Don Waddell has guided the Thrashers into playoff contention after a horrible start.
There are those who will tell you the Atlanta Thrashers paid too high a price at last year’s trade deadline to make the playoffs, only to be blasted out in four games.
Not Thrashers GM Don Waddell, however.
See, the Thrashers – and let’s face it, Waddell, too – were at a very critical time in their history; needing desperately to make the playoffs, having finished on the sidelines in each of the first six years in franchise history. There is no way Waddell or the team could afford to make it seven years in a row.
So at the trade deadline Waddell engineered a number of deals that brought veterans Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhitnik and Eric Belanger, but cost them blue chip prospect defenseman Braydon Coburn, first and third round picks in the 2007 entry draft and a second round pick in 2008.
Did they spend too much considering they didn’t win a playoff game and Tkachuk was eventually traded back to St. Louis?
When you consider the credibility the Thrashers gained locally by finally making the playoffs and the fact they got a first round pick from St. Louis for Tkachuk, the answer is absolutely not.
“It was important for our franchise to make a statement,” Waddell said. “The other thing is, we were always sellers in the past. This was the first opportunity we had to be buyers so we felt if there was something we could do to try to help us, we had to do it. It was huge for our franchise to be able to hang a banner.”
Waddell said he didn’t plan to be as active as he ended up being, but his team’s play necessitated a change in philosophy.
“We started the year off so great, but in January I think we only won four games and if we had finished the year that way, it really would have hurt us from a fans standpoint. When we really started to make a push in the second half, we got the best support we’ve had since our first year. We ended up getting more than 2,000 new season tickets this year because of what we did last year.”
Was being active at the deadline a learning experience?
“It was pretty hectic,” Waddell said. “You have your sights set on a particular player, or players, and then it gets down to you competing against one or two other teams to get them. Our team played so well last year, but right before the trade deadline we went into a slump. At one point we were 11 points into a playoff spot and on trade deadline day we were one – and heading in the wrong direction. I think if we don’t make our trade deadline deals, we don’t make the playoffs.”
It would have been nice to win a round or two – or a game or two, for that matter – but in the end Waddell said he did what was best for his franchise and he’d do it again.
“You are never pleased when you go out of the playoffs in four straight, but again, I don’t think we make the payoffs if we don’t make those deals,” Waddell said. “In a lot of markets they’ll tell you just making the playoffs is not good enough and I’d agree with that. But we were a team that had never been in the playoffs and for our fans to see we were willing to make the commitment was important. Everything we spent to get the players we had, we were rewarded for that.”
This year started off very poorly for the Thrashers, who lost their first six games before firing coach Bob Hartley. Waddell, who had no extended NHL coaching experience, stepped in behind the bench and the team responded favorably. They are now in a position to repeat as champions of the otherwise weak Southeast Division and, thus, expect to be active at the trade deadline once again.
“We’re definitely buyers,” Waddell insisted. “Our division this year obviously isn’t as strong and we really believe we can win our division. Last year was our honeymoon period, getting into the playoffs, and if we can come back and win our division again, it would put us in a position to come back next year and take the next step.”
Mike Brophy's Double OT appears regularly on The Hockey News.com.
One of THN’s senior writers, Mike Brophy gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Mike's expertise delivered to you every issue.