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News - The price of quality

To get better, Thrashers need to pay better

Thrashers GM Don Waddell starts with the premise that all athletes are overpaid and goes from there. Which explains why he and Gilles Lupien, the agent for forward Donald Audette, the Thrashers' leading scorer, have been roughly $700,000 apart in contract negotiations for weeks.
The moment Waddell became general manager, and at every opportunity since, he has stressed that money would never be an issue with the Thrashers. Meaning that, thanks to the deep pockets of whatever company currently owns the team (forget Ted Turner, the figurehead owner of the Thrashers, Braves and Hawks; he doesn't show up for any of them anymore), lack of funds would never prevent him from signing a player he really wanted.
You'd think such a piddling amount as $700,000 wouldn't be worth discussing, given sports salaries in general, given that Audette is the Thrashers' most skilled player, given how desperately an expansion team needs good players, not to mention wins. But Waddell is allergic to paying a player more than he thinks that player is worth, no matter what the skill level. "Hockey," he says pointedly, "is a team game. One superstar doesn't do you much good."
It also doesn't do much good — on the ice or as a public relations move — to lose your leading scorer in a contract dispute. Don't forget that Audette, who thinks very highly of his abilities (as he should), has sat out a contract impasse before, in Buffalo. The Sabres were practically slobbering all over him when they were in town last week, wishing they could have him back.
The NHL's trade deadline, if it comes to that, is March 13. Waddell has turned the Thrashers roster upside-down and inside-out since the team was born two seasons ago, trying every player he could get his hands on. Now that he has his hands on the NHL's fifth leading scorer, wouldn't you think his priority would be to keep him?
Let's suppose that, as a matter of principle, Waddell trades Audette for, say, two young prospects or draft choices. Maybe they'll pan out. Maybe they'll be the next Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. But they won't be either one of them soon — or we'd have heard of them already — and soon is when the Thrashers need to start winning consistently.
Forget about the fans demanding wins, the players need them, too. The Thrashers' plague of injuries has finally gotten to the boys in the room. No group of professional athletes is harder on themselves than hockey players. Does Waddell really want to take away the last thing the Thrashers have to be excited about — their top-line scoring — over $700,000?
I know, I know: A million here, a million there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.
Maybe Waddell should pretend hockey has arbitration, like baseball. Let a third party choose between the offers on the table. In the past week alone, using this method, the Braves saved enough to afford another player:
Kevin Millwood, who made $420,000 a year ago, lost his arbitration hearing. "Lost" being a relative term: The arbitrator awarded him the $3.1 million the Braves offered instead of the $3.9 million agent Scott Boras was insisting on.
A few days after the Millwood decision, John Rocker ($290,000 last season) found out that the price of his well-documented xenophobia, homophobia, etc. was $1 million — the difference between the $2.98 million he was asking and the $1.9 million Braves' offer the arbitrator chose. (Talk about hypocritical — Braves management isn't outraged enough by Rocker's offensive ignorance to get rid of him, but they aren't above using it as ammunition in arbitration.)
The Braves avoided arbitration with Quilvio Veras by meeting him halfway — they settled on $3.9 million, between the $4.5 Veras wanted and the $3.4 million the Braves wanted to give him.
By the time you read this, the arbitrator will have opted for either $6.4 million or $8.2 million — guess who proposed which figure — for Andruw Jones. Either figure is a significant boost from the $3.7 million he made last year.
Granted, hockey doesn't have baseball's television money, but the Thrashers and Braves dip into essentially the same pot. If Rocker can be punished with a salary increase of $1.7 million, then surely the Thrashers can scrape up $700,000 for Audette.
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