Thrashers make changes, but did they go far enough? (UPDATED)

Hiring John Anderson was one of Don Waddell's many miscalculations. (Jessica McGowan/AJC)

Hiring John Anderson was one of Don Waddell's many miscalculations. (Jessica McGowan/AJC)

(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.

160 comments Add your comment

Russ

April 14th, 2010
10:09 am

DW needs to be out of the organization completely. I would be fine with Dudley making all personnel decisions, but if DW is still there I don’t trust that he will keep his hands out of things.

Surely, Jeff...

April 14th, 2010
10:16 am

…you didn’t really just write an article on the Thrashers!?!?!!?

Yeah...

April 14th, 2010
10:16 am

…bring back the Count and his countdown…..

I'd like to see the team...

April 14th, 2010
10:17 am

…move out of Atlanta!

merculf

April 14th, 2010
10:17 am

I just hope it isn’t too late to save the team and keep them here in Atlanta. I know that there are some serious penalties if they try to sell and move them before the contracts run out but I would be really upset if they do make a change to move them. The fans here in Atlanta will support a winning team. 1 playoff berth in 10 yrs is not going to cut it. They need to make a statement with the hiring of the next coach in Atlanta to show the fan base that the ownership is committed to staying here. Otherwise, you will see the attendance fall.

LLOYD CHRISTMAS

April 14th, 2010
10:22 am

KNIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

holton

April 14th, 2010
10:23 am

Worst ownership group in hockey. Wish we could find one atlanta based millionaire (billionaire would be better) to take over and invest in the franchise. The year they went to the playoffs the team had energy, the city had some energy to it, I went to the most games I’d been to any season and each game had a respectable showing of fans. But when you have visibly uncommitted, apatehtic ownership group fans can’t support that.

Its why Turner and the Braves were so popular, Turner bred the passion and because he was passionate the fans were. Same goes for Blank and Falcons. Falcons fans know Blank wants to win above making money, thus is willing to put his money down to get the right personnel.

Brian Hunt

April 14th, 2010
10:24 am

I really want to see the Thrashers succeed. I think you hit the nail on the head when pointing out that DW had no sense of direction or design in how this team was supposed to be structured and no real accountability. IK didn’t leave because of money, he left because this franchise is the NHL equivalent of the Detroit Lions.

Smoothie

April 14th, 2010
10:24 am

Okay Jeff, I’ll give you credit for presenting not only a timely and pertinent blog just minutes after Vivlamore broke the news, but you did so in a fair and even-handed manner. Now if some of your journalist friends there at the ajc.com would ask a few more tough questions, perhaps we’d get Levenson to tell us why they treat Waddell like a son and not employee. Keep the heat on them and do not give them any quarter should they be stupid enough to hire an unproven coach without some sort of legitimate NHL track record.

Bob

April 14th, 2010
10:31 am

Look at the number of draft picks (excluding 1st rounders) that the Thrashers have developed over the last 10 years. Besides Enstrom, name another 2nd rounder or later that has had any impact. There are serious issues with player development and amateur scouting.

shadydave

April 14th, 2010
10:34 am

my brother says that Don Waddell has pictures of the Atlanta Spirit Group’s all-male orgies held at their owners meetings, and that’s why they can’t fire him… used to think he was just kidding, but how else to explain???

Bob H

April 14th, 2010
10:35 am

As far as I’m concerned, this sort of thing proves that the Thrashers are, and will continue to be, the Clippers of the NHL. A franchise incapable of getting out of it’s own way, sticking with management personnel (Clippers – Mike Dunleavy, Elgin Baylor……..Thrashers – Don Waddell) way, WAY too long. Waddell must have something dirty on someone (or ones) in ASG, because it’s become laughable that he’s retained after a decade of one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins.

Telfo

April 14th, 2010
10:35 am

all the people complaining about Waddell being GM should be happy, no?

i totally agree about both Anderson and Hartley, but i think both had to go. from the looks of it, the available coaches arent too great. if Tortorella gets fired we should really hire him

Adam

April 14th, 2010
10:40 am

Just ship the Trashers somewhere else. Waddell is a JOKE!!!! I thought Anderson was a good coach and was a good face for this franchise in Atlanta. What are you supposed to do when you have your best player shipped away in the middle of the season???? We can’t resign players and we continually go through coaches. What a joke of a franchise….

