So what should Thrasher fans make of all these changes announced today? On the one hand, you could say that a new GM and a new Coaching staff represents the biggest front office change in the history of the franchise. On the other hand, you could say that Waddell and Dudley were running the show last year and argue that the amount of change is more modest than it appears. Time will tell whether today marks a pivot point toward a better future or a continuation of past disappointments. (I have some stats I will post later on Anderson as head coach and Don Waddell as GM, but today I'd like to just make some quick observations.)
Was this the plan all along at GM? In the past, I have heard talk that Don Waddell was asked by ownership if he wanted to become President or stay as GM. Obviously he remained as GM. It is possible that Waddell told the owners "look if you want a new GM, give him a year to evaluate the talent we have so he can hit the ground running." As Jay Feaster noted on NHL Live today, Dudley came in with the title Associate GM which suggested to many that Dudley had been designated as the successor of Waddell. If scenario is correct, Dudley starts off with a big advantage over an outside GM who would need to spend at least half a season taking stock of the franchise's resources. In theory Dudley should be well equipped to make big decisions quickly.
State of the franchise? Dudley takes over a franchise with a mixture of good and bad points. A general lack of success in Atlanta has lead to a shrinking fanbase (and presumably bigger money losses for the owners) and a pressing need for on ice success. On the plus side, the Thrasher have more under-25 talent than at any other point in their history. Don Waddell has taken the hit for moving a popular star player sparing the new guy from dealing with that situation. The Thrashers have more potential to contend in 2010 than they did in the last two summers. So Dudley has a team with fiscal restraints, but more so, he has some talent to work with.
What kind of budget? One pressing question is how much money will Dudley be allowed to spend. Atlanta Spirit spent to the cap max in the first two years after the lockout, then cut way back to near the floor the next two seasons. This last year they increased payroll substantially and crossed over the cap midpoint and they offered Kovalchuk a huge contract. But the increased spending only moved the team from 27th in the standings to 23rd and they are not going to see a dime off of playoff revenues. The owners spent more and yet attendance went down. Will they give Dudley the same $50-52 million budget that Waddell had last season, or will they cut back payroll and go with the young guys?
What sort of coach might we see? One guy you can cross off the list is Mike Keenan. Dudley and Keenan had a power struggle in Florida and the owner picked Keenan and Dudley was fired. In the past, Dudley promoted John Tortarella over his pal Steve Ludzik, but "Torts" is still employed by the NY Rangers. The beat writer for the Wild pointed towards John Torchetti as another close associate of Dudley's who might be interviewed after the Blackhawks playoff run is over.
What kind of GM will Dudley be? Here are some interesting trends to ponder. As GM of the Panthers Dudley twice traded down in the draft. He traded the #1 pick to the Blue Jackets. So he's not someone who is shy about wheeling and dealing on draft day. He is also rumored have set up a deal to trade Vinny Lecavalier from Tampa to Toronto which was axed by ownership. Dudley is not shy about working the phones to swing a big deal. His draft day record is less encouraging. Fans of Tampa and Florida point towards his habit of drafting European players such as Svitov, Arthyuhkin, Polushin, Holmqvist--while his biggest hits (with Florida) came from drafting North America's David Booth and Nathan Horton.
What about Waddell out-ranking him? Some fans are concerned that Waddell will secretly be making all the key decisions. Here are some observations on this point. Waddell tried to do everything himself as GM. He wanted to be the chief scout, the CFO , the press office and he even coached for one full season. Few people are skilled enough to do everything well. If Don Waddell handles the contracts, marketing and even some media duties that could allow Dudley to focus like a laser on building a good hockey product. Will Waddell micro-manage? He might be tempted from time to time--and it is important that Dudley has a long term relationship with Waddell. Unlike an outsider, Dudley can probably say to him "Don, I've got this covered." I'm sure they will talk daily about team business, but if Waddell really wants to see his friend be successful, he will have to let him run with the ball. In fact, the one area where Waddell didn't try to micro-manage things was in coaching where he allowed them wide discretion. If Waddell handles Dudley like he did the coaches, Dudley will have autonomy.
What sort of team does Dudley favor? Rick is a pretty quiet in terms of media interaction, but he has shown a preference for bigger players and the team added two giants (Antropov and Kubina) in the summer after he arrived. I would expect a continuation of that trend towards more size and physicality. Dudley also drafted Artyukhin when he was GM of Tampa, then the Thrashers traded for him at the deadline. Obviously he likes the guy, so I would be shocked if Artyukhin is not back next year as well.
Will this help Atlanta with free agents? Waddell was widely viewed as not up to the job. This only made signing quality free agents more difficult. Dudley has not won any Stanley Cups, but he is generally viewed as an experienced hockey man. If nothing else the Thrashers can put out the "Under New Management" sign and talk up their young core and shiny new GM--that might save them a few $ when bidding on free agents or open some doors that would have been closed to GM Waddell.
Will this bring back fans? Not by itself. I know a number of fans who stopping coming to games because Don Waddell burned through all their trust. They took his continued presence in the GM job as an indicator of ownership indifference, some might even say contempt for their customers. I happen to share my home with one of those people. In the short run, putting Dudley in the GM chair removes one obstacle that kept some locals from supporting the team. In the long run, a winning team and some post-season excitement is going to be necessary.