg, Quebec and even Edmonton struggled when their clubs were on the bad side of an unfavorable exchange rate.

Let's move away from southern xenophobia and examine the facts. The south does support hockey when a) the product is good and b) the market is big. Dallas is very successful. Tampa put out a terrible hockey product for their first decade and fans stayed away, now that the product is good the fans buy tickets. The Thrashers are like the early Lightning--early enthusiasm (the Thrasher averaged 17,000 their first year) faded after season after season of losing. But both Atlanta and Miami are huge markets where hockey could do well if they gave their customers something to get excited about.

The other two markets, Nashville and Carolina are well managed (which was Burnside's original point you may recall) but they still struggle because their market's about a fraction of that of Dallas, Atlanta and Tampa. In the long run those cities may simply be too small to sustain even well run franchises. Nashville is extremely effcient with their budget (the Oakland As of the NHL) with only modest fan support so far.

What is most silly and short sighted about Burnside's article is that he wants to take away franchises from two markets that have the capacity to support a NHL team (Atlanta and Miami), but he doesn't mention the two markets which are probably too small (Carolina and Nashville) because they are well managed. But you need both to succeed in the south and the truth is that it would be much easier to hire good management in Atlanta and Miami than it would be to add 3-4 million more people to Raleigh and Nashville. But hey, don't let facts and logic get in the way of a good anti-southern rant Scott!

Let's see what happens if we move the Thrashers to say Winnipeg and finish in the basement year after year. I'll bet people will just flock to that 14,000 seat stadium and shell out their hard earned money to watch the Yannic Tremblays and the Chris Tamers of the NHL season after season. I'll bet people in Quebec would just go crazy if their NHL franchise's biggest addition over the summer was a household name like Ron Hainsey.

A Fork in the Road

One week ago I wrote that the team was entering perhaps the most important non regular season week in team history. Fan apathy is very high, the hockey product is not very good and unrestricted free agency was a good opportunity to change the momentum of the franchise. A week later nothing has changed that negative momentum.

I've been doing a lot of work on the numbers but today I'll just post an overview. Free agency is still going on and things can still happen so we can't close the book on UFA just yet.

Thrashers Projected Payroll
Right now I have a 22 man Thrashers roster at $36-37 million with Lehtonen probably due a $1-2 more than his qualifying offer. (Before I was doing projections on a 20 man roster, but with injuries most teams need to carry 22 men.) As of this moment the Thrashers are basically tied with the LA Kings for last place in the NHL in cap salary for 2008-09:

Projected NHL Cap Expenditures Rank
25 $42.5 NYI (salary in millions)
26 $41.6 VAN
27 $41.6 CBJ
28 $40.0 NSH
29 $36.7 ATL
30 $36.5 LAK

Thrashers Talent Base
I'm working on a forecasting model for the next season. It is far from perfect but I'm generally satisfied with the results. The Thrashers are improved on the blueline with the Hainsey for Zhitnik swap but Armstrong and Chirstensen do not replace the scoring of Hossa an Dupuis (not to mention Recchi) so my model has the Thrashers finishing in the bottom five in the NHL again. Here are the bottom five NHL teams according to 2008-09 projections. The Thrashers are much closer to competing for a top 3 lottery pick than they are to making the playoffs right now.

2008-09 Projected NHL Standings (bottom)
25 ATL 81 points
26 STL 78
27 PHX 78
28 LAK 76
29 NYI 73
30 CBJ 73

The Next Move
Which direction is this team headed? The harsh reality is that the talent level on the Thrashes is so far removed from that of say the Red Wings that this club is not going to be a Stanley Cup contender by adding a 2 or 3 players. They might make the playoffs by adding 2 or 3 quality players.

Really there are two strategies the Thrashers could pursue: 1) win now to try and draw more fans and keep their revenue sharing money; or 2) go with the kids and play Sterling, Armstrong, Christensen, Stuart, LaVallee and likely struggle but give these kid a look in the NHL and figure out who can play at this level.

