02 November 2007

USA Today: Waddell might be best choice...

Waddell might be best choice behind Atlanta bench
By Kevin Allen, USA TODAY

Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell might be steaming toward to the conclusion that his best coaching option for the rest of this season might be staring him in the face as he shaves each morning.

Although Waddell would still prefer to name a permanent coach, it seems more likely each day that he will retain the title as interim coach for the remainder of the season.

Several factors might be pushing him toward that decision, including the fact that most of top assistant coaches around the NHL don't have in-season out clauses and their general managers won't give Waddell permission to talk to them until the summer.

Second, with the Thrashers' ownership in limbo because of a legal squabble, Waddell could have trouble securing ownership approval for a long-term hire.

But the most important factor of all is that the Thrashers players seem to be responding well to Waddell's coaching style. After starting 0-6, the Thrashers are now 4-2 under Waddell, even though they have played five of those six games on the road.

Essentially what Waddell has done has pumped optimism into a team that was being suffocated by the weight of its self-doubt and its weariness of Bob Hartley's style. In a world where everyone is always complaining about something, Waddell always acts as if he is always thankful to make a living in the hockey business. He is well respected around the NHL, and if he gets fired from the Thrashers, it is presumed that he would soon find new employment with the league office or with another team. Most people in hockey like Waddell because he always treats everyone with respect. He seems to be an optimistic person by nature, and that seems to be rubbing off on the Thrashers. His speech on his first day was to forget about the 0-6 start because his approach was they were starting with clean slate.

The team still looked sloppy defensively in his first couple of games behind the bench, but the Thrashers have slowly started to tighten in the recent. And their 3-2 win against Montreal was probably their best game of the season.

Waddell has also made his mark as a coach in more tangible ways:

  • Empowering Ilya Kovalchuk by giving him more ice. He played more than 23 minutes against Montreal and played 26 minutes against Toronto. Kovalchuk and Hartley had a dysfunctional relationship, and Kovalchuk seems to be responding to Waddell's style. He has three goals, five assists and two shootout goals under Waddell's command.
  • Creating a fourth line of Eric Boulton, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn that seems to give the team some energy. They make contact. They draw penalties and they don't get scored on.
  • Inserted defenseman Mark Popovic into the lineup and benched Steve McCarthy. That probably showed the team that Waddell will make difficult decisions. McCarthy competes aggressively, and gives his coach what he has, but he was minus-13. Popovic plays safer than McCarthy, and his steadiness has also helped Alexei Zhitnik start to emerge from his slump.
  • He cut Zhitnik's minutes because he decided he wasn't in shape, and he needed to regain his confidence. He played more solidly against Montreal.
  • Moved rookie Bryan Little and Darren Haydar to play with Kovalchuk, and he's trying to get Marian Hossa started by playing him with Todd White and Eric Perrin.
  • Empowering prize rookie Little. He used Little in a shootout over Hossa, and he's showing confidence him in key situations. But he's also keeping him honest, pulling him aside for a brief discussion after he saw not hustling back on defense.
Basically, Waddell is selling enthusiasm and everyone seems to be buying in.

This team still ranks among the NHL's shakiest defensive teams, but Waddell seems to have made a difference. The Thrashers have looked stingier over the past couple of days. Waddell is not working with the league's most talent-laden roster, and certainly he bears responsibility for that. As GM, he pulls the levers behind the curtains. He has made decisions that haven't helped. The signing of Steve Rucchin was a mistake. Waddell is glad he has Bobby Holik, but his $4.5 million salary has made it difficult to build any depth. But the ownership issues also haven't helped him. He didn't have the money this past summer to acquire a free agent to help on defense, and he watched free agents Jonathan Sim, Eric Belanger and Andy Sutton move away.

Waddell has other options for a coach, including assistant Brad McCrimmon, who is popular with his players. Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson is a possibility. Pat Quinn's friends around the NHL are lobbying on his behalf.

But Waddell seems disappointed that he can't reach out to the top assistant coaches around the NHL. He certainly would like to look at Mike Sullivan in Tampa Bay, and presumably he would consider Nashville assistant coach Brent Peterson. He might be thinking that he will have a deeper pool of talent if he can wait until the summer to make his decision.

If Waddell could squeeze out another win in either Ottawa or Tampa Bay, this would have been amazingly impressive road trip under the circumstances. He's selling his players on the fact that they have already played almost 25% of their road games and a now favorable schedule will allow the Thrashers to climb back into contention.

Waddell is optimistic to the point that he truly believes that. He probably is the right guy to finish the season as Atlanta's coach.


Knotwurth Mentioning said...

Excellent to hear about a coach who is happy to be around the league. Too often the "good" coaches are big meanies -- to work for someone who's willing to let the players enjoy themselves has got to be nice from time to time!

Have the Thrashers decided to avoid hiring a big-name coach, though? All the talk about assistants, but you would think a star-studded team would be looking to a Bowman or a Quinn. But then, I suppose that you don't always want the coach being the biggest name in the locker room. Clashing egos often kills teams -- as seemed to be the case early-on in Atlanta!

Maal said...

You know, I wish I knew. I do agree with you that there don't need to be any more egos in the room - I hazard to say that was Hartley's biggest problem, and why he butted heads with so many of the players (Lehtonen and Kovalchuk specifically). I hope they go with someone lesser known, and they all grow together. But all that said, I've no problem with how Waddell's been coaching since he took over. From 0-6 to 5-9 so he's coaching over .500. Can't complain.