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Hartley, Waddell and the Players

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Back on April 6, 2007 I wrote a post entitled Has This Team Outgrown Bob Hartley? in which I said the following:

"When Bob Hartley was hired he brought some badly needed discipline, organization and a stiff upper lip. He hammered away at the need for players to stay in the fight and keep battling away. The Thrashers were young, unstructured and lacked confidence. However, those words no longer describe this team.

"The Thrashers now have one of the oldest rosters in the NHL. They have veterans who have been around the league for years--people who ought to know where to put their stick in the faceoff circle. This is no longer a club of young kids taking on the big bad National Hockey League and as a consequence they need don't need a coach who is going to lead the charge over the barricades. What this team needs is a coach who make the roster function together with maximum efficiency, and I'm pretty sure the Hartley is not the guy."

In that post I gave my reasons for doubting Hartley as the best possible coach for this team. In summary they included:
  • Lack of power play effectiveness with All-Star talent
  • Failure of the penalty killing
  • Tendency to play favorites
  • Failure to establish a goalie rotation
  • Lack of trust in young players
Then when Hartley pulled the plug on Kari Lehtonen after just one playoff start I wrote the following: "Bottom line--I think Hartley's job depends on how this turns out. By suddenly changing up the goalies after just one game, Hartley has put the focus on the coach and not on the player's performance. If it doesn't work and the team loses in the first round I wouldn't be surprised in the least of he is fired/not renewed for next season."

OK, so I was off by about 6 games. In retrospect I think it is pretty clear that Hartley was not the best person to coach this team with this set of players. He probably should have been replaced this summer, but that is very hard thing to do when a guy has behind the bench for your first ever playoff appearance.

Who is to blame?
When a team goes 0-9 and is outscored 27 to 9 EVERYBODY deserves some blame (just like everyone deserves some credit when you win). I've already stated the shortcomings of the coach so let's continue.

General Manager Don Waddell has assembled a roster that I believed would contend for the playoffs all year. I still think it is entirely possible they will make the playoffs, despite the terrible start. But I don't think that this team is a lock for the playoffs and that is because of flaws in the way this roster was constructed.

As I mentioned in a recent post, athletes in every professional sport decline as they move past age 30, and in most sports (including hockey) player performance tends to collapse as they move past age 33. Despite this tendency, the Thrasher organization has repeatedly gambled that they are smart enough to pick out which players will beat the odds and still be good at the end of their careers. Todd White was given a very long contract when you consider that he is not a All-Star level player. Slava Kozlov had a career high and at his age he is almost certain not to repeat that performance during his new deal. Steve Rucchin was given a two-year deal and can not perform because of injury (also more likely as players age)

But far and away the most damaging decision was the signing of Bobby Holik for $4.25 million a season. He has been an incredible bust. He is a good penalty killer during his time in Atlanta, nor has he provided the sort of leadership they expected. His salary plus the money given to Rucchin could have been used to re-sign a top center such as Marc Savard (or someone with a similar talent level). Imagine how much better this club would be if Eric Perrin was our (cheap) checking center and we had a skilled guy like Mike Comrie or Savard centering one of the top lines?

Finally my other major criticism of Don Waddell is that when he constructs a roster there is no apparent over-arching plan. Are the Thrashers a fast team? Are the Thrashers a big team? Are the Thrashers a physical team? Are the Thrashers a puck skill team? I don't think you say yes to any of those questions.

It seems to me that as a GM, Waddell always tries to take the best player available in the draft or tries to sign the best free agency bargains. In the short run that certainly makes sense, but in the long run--and I say this as someone who has watched virtually every single game in Atlanta Thrashers history--far too often these individual bargains do not mesh together into a coherent whole.

From time to time Waddell has talked about fielding a fast skating Western Conference team (which got completely outskated by real Western Conference teams last year). After the lockout team toughness was touted when Holik was signed. Then this fall we heard more the addition of more speed. These shifts are evidence of modest changes not an organization philosophy.

We are not a power team, we are not a speedy team, we are not a skill team--we have some of these elements but the Thrashers have never had any consistent team identity the roster has always been a mishmash of interesting pieces. A "little of this and a little of that"might produce a good omelet at breakfast, but it doesn't seem to produce a great hockey team. Look at the best teams and you can quickly point out their trademarks: Detroit (skill, puck possession), Dallas (rock-solid defensive hockey) Ducks (aggressive and tough), Buffalo (skilled and quick), Ottawa (size, speed and skill). The Thrashers are tending towards to small and skilled but that looks more like an accident than a conscious plan.

The Players
Finally it is time to discuss the players. The best guys on the squad this year are the rookies. They showed up and were ready to play physically and mentally. The same can not be said of the veterans who have turned in an embarrassing performance. How many years has Alexei Zhitnik played in the NHL? Shouldn't he know how to get himself ready for the season? Why do veteran leaders like Nic Havelid keep giving away the puck? How many times is Bobby Holik going to get called for the same hooking penalty--these new rules have been around for 170 games now I think.

These guys are professionals and they right now they are playing like amateurs. They look unprepared, unfocused and undisciplined. In many private industries those three attributes would lead directly to becoming unemployed. In my line of work I don't have the luxury of not showing up for work.

It was a series of failures that put this team into their current position. It is going to take a series of good decisions to get them back on track again. But at least the team is interesting again. I was nearing the point of not wanting to watch the games anymore. They have my attention again, so please give me a reason to stay tuned.