As what might come as a total non-shock to Thrashers fans, Don Waddell was passed over for the NHL’s first GM of the Year Award. The nominees are George McPhee of the Caps, Phoenix GM Don Maloney, and Nashville’s David Poile.
I’m going to go with Puck Daddy on this one and question the rationale of giving out an annual award for general managers when the teams that they assemble take years to grow and gel. A general manager could have drafted a prospect years ago who is just now making it in the league, or you could have a GM who pulled off a shrewd trade on deadline day that helped push his franchise the extra step. Which do you place more value on, and how does one justify that decision? The ballots were sent to the league’s general managers, so it was given to those who would know it best, but how much of this is sympathy/admiration for a small market team who managed to be super scrappy?
A look at Waddell and this award after the jump.
That sentence right there is basically a summary for the Nashville Predators, who insist on getting to the playoffs when people don’t really pay much attention. They have excellent players (most of whom have been acquired by trades) who maintain a low profile, and Jack Adams nominee Barry Trotz year in and year out grinds a good and pesky game out of them. Trotz deserves a good deal of the credit for that team, which in a way is a credit to Poile. But is that just for this year? Can we go back in a time machine and look at the past years – how much does that play into a team getting an award? What if there’s a well put-together team out there that suffered a major injury or two and didn’t perform up to expectations. Is that GM less qualified to be nominated for the award because the call-up that replaced the hurt player wasn’t NHL caliber at age 18?
For the Thrashers, Don Waddell has been a lightning rod for blame, and there is a lot of justification behind that irritation. However, a good many of his decisions were done either because it was the best thing possible (Stefan – the 1999 draft was blech) or just out of a general sense of well-being for the franchise. That latter category to me was filled in the 2008 off-season, when he brought in Mathieu Schneider to mentor Zach Bogosian. By all accounts it was a personal success, and Zach credits Schneider with a good bit of what he learned during his first professional season. However, Schneider was a square peg in a round hole, and never fit with the rest of the team. Fans were calling for his head due to penalties since Schneider came from a team (the Ducks) who actually had a penalty killing unit. The penalties being taken, too, prevented goals – in Anaheim that’d be great because the penalties would be killed, but in Atlanta the penalty kill sytstem was just being enacted under new (and former) coach John Anderson. It wasn’t particularly equipped to handle Schneider.
2008 -2009 is actually a season where a lot of fans had increased expectations due to Waddell’s off-season work. Drafting Bogosian was a smart move, albeit one that any GM would have made. He believed that signing Jason Williams, Ron Hainsey, and Mathieu Schneider made the team better, and on paper we were. He just didn’t take into consideration lackluster performances as a whole. Individuals (Kozlov, Armstrong, Enstrom, Little, White) stepped up, but as a whole the team had no chemistry. When you have Erik Christensen centering Ilya Kovalchuk, there’s a problem. Waddell effectively plugged a hole with the stealing of Rich Peverley from Nashville, but by then it was too late to fix the team.
His decisions in 2008-2009 were ridiculed by many who just said it was another failure by Don Waddell. Put yourself in his shoes, though. That offseason was one after an atrocious year, where we were rudderless and basically coachless (sorry, Don). The highlight of the free agency signing season was Brian Campbell saying thanks but no thanks. The caliber of players Waddell got were who would come here. He did the best with what he could. Some might chalk that up to Waddell anyway, saying that the previous season’s failure was his fault, but that discounts ownership being too cheap to pay for two coaches at once.
The Hossa trade did basically wind up being Armstrong (who has said he wants to stay -we’ll see), O’Dell from the Ducks for EC, and Daulton Leville, who might very well be Jimmy Slater v. 2.0. It might not seem like much, but O’Dell was gotten from the Ducks for a player who was supposed to be one of the best young centers in the league – no one mentioned to Waddell that he needed to see a sports psychologist to resolve nerve and performance issues. O’Dell is now currently one of our top prospects in a farm system that many say is one of the most stacked in the league – again, thanks to Waddell.
Last off-season saw the addition of Evander Kane, who was a complete spark of life to the team. Waddell also went out of his way to try to convince Kovalchuk to stay put, signing Max Afinogenov to a super cheap $800,000 contract for the season, and by getting Pavel Kubina for Garnet Exelby. That trade, despite what Leafs fans say about it being a salary dump, was outstanding. Kubina and Afinogenov, like Armstrong, seem positive about re-upping with the Thrashers. Waddell also brought in Nik Antropov to center Kovalchuk, and despite the fact that Kovy’s gone, the team has an actual leader in Antropov to step in and up.
The Kovalchuk trade in itself was outstanding – Kovy was a rental for the Devils, pure and simple. He absolutely is not a guy that you build a team around, as we have learned here. In return we got the Devils top two (some might say only) prospects in Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier. We also got Johnny Oduya, who clicked with Ron Hainsey and became probably our best defensive pairing down the stretch. We got a few more pieces of the puzzle, and the Devils, well, Kovalchuk finally got that playoff win. Of one game.
Waddell has been given credit for some bad deals – Zhitnik for Coburn, of course, and the deal with St. Louis to rent Keith Tkachuk saw the Thrashers lose a lot of good draft picks. Waddell has mentioned that it was the owners who wanted him to do whatever he had to do to get us to the playoffs, and you have to remember Zhitnik and Walt were both key pieces in getting us to the playoffs for the first time in history – the blame for the sweep lies elsewhere. I have never been a huge fan of every decision that he’s ever made, while I am a big fan of him as a person and his commitment to the team. I liked the move to “fire him up,” as I feel that the relationship he has with the players as well as with others in the league, are an asset to the organization.
Listen, Waddell was never a contender for GM of the year in any of the past ten seasons. But, now that he’s out of the position and that it’s the off-season (and I am bored and running out of stuff to write about), it’s easier to step back and look at his record as someone who understands hockey in general instead of looking at it as a Thrashers fan.
The closing question is this – if we make the playoffs and win a series next year, would the award be retroactive to this season? Apparently being a small market team who exceeds expectations is part of the qualifications. Maybe there’s still a chance for D-Wad after all.