(Updated below with Rick Dudley quotes)
The man who has been in charge of hockey in Atlanta from day one (and failed) now has an even better title with less responsibility.
His close friend is now the general manager.
Together, they will try to set direction and hire a new coach.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Change is good. Change is needed. Change is the only thing that gives the Thrashers a chance for success and hockey an extended lifeline in Atlanta.
But did the Atlanta Spirit go far enough? Or did ownership just make the easiest, most convenient and least expensive fixes it could make, hoping that this all works out?
Let me start with this: Rick Dudley has a pretty solid reputation as a personnel guy. He acquired several of the players in Tampa Bay that ultimately led to the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup (though he wanted to trade Vincent Lecavalier, which ultimately led to him resigning before the title season). He did good work in Ottawa and Chicago.
But fixing everything here will be a chore. Under Waddell, there has been no consistency in objective or design. The pieces seldom fit. It’s not that every draft and every trade failed. There just seldom seemed to be a plan about what kind of team he was trying to put together. If there was a plan, it wasn’t working.
Worst of all, nobody seemed to care.
Great sports teams have a level of accountability – from owner to general manager, GM to coach, coach to player. This franchise lacks it. It was illustrated again this week when Waddell, in summing up the Thrashers’ ninth playoff-less season in 10 years and scrambling for something positive to say, uttered: “I think we did make some strides this year. I know we’ve heard that before, but we did finish above .500, which is something we haven’t been able to do.”
He should know better. The Thrashers’ record of 35-34-13 ranked 23rd in the NHL and, in reality, was anything but above .500. That third category in the NHL standings is a loss category, for overtimes and shootouts. If the Thrashers were above .500, then 23 of 30 teams were above .500.
Is that the standard now?
There are several problems here, problems bigger than the names on the door. Here are three:
♦ Player development is a problem because of the Thrashers’ dysfunctional relationship with their minor-league affiliate, the Chicago Wolves (AHL). The Thrashers don’t operate the Wolves. Their owner, Don Levin, is more concerned about winning games than helping develop players the right way for Atlanta.
♦ Coach John Anderson had to go. He’s a nice guy but he was hired on the cheap. It was obvious at the time, even if ownership and blind Thrashers’ loyalists refused to acknowledge it. He’s not an NHL coach and proved it. There have long been rumors about the Club Med atmosphere around the team under Anderson. Bob Hartley never should have been fired. The problem wasn’t Hartley, it was the players in the locker room. Dudley/Waddell need an experienced coach, a proven winner, with an edge. The team lacks discipline and structure.
♦ I want to see ownership make a true commitment. If it takes money to turn the Thrashers into a winner – be it with a coaching hiring, a free agent signing or improving scouting and player development – let’s see it. There’s a reason the good teams are always good and the Thrashers are always the Thrashers.
Give Dudley credit: at least he understands the issues. When asked about the team’s attendance problems and rumors of a franchise move, he said, “In Chicago that first year, I think I could shake hands with everybody in the crowd. Now you can’t get in. You can’t sell tickets to a bad product.”
Regarding the team’s on-ice fortunes this year and next, he said: “We thought we should make the playoffs this year so obviously we think we should make the playoffs next year. I think we’re at a point now where we can evolve into something pretty good.”
He also believes the team needs to acquire a top-6 forward to make up for the loss of Ilya Kovalchuk.
If the Thrashers ultimately move, it won’t be because the sport failed, it will be because the franchise failed. There’s no reason for that to happen. There’s no reason stars like Kovalchuk or Marian Hossa should want to leave. There’s no reason a team should be turned into a cartoon by bringing in a relic like Chris Chelios.
Change is needed. We’ll see if this was enough.