Based upon the promises made at the last Town Hall Meeting, where season ticket holders were told to expect "two defensemen and a forward" to be added via free agency or trades, I anticipated the franchise spending $46-48 million on payroll and pursing the "win now" strategy. In fact, it looks does appear that Thrashers took that approach and offered substantial sums to Brian Campbell and Brian Rolston who turned us down for other clubs.

Let's pause for a moment and imagine that the Thrashers did sign Campbell, Rolston and Brendan Morrison (C) for around $15-16 million combined. That pushes the payroll up to around $48 million. Would it have been enough to contend? Well, my projection model puts that team at 93 points which would have the team rank 16th in a 30 team league or right on the cusp of returning to the playoffs. If the Thrashers had signed three quality players last week it would not have made them a Cup contender, it would not have even made them a lock for the playoffs. That's how far down this team is right now.

Rebuilding Again?
If I were a deep pocketed owner I'd choose option #2 and attempt to build a real genuine Stanley Cup contender rather than a marginal playoff team. That pathway requires absorbing multi-million dollar losses in the short run in order to build a championship level roster. I'd play the kids this year and knowing that the club will probably end up in the front row of the deep 2009 NHL draft and then have my core of talent needed to build around. I'd play the kids this year knowing the team is almost certain to lose a chunck of their revenue sharing monies the following season (which seems almost a certainty at this point).

The major problem with strategy #2 is that you run a risk of losing your marquee (and best) player Ilya Kovalchuk who may not have the patience for another year of losing. If you don't think Kovalchuk will re-sign in the summer of 2009, the team is better to deal him now and get maximum return rather than hold another rental sale in the spring of 2009-2010 season. Of course, trading away your marquee player for picks and prospects will also cost the franchise more money in unsold tickets in the short run. At this point the Thrashers have been selling "the future" for so many seasons that few fans in Atlanta are going to get all tingly about watching the kids.

What Next?
Don Waddell is holding one of the Meet the GM events on Friday and it will be interesting to hear (well sort of--I'm really sick of hearing just talk at this point) about the team's "strategy" or "vision" for the future. It certainly looks like they attempted to execute a "contend now" blueprint on July 1st only to have it blow up in their face.

If the team is still intent on the "contend now" route, the available options are dwindling fast. There are a couple of clubs in cap trouble and they will be looking to move high salaried players--and if the Thrashers organization has anything it has cap space, so trades are the most likely route to roster improvement.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the team with the most cap trouble and they appear to be a team the Thrashers could exploit--until you look at their roster. They need to move a goaltender and the Thrashers already have Lehtonen, Hedberg and Pavelec. So there is no room to absorb the Bulin Wall unless a goalie is traded away. Now I can imagine a scenario where the team acquired Khabibulin for cheap (or perhaps Chicago would even give us a pick to take his fat contract), play him in goal for the final year of his deal year and move either Lehtonen or Pavelec for a quality young player or prospect--Ottawa and Detroit still need a young goalie and have D prospects that make my mouth water. But all of this is just speculation on my part and not that likely to happen.

At this point it is very unclear what the Thrashers organization is trying to do. After promising season ticket holders major improvements very little has happened. Atlanta has now joined Edmonton and NY Islanders as one of the three least desirable places to play in the NHL. Faced with this unpleasant reality, what will the team do? Will they stick to option #1 contending and go after Demitra and others who remain unsigned? Or will they take option #2 and absorb the financial hit, play the kids, perhaps trade Kovalchuk and then draft Hedman or Tavares next summer?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Thrashers Payroll Update

I've seen some people talk about the Thrashers payroll being in the high $20s or low $30s, but that's not accurate. If you actually look at a 20 man NHL roster and include the qualifying offers for Lehtnonen and Sterling and Zhitnik's buyout the team sits at $35 million right now.