Thrash

April 14th, 2010
10:42 am

Maybe they should move to Calgary…no wait…

Horse hockey...

April 14th, 2010
10:42 am

…we don’t need no stinking hockey in this town…

R. Stroz

April 14th, 2010
10:43 am

Bring back Hartley.

When Hartley was canned because of the backstabing Bobby Holik, the only player who seemed truly upset was Ilya Kovalchuk.

Your Mammy

April 14th, 2010
10:47 am

What are you smoking Telfo? Bob Hartley was the best thing the Thrashers had going for them, a proven Stanley Cup winner. He was fired by Waddell as a scape goat for his own ineptitude. If I were the Atlanta Spirit, I would hire Bob Hartley back on as coach, put Don “the dummy” Waddell in a position under Hartley, so Bob could personally fire Waddell.

Tucker T

April 14th, 2010
10:50 am

It’s typical Jeff. A lot of companies promote incompetent people. Waddell gets a better title and probably more money. Sometimes it’s easier than just firing them.

thrashersfan

April 14th, 2010
10:51 am

Some of you are wrong about Hartley. He was a terrible coach. Never made enough line changes, stuck with players that were hurting the team…. ie Devries, and don’t forget his going to the bullpen for the shoot-out! A terrible coach.

dandylions

April 14th, 2010
10:52 am

What did Bobby Holik do?

Resign or Resign?

April 14th, 2010
10:54 am

holton-
agree with you, but if you were a millionaire/billionaire hockey fan, would you be living in Atlanta? ..or how many millionaire/billionaire hockey fans are there in Atlanta?

Otto

April 14th, 2010
10:55 am

What a shame if the Thrashers were in the playoffs like the Hawks their attendance would be better than the Hawks. Waddell has been the constant.

Otto

April 14th, 2010
10:56 am

Resign? Blank is not from Atlanta. Plenty of transplants down here.

I am a native and would rather see a Thrashers game than any other pro game.

Somaatl95

April 14th, 2010
10:56 am

TO ALL OF YOU SAYING “HOCKEY NEEDS TO GO” – FOOTBALL, BASEBALL AND BASKETBALL SHOULD LEAVE AS WELL, ATLANTA DIDN’T GIVE A SQUAT ABOUT THEM TILL THEY HAD CHANGE.
And maybe they should require an IQ test for watching college football in this town. Rednecks think hockey is a yankee thing – yet every hockey fan I know (and there are a lot) ARE ALL FROM HERE. Stop ripping on a sport that you are too bull headed or stupid to understand and go back to jacking it to whatever QB UGA decides to pick this upcoming season. Rather than slam it, why not just STFU?

Halberstram

April 14th, 2010
10:57 am

Why does Waddell continually get kept above the firing line? The guy has accomplished nothing in ten years.

Jeff, I agree completely with your sentiment that if there’s a move the franchise has failed. The Atlanta Spirit group is a joke.

Resign or Resign?

April 14th, 2010
10:59 am

Otto

I am a huge hockey fan, Georgia born. Just sayin’; if I was a millionaire/billionaire hockey fan and could live anywhere I wanted, Atlanta would be way down the list.

Resign or Resign?

April 14th, 2010
11:00 am

Otto:
and Blank does LIVE in Atlanta.

Kovy's Agent

April 14th, 2010
11:03 am

Hartley? Really? I didn’t realize so many people long for a return to the days of the ole dump and chase offensive strategy. Or, the rope-a-dope style of playing for the tie, or sitting on a tenuous one goal lead for the entire 3rd period. Or, the dogged determination to stick with grizzled veterans way past their prime. Hartley is not/will not be the savior of Thrasher hockey.

Barf

April 14th, 2010
11:06 am

They promoted Waddell??? Attention Spirit: YOU’RE ALL MORONS!

Good grief. Get a clue and sack the guy who in 12 seasons has won ZERO playoff games. And you find it hard to believe that we rank near dead last in attendance.

Matt

April 14th, 2010
11:07 am

It’s a START. Now, the real test will be in the hiring of a PROVEN NHL coach, signing the necessary free agents and drafting well.

Also, as mentioned, it would be a good idea to change minor league teams and dump Chicago. That is just not working. Thrashers prospects need to play and develop and not necessarily win.

