Friday, May 9, 2008
Waddell mulling over his future with the Thrashers: sources
By Scott Burnside
GM Don Waddell has been asked by the Atlanta Thrashers to give up his duties and accept another management position, ESPN.com has learned.
Waddell, one of the managers of the U.S. entry in the World Championships, will apparently make his decision after the tournament, a source close to the team said Friday.
Ownership is believed to have given Waddell a contract extension earlier this season, even though the team has never won a playoff game since entering the league in 1999.
But even though ownership has been preaching patience and insisting publicly that it supports the work done by Waddell, multiple sources close to the team say that ownership has been rethinking that stance after the Thrashers finished 28th overall this season.
The assumption, the source told ESPN.com, is that if Waddell declines to take the as-yet-unidentified management position, he will leave the organization.
Waddell has been the team's GM since the franchise came into existence.
"Just look at the facts, the record. What choice do you have?" one source close to the team told ESPN.com Friday.
The team made the playoffs for the first time last spring and was swept by the New York Rangers. This year the team got off to an 0-6 start and Waddell fired head coach Bob Hartley and took over the coaching reins. The team responded before falling apart after Christmas, finishing with five wins its last 22 games.
The team has consistently failed to draft or develop players who can contribute. This has forced Waddell to trade for aging, expensive veterans to fill holes in the team's lineup. Alexei Zhitnik, for instance, was acquired by Waddell last year at the trade deadline from Philadelphia for emerging defensive stud Braydon Coburn. Earning $3.5 million this year and next, Zhitnik was a healthy scratch down the stretch and wasn't even brought along on road trips. The team has failed to find a No. 1 center to play with Ilya Kovalchuk. Marian Hossa, one of the best two-way players in the game, refused to sign a contract extension because he didn't feel the team was headed in the right direction, prompting his trade to Pittsburgh. There is a strong belief that Kovalchuk will follow suit at the end of the 2009-10 season, when he can become an unrestricted free agent.
The Thrashers' season ticket base is rapidly dwindling because of the lack of on-ice success, and ownership has decided it needs to make a move to rebuild the team and to prove to local fans the team is headed in the right direction.
Owners Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon have taken a more hands-on role in recent months, forcing former president Bernie Mullin from his post. The news of the hockey decision comes at the same time GM Billy Knight left the NBA's Atlanta Hawks after taking the team to the playoffs. Both teams and Philips Arena are under the same ownership umbrella.
Attempts to reach Levenson and Waddell were unsuccessful Friday.
Gearon told Craig Custance of the Atlanta Journal Constitution when the media gathered to discuss with ownership the Knight resignation that "there are greater holes in hockey right now than basketball." Gearon also told Custance they would consider redefining Waddell's role.
If Waddell is done as GM, the Thrashers will have to move quickly to fill the position, given that the entry draft is six weeks away. Given the paucity of talent on the roster and in the Thrashers' farm system, this draft is crucial to rebuilding.
The Thrashers will draft third in Ottawa in what is considered one of the best draft classes in many years. They will have the opportunity to draft a franchise player, presumably a defenseman or center, two positions they are lacking depth at.
But they will need to have someone at the draft that can maneuver not just the selections but any possible deals that will need to be made.
A little over a week after the draft, the free agency period begins, and the Thrashers will have to make decisions on that front as well.
This is the most important draft the franchise has had, "maybe ever," one source said.
Beyond the player personnel and drafting decisions, there will also be the issue of hiring a new coach.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.