2008 Cap Cost/Player
$6.4 Kovalchuk
$3.7 Kozlov
$2.4 T. White
$1.2 Armstrong
$0.9 Little
$0.8 Christensen
$0.8 Perrin
$0.6 Sterling (RFA Qualifying Offer)
$0.5 Thorburn
$0.8 Slater
$0.5 Larsen
$0.5 C. Stuart
$4.5 Hainsey
$2.7 Havelid
$1.4 Exelby
$1.2 Klee
$0.9 Enstrom
$0.9 Valabik
$2.2 Lehtonen (Qualifying offer)
$1.2 Hedberg
$1.2 Buyout (Zhitnik)

Now Lethonen will probably end up re-signing for $3-4 million, let's assume $4 million, now the Thrashers sit at $37 million. If the team decides to carry 3 bench players instead of the NHL minimum 20, so if you need to toss in roughly another $2 million for three more roster players. Now you have a Thrashers roster sitting at $39--which is still $2 under the salary floor.

So realistically the Thrashers not nearly as far from the salary floor as many fans think. Of course even if the Thrashers add a $3 million player the team is nowhere close to being competitive as presently constituted. Over on HFboards there is a thread about the worst roster fo 2008. Nearly every poster mentions the Thrashers in their top three.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Ron Hainsey Analysis

This is a very long post, so I'll begin with the conclusion for those of you with ADD or burgers to flip on the 4th of July. I was not excited about this when it was first announced. The Thrashers really need elite talent and Ron Hainsey doesn't belong in that category. The truth is I've only seen Hainsey play a few times mostly because I find Columbus games boring with their Ken Hitchcock trapping style. But I've been crunching the numbers and they say that this was a solid signing with the potential to become a very good signing with time. Hainsey is still relatively young and he has take some significant steps forward lately, if that continues this will be a great signing.

First of all he comes from a better defensive team than Atlanta. The Blue Jackets still haven't made the playoffs, but their defense has made big strides the the last two seasons going from poor (26th out of 30 teams) in 2006 to average (16th) in 2007 to good (8th in 2008). The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs last year because of a weak offense (29th), not their defense.

Now part of that major improvement on defense is the effect of hiring Coach Ken Hitchcock and his very tight defensive systems. It is noteworthy that as the Columbus D made steady improvements Ron Hainsey received more ice time, so hopefully he learned a few tricks from Hitchcock.

OK let's talk about some numbers. The most important number of all is this one: 27. Ron Hainsey is still in his peak years 25-30 and this five year deal ends with his age 32 season. I've ripped the Thrashers multiple times for throwing money at players entering their decline phase of their career, so I must give them credit for this--it appears they have learned from their mistakes.

"(Hainsey) is at the age now where you start to see the peak for a typical defenseman," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Since I've been here, we've seen his overall competitive level go up significantly, and that's allowed him to play more minutes against better players.

Another important number is 13, as in Hainsey was taken 13th overall in the 2000 Draft by Montreal. When a guy is taken that the scouts saw some serious potential. The problem was that Hainsey didn't live up to that potential. In fact, he spent quite a few seasons playing for Montreal's AHL club putting up some decent numbers but not really playing defense all that well. The Canadians had three regular defensemen out of the lineup and called him up in 2005-06 but Columbus snagged him under the re-entry wavier rule.

I have a lot of numbers below but one thing they doesn't show is maturity. It looks to me like Hainsey is a talented guy who just took a while to grow up. When he was in the Montreal system his nickname was "Hollywood Hainsey" for his partying ways. Columbus fans joke about his Orlando Bloom looks. But it seems that he started doing the hard work it takes to become a NHL regular.

: "I’ll never forget him pulling me into his office after last season and telling me how I had to get in better shape. He had Barry Brennan (Columbus’ strength and conditioning coach) work up a program for me to follow all summer. I didn’t know what to expect, but I started the training a lot earlier than usual – and I don’t remember ever lifting weights so many days a week as I did this summer." That fall Hitchcock commented: "To me, his fitness level is the big difference. This is the time of year last year when he started to run down. Well, he made dramatic improvement, and now he's seeing the reward."

Hainsey grew up a Whalers fan-I'm hoping that he just hates the Carolina Hurricanes for leaving his native Connecticut. He grew up a fan of Ron Francis and our own "Chicken Parm" Ray Ferraro. Give this man a "Chicken Parm" bobblehead!

Here is some praise from Central Division opponents: "You don’t want any team to just skate through center ice,” said Blues wing Jamal Mayers. “When you have a player like Hainsey who is fast, has a strong stride and is good with the puck, well, it’s hard to slow him down." Hainsey’s skating stride seems effortless and his passes are quick and accurate.