Manon Rheaume

April 14th, 2010
11:08 am

Is there another GM in any other major sport who had the job for 11 years without winning a playoff game? If so it couldn’t be more than a few.
Ownership is a joke…

reebok

April 14th, 2010
11:08 am

man, I miss the Knights…

tom

April 14th, 2010
11:09 am

Your being too nice. You never once mentioned that Waddell should go in order for the franchise to succeed. Indeed Hartley was the only quality coach they have had. This club will not be in Atlanta in 5 years if Waddell is in charge of anything related to the Thrashers.

Reggie Dunlop

April 14th, 2010
11:09 am

The Thrashers web site states Waddell was promoted. What has Waddell done to deserve a “promotion”? What has he done to actually keep a job with the Thrashers?

Whitaker77

April 14th, 2010
11:10 am

Do I think these changes went far enough? No and yes. No on Waddell, Yes on everything else.

No, Waddell needs to be gone, the Thrasher’s front office should not be a “good-old-boys” club. What kind of influnce will he have on the team?

Rick Dudley as GM? Form what I understand (which is not much at all) he has a good eye for talent (players and coaches) and is not afraid of making extreme moves. To me any change will be better than what we had in the past. What makes me nervous is will he stand up to Waddell or give into him?

Bob Hartley should have never been fired. I said it on the day he was fired and I have said it since, the issue was Waddell not bring in the right players to play under Hartley.

I look forward to seeing what happens over this off-season.

One thing the Thrashers need to do is OWN their minor league team. This would be a HUGE step is making the team better I feel. There are plenty of cities that want hockey. Take New England you cannot throw a stone without hitting a AHL team Worcester (Sharks), Lowell (Devils), Springfield (Oilers?), Providence (Bruins), Manchester (Kings), the list goes on. For most of these teams the players come in and fit into the Parent’s team system of play every easy. If they want to exspand Hockey here in Georgia put the team South of Atlanta.

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:12 am

Surely, Jeff … Why surprised? I probably write more hockey than anybody else here (other than our beat writer).

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:12 am

Yeah … Next week. He’s been hungover. Hanging with Roethlisberger.

Fred

April 14th, 2010
11:12 am

Waddell needs to go before I come back and watch the Thrashers. He is a proven loser and for him to say they finished above .500 is a joke. The Thrashers true record was 35-47. Twelve games under .500. But when you have the worst ownership group in sports then you get a lacky like Waddell to do their bidding. Enough said.

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:13 am

Brian Hunt — I think you’re right. Kovalchuk never has gotten enough credit for how much he wants to win.

TheAntiMe

April 14th, 2010
11:14 am

The Thrashers are a very sad organization (and I use the term very loosely). The only way things are going to turn around is for those cheapskates (pun intended) that are the ASG to actually spend some money a hire a real GM and a real coach.

This seems to me like nothing more than a title switch and Don Waddell will most likely be the de facto GM. The hockey fans of Atlanta really deserve much better than this.

Joe McGrath

April 14th, 2010
11:14 am

I got a good deal for those boys…..Scouts say they show a lot of promise.

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:14 am

Smoothie — Thanks. And that’s a great question about the Levenson-Waddell relationship. Bruce doesn’t talk to me. But there’s a chance he’ll be speaking at some point today or tonight with Chris and I’m sure that question will come up (though probably in another form).

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:16 am

R.Stroz — I like Bob a lot. But I imagine too much damage has been done there. Not sure if you can go back to that well again.

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:16 am

Tucker T — Yes, some companies do promote incompetent people. And what happens to those companies?

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:18 am

Halberstram — Thanks. And were you a fan of David H.?

Back to Kolvuchuck

April 14th, 2010
11:18 am

Or however you spell his name……What does it say when he turns down a HUGE contract to play elsewhere? Remember when Dion bolted on the Falcons? Same thing. They both saw the chance of long term winning was NOT going to happen.

On to Anderson. What does it say when you hover at the 8th and final play off spot for a month and can’t get over that hump? The lost to teams they should have beat.

Section119

April 14th, 2010
11:18 am

There’s no reason a team should be turned into a cartoon by bringing in a relic like Chris Chelios.

LOL! Jeff – This line caused me to spit my coffee. Don’t always agree with you, but enjoy your take on my team. Please keep doing what you do.

Whitaker77

April 14th, 2010
11:18 am

*Random Question to the crowd* What kind of coach/system do you want for the Thrashers, and no “a winning one” is not an answer?

Jeff Schultz

April 14th, 2010
11:19 am

Section 119 — Thanks. Send me the cleaning bill.