Eleven years, nine seasons, 16 goalies, three coaches (not including himself twice between firings) and one lone playoff berth after his hiring, Don Waddell is sitting at a table in his office, doing research.
“One, two, three . . .”
He’s counting team logos on the cover of an NHL reference book.
“Four, five, six . . .”
Seven. Only seven other NHL general managers have been in their respective jobs as long as Waddell.
Three run teams that have won Stanley Cups (Detroit, New Jersey, Carolina). Two have been in the finals (Buffalo, Washington). One made the playoff seven straight seasons (St. Louis), the other four straight (Nashville).
And then there’s the Teflon Don.
“I put myself in good company,” he said, managing a smile.
He’s employed. He’s fortunate. He knows that.
More than likely, if he worked in a bigger hockey market and for owners who cared about the sport and maybe something other than the next court hearing, he’d be out of work. So you could say heading an after-thought of a franchise has its benefits.
But I had to ask: Aren’t you surprised you still have a job?
“Not at all,” he said. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity here . . .” And he went on to talk about the usual setbacks: Dany Heatley, goaltending, trades, ownership squabbles and certainly payroll limitations.
The Thrashers ended this season with the NHL’s lowest payroll, less than $42 million for most of the year. The league salary cap: $56.7 million. Twenty-four of the other 29 teams were north of $50 million.
Throw that out the next time somebody with the Atlanta Spirit says, “We care.”
“Youth is where it’s going to be with us,” Waddell said. “Our situation isn’t a salary cap. It’s a budget cap. We’re no place near the salary cap.”
But the draft is in two weeks, free agency begins thereafter, and Don Waddell has a plan. I’ve lost count how many this makes.
The Thrashers finished the season strong last year. But it’s dangerous to get drunk off relative meaningless wins and Waddell knows that. He also realizes the problems haven’t always been about payroll. Sometimes it’s been draft picks. Sometimes it’s been free agency. But it’s always been him. His players, his coaches, his plan, and he has yet to build a winner.
Why should anybody believe he is capable?
“We definitely have a core to build a winning team,” he said.
But are you capable?
“Absolutely. I’ve won at every level I’ve been at. There’s no difference.”
Well, there’s at least one. He hasn’t done it here. Wins with the Orlando Solar Bears don’t carry weight in Atlanta. They don’t even carry weight in Orlando any more.
He had a plan in year one. Build with speed, an attacking style and steady goaltending. Almost every major decision backfired: drafts, goalies, coach.
In year three, he shed some veterans he should have kept and went with youth. Another step back. After the lockout, he spent to the cap. But with playoff hopes on a respirator in 2007, he got desperate and shed draft picks and Braydon Coburn in deadline trades to get in. That worked until the team was swept in the first round.
“We had to blow it all up again,” Waddell said.
Operative word being: again.
“I think we’re real close to breaking out of it,” he said.
Same optimism, just fewer believers.
He knows the importance of this summer. Ilya Kovalchuk’s decision on whether to re-sign here depends on Waddell bringing in another top forward (at least). Without Kovalchuk, the team doesn’t win. Without winning, hockey won’t grow in Atlanta. With neither of those things, Waddell might actually lose his job.
Or maybe not. I’ve stopped assuming.
Waddell talks about his other responsibilities for ownership. A lot of non-hockey stuff.
“Maybe some GMs, the only thing they have to worry about is wins and losses,” he said. “We’re trying to win games here but were also trying to run a big business.”
But Don . . .
“I know — fans don’t care about the business side. I understand that. We’ve got to win.”
But 11 years later, he’s sitting with an exclusive group. Even if in a folding chair.