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Townhall Meeting: Getting Back on Track?

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"Luck is the residue of design"

At last night's Thrasher Town Hall Meeting I asked one question of Don Waddell. Basically it was a paraphrase of what I have written on the blog. I said the following:

"I've been attending games since 1999 and in that time the Thrashers have finished as follows: bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, bottom half, middle, bottom half. I look at the Thrashers management and I see the same Director of Player Personnel, the same Director of Scouting, the same General Manager and the same Asst. GM. When I look at the the Thrashers record of trades and free agent signing there have been more unpleasant surprises than pleasant surprises. Tell me why I as a paying customer I should expect things to be improve?"

Don Waddell sort of looked at the floor and mentioned that they evaluate every trade in the summer, they had made some management changes with Les Jackson and Jack Ferreria leaving, they had made coaching changes. "We've talked about this before, but I may have been too conservative." "If I never made any trades then they wouldn't be criticized, you have to take some risks." "We are working hard and trying to do our best." Basically it the same answer he gave when DucksThrashers asked him why he should still have a job this summer at Prospects Camp breakfast. (note: Les Jackson left before the lockout ended and Jack Ferreria two years ago--in both cases the Thrashers were left with less, not more NHL experience in their front office.)

That was not the answer I was hoping to hear. I was serious about the last part--is there a plan? Why should expect anything different? Has upper management learned anything from the recent past mistakes?

I would have been more optimistic about the Thrashers going forward if I knew that they were adding another hockey person to help evaluate trades and free agents. The Blackhawks just added Scotty Bowman (his son works for them) and the Thrashers could certainly stand to have another NHL veteran around in my opinion. I wrote this summer that the Thrashers management looks like an IHL alumni group and nothing has changed in that respect. Given the team's record in acquiring NHL talent I think it is a fair question to ask why they haven't upgraded their Director of Player Personnel position within the organization.

If the Thrashers are going forwards with the same people doing the same jobs--then I want to hear some solid reasons why things will be different this time. What did they learn from past mistakes? What is the plan this time and why will it work when the last one failed? If you look around pro sports some people do learn and improve. Take the Patriots coach Bill Belichick for example, he wasn't anything special in his first stint as coach in Cleveland but in New England he has been extremely impressive. Same person, different results--I'm assuming he learned a few things from his mistakes in Cleveland.

Instead of hearing about lessons learned by the Thrashers I was told that they try hard. I have no doubt that the statement is true--they all seem like decent human beings and I have no doubt that they put in long hours and give it their best. I try hard in my job too, but if I perform poorly my annual contract will not be renewed. This is the NHL, not grade school--nobody gets credit for "effort" anymore.

Much of that effort is likely wasted unless it is focused. At the top I put the quote "luck is the residue of design" which essentially means that those who follow a plan are more likely to get the breaks than those that don't. What appears to be "luck" is in fact a by product of an intentional strategy. One of the most troubling things about the meeting last night is that Coach Anderson and Ron Hainsey seemed to grasp this point more than the GM.

When Anderson walked out he basically said "I have a plan, we're going to do x and y and z." Hainsey mentioned that both Anaheim and Detroit won the Cup because they were all committed to using the same system--it wasn't so much that one system was better than another--but that everyone was on the same page. Don Waddell never laid out any master plan of strategy but just sort of rambled through the roster and who he expected to play better this year.

I've been listening to Don Waddell for close to a decade and he often talks about the Thrashers in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way. I believe that reflects his seat-of-the-pants management style. But I'm afraid that catch-as-catch-can is an insufficient way to run a NHL team. You need a plan, a strategy, a design and you need to execute that to the best of your ability. Over the years I've heard Waddell talk about becoming a uptempo western style team, adding toughness, adding character, getting bigger, getting faster, etc. All of those are goals--none of those reflect an overarching strategy.

Let's face facts, the Thrashers face big obstacles compared to many NHL markets. They have put forward a poor product for years. They need to break through and draw attention in a crowded sports marketplace. They have low team revenues. They have incredibly low TV ratings. In order for this club to win they need a plan and they need a path to get there. They cannot afford to miss opportunties by lurching from one objective to another. They need to exploit every advantage that they can exploit. Coach Anderson has his plan, but I'm not so sure the same can be said about the Thrashers management.