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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Updated: March 19, 5:55 PM ET
Time to clean house in Atlanta, but ownership still in denial

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Thrashers are embracing a unique way of building a Stanley Cup contender. Instead of holding management accountable for errors, ownership appears set to reward those mistakes with job security.

It's a novel concept, one we're sure GM and interim coach Don Waddell favors given that he appears set to return for yet another kick at the can despite the fact the Thrashers will complete their eighth season of play without having won a single playoff game.

If principal owners Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon applied the same standards to their off-ice business interests, they'd both be living under the I-285 overpass. But there was Levenson, telling Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Craig Custance last week that ownership planned no changes in management at the end of the regular season.

Don Waddell
Thrashers GM Don Waddell again took over behind the bench after firing coach Bob Hartley in October.

Who could argue with such impeccable logic? Things are going so swimmingly as the team lurches toward its seventh nonplayoff season in eight years of existence, having collected just two wins in its past 15 games heading into Wednesday's game against the Hurricanes.

Levenson, who did not return calls from ESPN.com for this story, told the AJC there were too many big decisions facing the team, including hiring a coach and the draft, to make a change at the top. So, instead of tackling the most important element in turning this moribund franchise around, the most important factor in saving this franchise, by correcting years of miscalculations by hiring a new GM, ownership appears content to take the path of least resistance by maintaining the status quo.

Oh, well. It worked out pretty well for Nero.

Hockey observers often cite the Toronto Maple Leafs as the most dysfunctional team in the NHL, and their 41-year Stanley Cup drought lends significant weight to that argument. But the Thrashers are in many ways worse. At the least the Leafs have made changes in an effort to move forward, firing GM John Ferguson and now beating the bushes for a candidate who might build a winner. The Thrashers may be in a worse position given that they appear clueless about what ails the team and how to go about fixing it.

With season-ticket holders dwindling in number and the prospects for the immediate future grim, the future in Atlanta is as dire as it's been in its history.

The notion that Waddell, the only GM the team has had in its existence, is the man to effect change is the ultimate in wishful thinking.

Although Waddell is easily one of the most-liked of NHL GMs, his colleagues acknowledge quietly he has made a hash of the Thrashers.

"I love him, but I can't defend him," one top GM recently told ESPN.com.

"The question you have to ask yourself is: Where's the foundation?" another NHL source said.

From the ground up, the team is a disaster.

A number of publications have identified the Thrashers as among the worst in the league at drafting and developing players. The Toronto Star's Paul Hunter recently produced a breakdown of the number of players NHL teams have drafted who are currently playing in the league, either for their own team or another. The Thrashers were tied for dead last with Minnesota.

The Hockey News recently ranked the Thrashers 23rd in their annual assessment of prospects, three places higher than a season ago, but still a disappointment given the number of high draft picks the team has had over the years.

For most of this season, the team boasted two homegrown defensemen, Garnet Exelby and surprising rookie Tobias Enstrom, both eighth-round draft picks. Up front, there was checking forward Jim Slater and star forward Ilya Kovalchuk. In goal was top prospect Kari Lehtonen, who has wobbled between just ordinary and full-blown bust and has one win in his past 12 appearances.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Will star forward Ilya Kovalchuk stay in Atlanta after his contract runs out in two years?

Look at contending teams, and they regularly boast two or even three times as many homegrown players in their lineups. The San Jose Sharks, considered by many the best team in the Western Conference, have 11 draft picks in their everyday lineup. The New Jersey Devils have 15 homegrown players on the ice on most nights; the Buffalo Sabres also play 15.

The ability to develop viable NHLers through the draft allows teams to manage the salary cap and then, when needed, acquire other assets through trade.

Unable to draft and develop their own players, the Thrashers have consistently had to rely on signing aging, overpaid free agents to fill holes. Last summer, for instance, Waddell signed veteran Todd White to a four-year, $9.5 million deal to ostensibly act as the team's No. 1 center. White has 14 goals in 66 games for the Thrashers.