OK, and now on to the numbers:

Ron Hainsey Even Strength Ice Time
2006: 13:32 6/of 7 on Columbus, 124/210 in the NHL (rankings, #1 = most)
2007: 15:31 3/6 on Columbus, 94/210 in the NHL
2008: 16:34 4/6 on Columbus, 71/210 in the NHL

Hainsey has seen his ES minutes per game steadily increase over the last three years as both he and Columbus improved. The last two seasons he has ranked in the to half of all defensemen in terms of ES ice time.

Ron Hainsey Even Strength Scoring Efficiency (points per 60 minutes of ice time)
2006: 1.49 2/7 on Columbus, 50/210 in the NHL
2007: 0.69 3/6 on Columbus, 160/210 in the NHL
2008: 0.59 3/6 on Columbus, 186/210 in the NHL

The interesting thing about Haisey is that his scoring at ES has really collapsed over the last three years, yet his total points have gone up? How can that be? Go see his Power Play numbers.

Ron Hainsey Power Play Ice Time
2006: 3:13 6/7 on Columbus, 83/210 in the NHL
2007: 3:44 1/6 on Columbus, 39/210 in the NHL
2008: 4:39 1/6 on Columbus, 17/210 in the NHL

Haisey has always gotten some Power Play ice time, but it really shot up the last two seasons. He ranked 39th among all NHL Defensmen a season ago and this last season he rose all the way to 17th. My assumption is that we will see both Enstrom and Haisey out their on the top PP unit and Kovalchuk will slide down to LW again.

Ron Hainsey Power Play Scoring efficiency (points per 60 minutes of ice time)
2006: 1.95 6/7 on Columbus, 144/210 in the NHL
2007: 3.53 2/6 on Columbus, 94/210 in the NHL
2008: 4.26 1/6 on Columbus, 71/210 in the NHL

Here is why Hainsey's total points have increased, he's receiving more time on the power play and he is become much more efficient in power play situations. Three season's ago his PP efficiency was below average for a NHL defenemen, then it jumped up to 94 which is close to average and last season it rose again to 71st. Nobody is going to confuse him with Nick Lidstrom, but Tobias Enstrom ranked 62nd last season, so they were had very similar efficiency rates last season.

Ron Hainsey Short Handed Ice Time
2006: 1:00 7th/7
2007: 3:37 3rd/6
2008: 1:30 5th/6

Ron Hainsey has never been a PK guy, nor do I expect him to become one.

Ron Hainsey Plus/Minus
2006: +13 1st/7
2007: -19 6th/6
2008: -7 6th/6

The Plus/Minus chart is a bit of weird one so let's try and put everything we have learned together here and make some sense out of it. In 2005-06 Hainsey was a 3rd pairing defensemen who scored at ES but not much on PP. His ES Plus/Minus was positive on a bad defensive team. In the next two seasons Hainsey took a big jump forward in terms of his ES and PP ice time and he he scored almost all points on the PP and very little at ES. His plus/minus got worse.

I'm going to make a guess here. I think Ken Hitchcock came to Hainsey and said "you've got offensive skill and I'll put you on the PP unit, but at ES I want you to calm down and play it safe." As Hitchcock used Hainsey more at ES, he ended up out on the ice against some of the elite of the NHL like Zetterberg and Datsyuk and his plus/minus declined as his usage pattern changed. (Edit: OK here's a direct quote: "When I got here last season, we had to hide Ron Hainsey," Hitchcock said. "We had to try to sneak him in here and there at just the right time during the game.)

Alan Ryder's Point Contribution Rating for NHL Defensemen
2006: 31 points, Percentile Ranking 60% (100% is the very best)
2007: 70 points, Percentile Ranking 92%
2008: 79 points, Percentile Ranking 96%

Alan Ryder has a point system that divides up credit for each standing point that a NHL team earns. Ron Hainsey comes out looking VERY good under this rating system. Roughly speaking it works like this. On offense you get a positive chit for every point scored and a negative chit for your ice time--so if you play a lot and don't score you are wasting your team's ice time. On defense it works the opposite, you get positive chits for each minute you play and a negative chit for being on the ice when the other team scores--so you get rewarded for minutes where you keep the other team off the scoreboard. If you find this stuff interesting visit Hockey Analytics, there's a link on the sidebar.

