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Why Nobody Wants to Come to Atlanta

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Yesterday free agent defensemen Brian Campbell turned down a multi-million fortune proffered by the Thrashers and choose to sign with a team, the Chicago Blackhawks, which has made the playoffs once in the last ten seasons which plays to a half empty building most nights. Yes the Blackhawks have some exciting young talent, but still they haven't been considered an above average franchise in a long time. It is time to take stock of what this says about the Atlanta Thrashers

The Atlanta Thrashers are widely perceived as one of the least desirable places for a free agent to sign--despite the fact that they have a top notch arena, nice practice facility, great weather, a family atmosphere and lots of golf courses (I swear every NHLer plays golf) and extensive shopping (for the wives and girlfriends of course). So let's cut to the case, free agents are turning down the Thrashers money because of team management and ownership.

The Thrashers are viewed as a poorly run franchise and nobody wants to commit to spending 7 or 8 years here. Why does this perception exist? Let's review:

During his tenure Don Waddell has consistently assembled the most porous defense in the entire NHL season after season. Back in the summer of 2001 Chris Osgood's became available when the Red Wings annouced they would put him on waivers. Don Waddell was unwilling to make a trade and take on Osgood's $4 million contract. Instead the Islanders picked up Osgood off of waivers. The Thrashers went with their mismash of below average goaltenders until they finally awoke to their own mis-evaluation and signed Byron Dafoe to a contract. But Lord Byron wasn't up to the job either and Pasi Nurminen beat him out for playing time.

I remember clear as day, Don Waddell standing in front of a room full of season ticket holders saying "I know we need goaltending, I know where to get goaltending, we will get it if we need more." But Don Waddell never followed through on that promise. Instead he toyed around with marginal goalies for years and let Osgood go to a conference rival. Penny wise and pound foolish.

When the lockout was over Don Waddell looked at his defensively weak roster and concluded that signing a 3rd line checking center (Bobby Holik) and paying him scoring center money ($4.25 million per year) would somehow solve the team's leadership and character problems. This was a gross miscalculation on nearly every count. Leadership was weak all three years that Holik was a Thrasher and Holik's turn as captain was the worst year of the three. Holik did win a lot of faceoffs, but he was not a great penalty killer and he only turned up his intensity in the spring time.

After the lockout the Thrashers had high hopes of making the playoffs. Indeed the 2005-06 roster is the strongest of any team in franchise history. However, backup goalie Pasi Nurminen was lost before the season and starter Kari Lehtonen was lost in the very first game. Now here's the real kicker, Don Waddell knew that Lehtonen would be out a substantial amount of time (indeed he missed half the season) but he basically gambled that the team would muddle through.

Now there were other solutions out there on the trade market but it would have cost the team a high draft pick. Instead Don Waddell tried minor leaguers and washed up NHLers (Steve Shields), he gambled and lost. If the Thrashers had traded that draft pick and secured a real NHL goalie they would have made the playoffs. If they had made the playoffs in 2006 they would not have been under great pressure to trade away the 1st, 2nd, 3rd draft picks, Glen Metropolit and Braydon Coburn the following year to secure their first playoff appearance. Penny wise and pound foolish. Ah put for a single draft pick, an entire franchise might have been saved.

The signing of Holik to an enormous contract had a ripple effect the following season when Marc Savard was allowed to depart without any adequate replacement. Because the 3rd line center (Holik) was eating up so much of the payroll, instead the team tried smoke and mirrors. Waddell told season ticket holders instead of "signing one 100 point guy, we're hoping to get 50 points out of two centers" which sounds great until you realize that it is a slight of hand because the team must replace BOTH Savard's 97 points and Stefan's 24 points. The Thrashers brought in Metropolit and Rucchin who managed a combined 49 points before Rucchin's career ended in injury and Metro was dealt to the Blues. So the Thrashers only came up 71 points short! Even if you toss in Tkachuk's 15 points as a center that still leaves them 56 points short--not to mention the 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks expended to acquire the Tkachuk band-aid at center.

Then there is the enormous missed opportunity with the Chris Pronger trade. Everyone in the NHL knew that the Oilers were having a fire sale after Pronger demanded that he be dealt following their run to the Cup Finals. The Anaheim Ducks who already had All-Star Scott Neidermayer on their roster quickly offered a package of prospect Ladislav Smid, (the forgettable) Joffrey Lupul, 2007 1st rounder, 2nd rounder in 2008 and conditional 1st in 2008. The Thrasher could have topped that offer with what they later dealt away for Zhitnik and the Tkachuk rental: Braydon Coburn, 2007 1st and 3rd and 2008 2nd rounder and Glen Metropolit. If the Thrashers had made that deal instead of the Ducks this franchise would have immediately become a serious contender in the NHL--today the Thrashers are the team that free agents spurn.

Finally, there is Don Waddell and his management team. Waddell doesn't have anyone on his staff who has held a high ranking position with another NHL franchise. There is no one to challenge him or offer him perspective.

Look at the Red Wings where former NHLer Jim Nill and NHLer Mark Howe are around to offer their advice, perspective and contacts. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman is there and I'm sure he offers candid opinions in private. Then there is Jimmy Devellano who helped draft the Islanders dynasty and the Red Wings. Now former player Steve Yzerman is there as well to add his advice.

Who do the Thrashers have? Basically Don Waddell, who played 1 NHL game and who spent one season with Detroit as when the repeated as Cup champions in 1997-98. Assistant V.P. Larry Simmons is a financial guy (every team needs one) and never played hockey at any level that I'm aware of. Director of Player Personnel Mark Dobson never played hockey at a high level (St. Louis University has a team?). When the Thrashers are evaluating a player their management team has essentially zero NHL experience as players, one season of experience in NHL management prior to Atlanta and I'm guessing relatively few contacts around the NHL.

When you compare the hockey experience, contacts and background of the Thrashers to that of the Red Wings or other teams--well frankly it looks like the Thrashers are run by an IHL alumni group while the Red Wings are run by an NHL alumni group. Perhaps one reason the Thrashers make so many mis-judgements about players is that the organization lacks sufficient contacts to vet new players. I'll bet the Red Wings organization can get fifteen opinions about a prospective player at the drop of a hat.

The really sad thing is that I like Don Waddell, Mark Dobson and Larry Simmons. They are not jerks or pompous ego mainiacs. They all seem like decent people who work hard and give it their best. But you don't get points for effort in the NHL, you only get credit for results. Right now the results suggest that this is an IHL management team running a NHL franchise. Again, I don't question their effort, but the results suggest that their talents might be better applied at the minor league level than at the NHL level. The NHL is an extremely competitive work environment and the Thrashers management is losing that competition so far.

Frankly it really pains me to write this. I'd much rather be talking about a glowing Thrasher future--but there isn't any glowing future. Instead what we have is a cascade of past mistakes that have resulted in a NHL team that no free agent wants to sign and play for--and truthfully I don't blame them.