Slumping Thrashers need a late-season spur

NAPLES, Fla. -- These next few days, maybe even these next few hours, might define Don Waddell's career as a general manager.

Of all the GMs at this week's annual winter meetings, none faces the pressure Waddell does to fix his ailing team.

In what seems like an instant, Waddell has seen his explosive Atlanta Thrashers go from a comfortable lead atop the Southeast Division to a team hurtling toward oblivion with a playoff berth now in jeopardy.

For much of the first three months of the season, the Thrashers seemed like they could make a magical playoff run a la Carolina or Tampa Bay, the last two Cup winners and members of the Southeast Division fraternity. Now, the Thrashers have won just three games in regulation in their last 22 outings. They have just one win of any sort in their last eight games and woke up Monday morning having dropped from first in the division to sixth in the conference.

With crucial games coming up against Tampa and Carolina, which trails Atlanta by just two points, and with the charging Toronto Maple Leafs just three points back with two games in hand, it's possible the Thrashers could be outside the playoff bubble by the end of the week.

It is an almost unthinkable turn of events for a team that had looked so good for much of the season -- and the stakes are as high as they come. Unless Waddell can pull a rabbit out of his GM hat before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, failure to make the playoffs or even squeaking in and getting knocked out in the first round would be a huge setback for the franchise.

It also likely would cost Waddell his job.

Yes, we know that it's the players who play, and that the same team that coasted to the top of the Southeast Division and challenged for the conference lead until early in January could turn it around without help.

"I think we're a pretty good hockey team that's gone into a slide," Waddell said.

Maybe. But he can't afford to take that chance.

Not again.

A year ago, Waddell made only a cosmetic move at the trade deadline, picking up defenseman Steve McCarthy from Vancouver for a conditional draft pick. McCarthy scored seven times in the last 16 games and the Thrashers missed the playoffs by two points.

Waddell acknowledged the injury to netminding phenom Kari Lehtonen through the first third of last season was a built-in excuse.

"That let us off the hook," Waddell told ESPN.com shortly before the GMs' meetings. "There's just no excuses for it this year."

That's right -- no excuses. You can't rationalize not making a move to help your team when it was so clearly in desperate need of help, as has been the case in the past.

Waddell acknowledged as much, saying that the franchise has developed to the point that it has enough assets to make a move, to bring in veteran help, even if it's just a rental player.

The problem is that it might be too late.

The team has been shallow at center all year and lately the need for a puck-moving defenseman to help the power play and a gritty winger have all become more acute.

The Thrashers have the 30th-ranked penalty killing unit and their power play is a pedestrian 22nd. But they weren't interested in the mercurial center Mike Comrie, now in Ottawa. Nor were they interested in center Craig Conroy, now in Calgary. And the best pivot available, Peter Forsberg, wasn't interested in an Eastern Conference team and ended up in Nashville.

Now, Waddell will have to decide whether to pitch for Florida center Jozef Stumpel, who's injured, or Keith Tkachuk, who's played center but isn't the best team guy in the world or some other shot in the arm for his flailing squad.

Strangely, a week ago Waddell gave up a roster player, defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski, for center Eric Belanger.

"We think he's a guy who's going to help," Waddell said.

Maybe. But if that's his idea of a slide-stopping move, then it's far too little.

One GM told ESPN.com that Belanger, now with his fourth team since the end of last season, is a good guy and a good fourth-line center too inconsistent to be a good third-line center. And, sadly, the Thrashers are chock-a-block with third-line players.

Waddell has been with the Thrashers since Day 1. He has seen them slowly grow both on the ice and in the community.

In spite of repeated shots from the Canadian media that the team is a candidate for relocation, attendance has actually jumped 6 percent this year. The team has sold out twice as many games to this point in the season as last (six compared to three) suggesting that fans get it, that they've responded to the buzz surrounding the team.

"There's certainly a different feel about the team this year," Waddell said.

Now Waddell has less than a week to ensure that feeling isn't squandered.

It might be his last chance to do so.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.