Lehtonen's Next Contract

M-A Fleury a RFA young goalie just signed for 7 years at $5 per season. Both Cam Ward and M-A Fleury are comparables to Lehtonen (minus the run to the Stanley Cup Finals for both of those two). Fleury is making $5 million and Ward about $3 million.

I'm sure Lehtonen's agent will use this in his memo to Don Waddell. Personally I don't think Lehtonen is worth close to $5 million since he has been injured for significant portions of two out of three seasons. His injury in 2005-06 was a major factor in making that team miss the playoffs and it cost the Thrashers millions of dollars in post-season ticket revenue not to mention fan excitement.

If you could put some sort of games played clause in the contract I might be willing to pay him more but the CBA strictly limits bonus clauses after Joe Thornton's agent got very creative a few years ago.

If contract talks drag out we could see Pavelec and Hedberg on Opening Night in Blueland.

Thanks Readers

Thanks to all of you who have been visiting on a regular basis the last week. Traffic has been very strong lately and yesterday y'all shattered my single day record for unique visitors. The previous record was set back at the Trade Deadline when Hossa was moved to Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Thrashers Sign Hainsey

Here's my off the cuff reaction. I'll do some more digging and number crunching later.

Plus: He's 27 so the five year deal will cover his age 28, 29, 30, 31 and 32 seasons. Glad to see we're not gambling on another 33+ guy. He has some offensive upside breaking 30 points the last two seasons--which suggest he can make an outlet pass.

Even: The money is $4.5 per year which is probably more than he will be worth, but with the cap rising quickly who knows. If Hainsey proves to be a true top 4 guy this salary will look fine in another year or two. Right now I'd say Hainsey is overpaid but this contract doesn't strike me as a killer contract. Finished 2nd to last in plus/minus among the Blue Jackets regular defensemen.

Minus: He's not an impact guy and this club needs a difference maker badly. Hainsey replacing Zhitnik might save this team 10-15 goals against over the course of a season. That still leaves the Thrashers well short of respectability on the defensive side of the puck. Too bad we didn't acquire him when Montreal dropped him to waviers two seasons ago, that would have been a nice little pick up.

Botton Line: If Bogosian makes the club and both he and Hainsey push Exelby and Klee to the third pairing that might shave 20 goals against off last season's total. That would bump the Thrashers in the right direction defensively, but when you consider that the offense will be weaker with Armstrong replacing Hossa's on offense and penalty killing, the most rosey scenario I can spin out has the Thrashers simply holding their position in the standings. Even with this signing I anticipate competing for a top three lottery pick. This move isn't going keep Ilya Kovalchuk in Thrashers blue past 2010.

Cap Commitments and Spending Money 7-2

Well after the 1st day of free agency many teams are approaching their estimated budget number. Will they stop there or go over that number? It will be interesting to see how accurate this approach is when all is said and done.

Again these are approximate estimates for a 20 man NHL roster. I used the players that seemed most likely to make the team out of camp and put their cap hits into a spreadsheet. I'm still missing three players who signed yesterday. Budget = % of the cap max spent in the three previous seasons.