Levenson told ESPN.com during an interview at the All-Star break that one of the things he learned when he became an owner was not to visit the dressing room only when the team won, and to be patient. Ownership was still in a period of patience in terms of assessing Waddell's future with the team, he said at the time.

Levenson seemed surprised when asked about the team's dotty record in the draft and the widespread belief the team's relationship with its AHL affiliate in Chicago is among the worst in the NHL.

The Wolves are not owned by the Thrashers, but are an independent entity. Their focus is not on developing players for the Thrashers, but in putting a winning team on the ice for their fans. Wolves coach John Anderson is not evaluated by how players perform in the NHL when they're called up, but by how the Wolves perform in the AHL. Sources close to the Thrashers told ESPN.com that players who are called up regularly ask to see tape of the Thrashers' system so they can figure out what they're supposed to do.

The Wolves' lineup is filled with journeyman players; Jason Krog is the team's leading scorer, and Steve Martins and Joel Kwiatkowski are on that list, too. Brett Sterling couldn't stick with the big club this season and neither could Darren Haydar.

Bryan Little, the 12th pick in 2006, has NHL tools and is currently with the big club. But there are questions about the maturity and commitment of Alex Bourret, the 16th overall pick in 2005 that was sent to the New York Rangers for Pascal Dupuis at last season's trade deadline. Likewise, Boris Valabik has not shown he is worthy of the 10th overall pick the Thrashers used to select the towering Czech defenseman (he's 6-foot-7) in 2004.

On contending clubs like San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas, the relationship between the big club and the farm team is symbiotic. When Sharks GM Doug Wilson calls up a player from Worcester of the AHL, that player has played a Sharks system and, in theory, the transition is seamless.

Buffalo has advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in both post-lockout seasons despite crippling injuries due in large part to the Sabres' relationship with their farm team in Rochester.

Why did Atlanta's best two-way player, Marian Hossa, steadfastly refuse to sign a contract extension this season, forcing Waddell to trade him to Pittsburgh at the deadline?

Waddell acknowledged before the deal the challenge wasn't in coming up with enough money for the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, but in convincing Hossa the team was headed in the right direction. Hossa is now in Pittsburgh, so that tells you how Waddell made out in that argument.

And you can bet the farm Kovalchuk will be biding his time until the end of his contract in two years before he, too, makes a similar jump to a team with a future.

Even when Atlanta has had viable prospects, it has mismanaged them.

Desperate to make the playoffs for the first time last season, Waddell traded away defenseman Braydon Coburn to Philadelphia for aging Alexei Zhitnik. The move proved to be a colossal failure as the Thrashers were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers and Coburn, the eighth pick in 2003, has turned into a minor stud for the retooled Flyers. Zhitnik? He's been a healthy scratch this season. The mistake has been compounded by the fact that Zhitnik makes $3.5 million this season and will again in 2008-09.

This season, Waddell acquired two roster players from Pittsburgh, Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-round draft pick for Hossa. The deal has the potential to be a good one if Esposito can capitalize on his great talent, even though league sources say they are concerned about whether he has the right mind-set to be an NHL player. But Waddell failed to move other assets, including captain Bobby Holik, backup netminder Johan Hedberg and Mark Recchi, all of whom will become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Waddell told local reporters after the deadline he could have gotten a couple more first-round picks, but wanted to keep the team competitive for the stretch run. No NHL GM in his right mind would part with a first-round pick for Holik or Recchi or anyone else on the roster outside of Enstrom, Lehtonen or Kovalchuk.

Levenson insisted Waddell would be evaluated on the team's performance down the stretch, but that's one wacky form of evaluation if the team's recent performance leads him to believe that keeping Waddell around is a sound hockey move.

Levenson did tell the AJC he was considering bringing in a senior advisor of some kind to work with Waddell, but we saw how well that worked when the Leafs tried to lure Scotty Bowman into doing the same thing in Toronto (Bowman balked because he wasn't going to be given the power to clean house).

What "advisor" with any credibility would take that kind of role without having the latitude to do the same in Atlanta?

The answer is, of course, no one.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.