I remember back in high school, sitting at the computer hacking away at yet another essay, all the while secretly pining for a new PlayStation, which had just been released. It looked fantastic, and I knew I would enjoy it.
My mother, seeing the gleam in my eye, said, "you know, you could always just save your money now and buy the newer, fancier version later on and be just as happy if not moreso."
I took her advice, tucked the intended money away, and have been watching that savings grow after tacking on the profit from selling my brand new PlayStation 3 on eBay. Maybe someday I might actually get a system I'll use, but that's beside the point.
Atlanta Thrashers general manager Doug Waddell may need my mother to give him the same lesson about delayed gratification. He has been in Atlanta for seven seasons, living and dying right along with every other resident of the city willing to pull themselves away from NASCAR long enough to watch a hockey game.
The team was born in recent pre-lockout history, when the good teams threw big money at their stars to protect them, making the first few years of Thrashers hockey rather rough to watch, since it was a team made partly of decent draft picks, but mostly of cast-offs from the rest of the league. Accordingly, the Thrashers never really amounted to much, posting a 120-229-45-20 record in their first five seasons and gradually progressing from a bunch of ragamuffins to an almost-average hockey team.
The team continued to languish during the lockout season, with the extra gut punch of being the intended All-Star site for that cancelled season.
In spite of all that futility, and rumblings that Atlanta (like Nashville and Raleigh) was a city where hockey would never escape NASCAR's looming shadow, things began to look up for the Thrashers when hockey resumed.
Altanta went out and nabbed free agent forwards Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra, and Bobby Holik, mixed them together with their existing talent (Kovalchuk, Savard, and Kozlov), and created an offensive juggernaut (T-5th goals scored). Unfortunately, a lack of consistent defense or goaltending (23rd goals allowed) bit them on the butt and left them on the outside looking in, missing the playoffs by two points.
The season may have been a brutal reality, but it showed that Atlanta wasn't terribly far off from where they needed to be. Atlanta chose not to make any significant moves before the 2007 season, hoping that getting stud goalie Kari Lehtonen healthy would make a significant enough improvement.
The strategy seemed to pay off, as the Thrashers came firing out of the gate with a 12-3-3 record and a big lead on the rest of their division. The Thrashers then cooled off and became very streaky, rattling off two five-game winning streaks and two five-game losing streaks to hit the All-Star break a noticeably less flaming 27-15-8.
Things would only get worse for Atlanta from there, as Atlanta went 2-7-2 in their final 11 games before the trade deadline. At this point, Waddell apparently grew weary of everyone and their mother yelling "will you please do something already?"
He did something, alright, but here's where I come to my point. In two swift moves, Waddell gave away Braydon Coburn, his first and third round picks in the upcoming draft, and a second round pick the year after (along with another conditional pick). In return, Waddell got Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk.
This seems like a decent enough deal. It was widely regarded that the "almost there" components Atlanta needed for the playoffs were an established defensive presence, special teams help, and a true center for their top line who could also provide a vocal veteran presence, and that is exactly what Atlanta received.
However, it was also apparent to all that in making this deal, Waddell and Atlanta were putting themselves in a bit of a "now or never" situation. Waddell was under pressure because his team had yet to make the playoffs in its brief history, and he was trying to accomplish just that in order to appease his fan base, among others. In doing so, he gave up his #1 pick from three years ago and at least three draft picks over the next two years, which meant that if Atlanta didn't succeed this year, it was not likely to improve their position drastically in the immediate future.
You see these scenarios often, teams "mortgaging the future to pay for the present" as it is called. Sometimes it is sacrificing future picks and prospects for a proven star, other times it is giving a player a huge, backloaded contract. This practice rarely is a good idea, because even if it provides you with production and success now, it can leave you quite broke and barren in the immediate future.
What did Waddell do right? He had a franchise that was both good and improving and showed his fan base that he was serious about being competitive by going out and acquiring what he believed (and I agree) his team needed to take the next step.
Unfortunately, the list of what he did wrong is much longer. Waddell grossly overpaid for the pieces he acquired, and it blew up in his face when the team only took half a step – making it into the playoffs only to get embarrassed by the New York Rangers.
Zhitnik was a good player for Atlanta to get. He didn't quite fit into Buffalo's new sleek style, nor the Islanders, but he played well in Atlanta, posting 14 points in only 18 games while playing solid – if not always aggressive – defense, and making a decent point man for the power play. Unfortunately, this only took Atlanta from a team with no solid defenseman to a team with Zhitnik and no other solid defensemen – not exactly a huge improvement.
On top of that, they gave up Braydon Coburn to get him. Coburn was Atlanta's #1 draft pick (8th overall) in the last pre-lockout draft. He turned 22 just after the trade and wasn't shining at the NHL level yet. Maybe it's reasonable to expect your #1 pick to be starting, even starring, with the big boys by his third full season of pro hockey, but I think it's a bit unrealistic – especially on a team like Atlanta, where there really wasn't any other player for him to watch and learn from. After arriving in Philly, where he had the chance to practice and play with Derian Hatcher and Joni Pitkanen, Coburn started figuring things out, and by the end of the season, he had moved into the #2 defensive pairing on a regular basis.
Even without that knowledge now, it was probably foolish for Atlanta to a) give up on Coburn so quickly and b) give him away straight up for a 34 year old rental version of him.
Tkachuk was perhaps an even bigger mistake. Yes, he was a big, strong, proven commodity in the middle, but he also had a proven lack of success in the playoffs (-16 in 81 playoff games). Keith actually played reasonably well in the playoffs, nabbing three points and a +2 during Atlanta's four games while logging roughly 16 minutes per game. As I already mentioned, Atlanta gave up three, possibly four, top three picks over the next two years to get him. That is a ridiculous sum to give up for a player with an attitude problem who missed 75 games in the previous three seasons, no matter how well he is doing at the time of the trade.
Now that Atlanta bombed in the playoffs, they face an interesting decision. Do they resign Zhitnik or Tkachuk, both of whom will be 35 next season? If they do, they are taking a big risk, since neither player is likely to be cheap, and your odds of getting injured only go up with age. Sure, they both should play well enough – IF they play like they did this year – but that doesn't solve everything. In Tkachuk's case, it is extra taxing, because resigning him means St. Louis also gets their #1 pick in 2008.
If they choose to not resign either or both, they wind up exactly where they were at the start of this past season, but with almost no high-end draft picks with which to do anything about it.
I'm not saying that hockey in Atlanta is doomed. In the current NHL, a monster line of Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Belanger or Dupius can accomplish a lot (just ask Ottawa) but it may not accomplish more than a repeat of the 05-06 season; good, but not quite good enough.
You obviously know what needs done, and seem reasonably capable of getting it accomplished. Just don't keep digging, Doug.