Budget - Current Minimal Contracts = Estimated Budget Space TEAM NAME
$54.4 - $56.7 = -$02.9 ANA
$53.8 - $31.5 = $21.7 ATL
$56.5 - $52.6 = $03.2 BOS
$49.9 - $44.1 = $05.2 BUF
$50.5 - $44.7 = $05.2 CAR
$47.9 - $34.2 = $13.2 CBJ
$54.4 - $52.3 = $01.4 CGY
$53.3 - $55.5 = -$02.8 CHI
$55.5 - $41.3 = $13.5 COL
$55.3 - $51.7 = $03.0 DAL
$56.1 - $46.0 = $09.4 DET
$53.3 - $53.6 = -$01.0 EDM
$47.4 - $46.1 = $00.8 FLA
$51.9 - $33.2 = $18.0 LAK
$49.0 - $46.9 = $01.5 MIN
$53.3 - $48.1 = $04.6 MON
$44.5 - $39.1 = $04.8 NSH
$54.3 - $52.2 = $01.4 NJD
$50.5 - $39.5 = $10.4 NYI
$54.0 - $49.6 = $03.8 NYR
$53.9 - $46.0 = $07.1 OTT
$55.9 - $54.2 = $01.0 PHI
$46.9 - $41.3 = $05.0 PHX
$47.2 - $40.4 = $06.3 PIT
$49.5 - $48.2 = $00.7 SJS
$48.7 - $48.9= -$00.9 STL
$52.6 - $50.3 = $01.6 TBL
$55.1 - $44.3 = $08.5 TOR
$55.3 - $39.8 = $14.9 VAN
$41.9 - $51.4= -$10.0 WSH

I have no idea what the Thrashers and Kings intend to do with all that money they are compelled to spend to reach the cap floor.

Top Ten Projected Budget $$ Available
$21.7 ATL
$18.0 LAK
$14.9 VAN
$13.5 COL
$13.2 CBJ
$11.5 TOR
$10.4 NYI
$09.4 DET
$07.1 OTT
$06.3 PIT

Why Nobody Wants to Come to Atlanta

Yesterday free agent defensemen Brian Campbell turned down a multi-million fortune proffered by the Thrashers and choose to sign with a team, the Chicago Blackhawks, which has made the playoffs once in the last ten seasons which plays to a half empty building most nights. Yes the Blackhawks have some exciting young talent, but still they haven't been considered an above average franchise in a long time. It is time to take stock of what this says about the Atlanta Thrashers

The Atlanta Thrashers are widely perceived as one of the least desirable places for a free agent to sign--despite the fact that they have a top notch arena, nice practice facility, great weather, a family atmosphere and lots of golf courses (I swear every NHLer plays golf) and extensive shopping (for the wives and girlfriends of course). So let's cut to the case, free agents are turning down the Thrashers money because of team management and ownership.

The Thrashers are viewed as a poorly run franchise and nobody wants to commit to spending 7 or 8 years here. Why does this perception exist? Let's review:

During his tenure Don Waddell has consistently assembled the most porous defense in the entire NHL season after season. Back in the summer of 2001 Chris Osgood's became available when the Red Wings annouced they would put him on waivers. Don Waddell was unwilling to make a trade and take on Osgood's $4 million contract. Instead the Islanders picked up Osgood off of waivers. The Thrashers went with their mismash of below average goaltenders until they finally awoke to their own mis-evaluation and signed Byron Dafoe to a contract. But Lord Byron wasn't up to the job either and Pasi Nurminen beat him out for playing time.

I remember clear as day, Don Waddell standing in front of a room full of season ticket holders saying "I know we need goaltending, I know where to get goaltending, we will get it if we need more." But Don Waddell never followed through on that promise. Instead he toyed around with marginal goalies for years and let Osgood go to a conference rival. Penny wise and pound foolish.

When the lockout was over Don Waddell looked at his defensively weak roster and concluded that signing a 3rd line checking center (Bobby Holik) and paying him scoring center money ($4.25 million per year) would somehow solve the team's leadership and character problems. This was a gross miscalculation on nearly every count. Leadership was weak all three years that Holik was a Thrasher and Holik's turn as captain was the worst year of the three. Holik did win a lot of faceoffs, but he was not a great penalty killer and he only turned up his intensity in the spring time.

After the lockout the Thrashers had high hopes of making the playoffs. Indeed the 2005-06 roster is the strongest of any team in franchise history. However, backup goalie Pasi Nurminen was lost before the season and starter Kari Lehtonen was lost in the very first game. Now here's the real kicker, Don Waddell knew that Lehtonen would be out a substantial amount of time (indeed he missed half the season) but he basically gambled that the team would muddle through.

Now there were other solutions out there on the trade market but it would have cost the team a high draft pick. Instead Don Waddell tried minor leaguers and washed up NHLers (Steve Shields), he gambled and lost. If the Thrashers had traded that draft pick and secured a real NHL goalie they would have made the playoffs. If they had made the playoffs in 2006 they would not have been under great pressure to trade away the 1st, 2nd, 3rd draft picks, Glen Metropolit and Braydon Coburn the following year to secure their first playoff appearance. Penny wise and pound foolish. Ah put for a single draft pick, an entire franchise might have been saved.

The signing of Holik to an enormous contract had a ripple effect the following season when Marc Savard was allowed to depart without any adequate replacement. Because the 3rd line center (Holik) was eating up so much of the payroll, instead the team tried smoke and mirrors. Waddell told season ticket holders instead of "signing one 100 point guy, we're hoping to get 50 points out of two centers" which sounds great until you realize that it is a slight of hand because the team must replace BOTH Savard's 97 points and Stefan's 24 points. The Thrashers brought in Metropolit and Rucchin who managed a combined 49 points before Rucchin's career ended in injury and Metro was dealt to the Blues. So the Thrashers only came up 71 points short! Even if you toss in Tkachuk's 15 points as a center that still leaves them 56 points short--not to mention the 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks expended to acquire the Tkachuk band-aid at center.

Then there is the enormous missed opportunity with the Chris Pronger trade. Everyone in the NHL knew that the Oilers were having a fire sale after Pronger demanded that he be dealt following their run to the Cup Finals. The Anaheim Ducks who already had All-Star Scott Neidermayer on their roster quickly offered a package of prospect Ladislav Smid, (the forgettable) Joffrey Lupul, 2007 1st rounder, 2nd rounder in 2008 and conditional 1st in 2008. The Thrasher could have topped that offer with what they later dealt away for Zhitnik and the Tkachuk rental: Braydon Coburn, 2007 1st and 3rd and 2008 2nd rounder and Glen Metropolit. If the Thrashers had made that deal instead of the Ducks this franchise would have immediately become a serious contender in the NHL--today the Thrashers are the team that free agents spurn.

Finally, there is Don Waddell and his management team. Waddell doesn't have anyone on his staff who has held a high ranking position with another NHL franchise. There is no one to challenge him or offer him perspective.

Look at the Red Wings where former NHLer Jim Nill and NHLer Mark Howe are around to offer their advice, perspective and contacts. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman is there and I'm sure he offers candid opinions in private. Then there is Jimmy Devellano who helped draft the Islanders dynasty and the Red Wings. Now former player Steve Yzerman is there as well to add his advice.

Who do the Thrashers have? Basically Don Waddell, who played 1 NHL game and who spent one season with Detroit as when the repeated as Cup champions in 1997-98. Assistant V.P. Larry Simmons is a financial guy (every team needs one) and never played hockey at any level that I'm aware of. Director of Player Personnel Mark Dobson never played hockey at a high level (St. Louis University has a team?). When the Thrashers are evaluating a player their management team has essentially zero NHL experience as players, one season of experience in NHL management prior to Atlanta and I'm guessing relatively few contacts around the NHL.

When you compare the hockey experience, contacts and background of the Thrashers to that of the Red Wings or other teams--well frankly it looks like the Thrashers are run by an IHL alumni group while the Red Wings are run by an NHL alumni group. Perhaps one reason the Thrashers make so many mis-judgements about players is that the organization lacks sufficient contacts to vet new players. I'll bet the Red Wings organization can get fifteen opinions about a prospective player at the drop of a hat.

The really sad thing is that I like Don Waddell, Mark Dobson and Larry Simmons. They are not jerks or pompous ego mainiacs. They all seem like decent people who work hard and give it their best. But you don't get points for effort in the NHL, you only get credit for results. Right now the results suggest that this is an IHL management team running a NHL franchise. Again, I don't question their effort, but the results suggest that their talents might be better applied at the minor league level than at the NHL level. The NHL is an extremely competitive work environment and the Thrashers management is losing that competition so far.

Frankly it really pains me to write this. I'd much rather be talking about a glowing Thrasher future--but there isn't any glowing future. Instead what we have is a cascade of past mistakes that have resulted in a NHL team that no free agent wants to sign and play for--and truthfully I don't blame them.

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