The Man To Blame In Atlanta

Understandably, there’s been a lot of excitement in Canada about the potential relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the city of Winnipeg. For a country used to losing its NHL franchises, this would be a welcome reversal of a trend that saw them moving to the United States, and of course Winnipeg would welcome back any NHL team with open arms.

Still, it is hard not to empathize with Thrashers fans. As Scott Lewis pointed out earlier today, if this relocation is announced it will be the second time Atlanta has lost an NHL team.

Unlike many, though, I don’t take this to mean that Atlanta is necessarily a bad market. In fact, I’d argue that it is pretty easy to pinpoint the problem in this particular case.

It’s all Don Waddell’s fault.

I am exaggerating a little bit, of course, as there’s been so much incompetence at all levels of Thrashers’ operations that picking just one man as the person to blame will never be more than a partial picture. Even so, Waddell’s hand is obvious at every step along the way.

The Atlanta Thrashers have never had a good season. In 2006-07, the club’s finest year, they finished 14th in the league. They had a lousy (plus-1) goal differential, got outshot by a wide margin, and combined an anaemic power play with a miserable penalty kill, but managed to get home ice in the first round of the playoffs thanks to playing in the league’s worst division. They were swept in four games by a New York Rangers club that finished the regular season plus-26.

As Atlanta fans have pointed out, there’s a pretty obvious connection between on-ice success and attendance – every town has hardcore fans, but most also rely on casual fans coming to games, and casual fans don’t like to watch awful teams. A brief glance at team history shows attendance spikes when the club was less bad, and this is something that probably 75% of teams in the league have in common.

Don Waddell was made general manager of the Thrashers before the club ever played a game, way back in June 1998. He held that position until getting bumped up to team president in the summer of 2010. In that role, he was the man who ran hockey operations – for decisions from on-ice personnel to coaches, the buck stopped with Waddell.

Waddell did a bad job. He accrued some elite talent – in players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and later Marian Hossa – but never complemented them with quality forwards sprinkled throughout the team. Goaltending has been an issue since the days of Damian Rhodes and Norm Maracle. Waddell also never succeeded in icing an above average set of NHL defensemen.

Unlike other general managers – Mike Milbury comes to mind – Waddell’s failing was less in huge trades that went bad, and more in a simple inability to build a roster that could compete in the NHL. The fact that for the vast majority of his tenure his club played in far-and-away the league’s worst division only compounds that failure.

If and when the league announces the relocation of the Thrashers, the blame will belong to Waddell more than to any other individual.

Comments (11)

  1. While I agree that Waddell is in charge, I still think that Atlanta isn’t a great market for pro sports period. The Hawks have never been much better at the gate (in spite of playing in the city with the highest proportion of affluent blacks in the U.S.), and the Falcons did poorly for an NFL team until Vick and Ryan. And we all know the stories about Braves fans being so spoiled that the might show up for a World Series game if the weather’s nice. This isn’t an LA / Washington situation, where even the remotest hint of respectability gets most home games sold out. I’d liken it more to Tampa, except Tampa has been blessed with generally competent management for much of its history.

    What’s going to be interesting is when this story gets replayed with the Blue Jackets. Aside from Canadian media ignorance about the market (it’s about as “southern” as Windsor), that’s another case of the team’s gate struggles being purely down to management incompetence. Hockey should be an easy sell in Ohio. That it hasn’t been is almost directly attributable to management, specifically someone who’s now being paid to waste airtime on both versions of Sportsnet.

  2. @ Stephen:

    If Columbus ever moves I’ll be far angrier about it then the possible relocaiton of the Thrashers. Doug MacLean destroyed a very good market there.

  3. Scott Howeson isnt doing anything to fix the situation there either, he ‘s just a s bad

  4. Step 1: get rid of Waddell
    Step 2: put together a decent core of young players
    Step 3: move to Winnipeg
    Step 4: ???
    Step 5: profit.

    I’d feel bad for the guys at Sportsnet if I thought any of them understood what an idiot MacLean is… Columbus cannot be allowed to fail.

  5. Jonathan: Believe me, I know. I’m currently dating a relocated Jackets fan (make all the jokes about how, as a Kings fan, I found someone with a more troubled playoff history than me), and everything she says basically paints the city as Pittsburgh pre-Crosby in terms of potential interest in the team, in spite of the difficulties of being an Eastern city playing on the west coast half the time.

    On that note, though… are you going to moot realignment scenarios or just not bother?

    My guess – Nashville into the Southeast, Winnipeg into the Smythe, Colorado into the Pacific, Dallas into the Central. Which doesn’t work out well for anyone, travel-wise, except the Pacific teams, who have shortly lessened commutes to Denver.

    (Columbus is the most easterly team, but there’s no way to move them into the two divisions they’d most logically fit in, the Atlantic or the Northeast).

  6. @ Stephen:

    I’m under the impression that Detroit to the East is the most likely scenario if/when Winnipeg gets its team.

  7. (Looks at map)

    … how does that make ANY SENSE? Geographically, I mean (and, yes, I know that’s never stopped sports leagues before).

    Not to mention that there’s plenty of good reasons to keep a team that strong, marketing-wise, in the West. Versus certainly doesn’t want to give up those Red Wings numbers for late games in the new contract.

    More significantly, Detroit or Columbus would have to move into the Northeast or Atlantic, and there’s no way that sequence of bumps works. You’d have to have the Pens or Flyers moving into the Southeast. At least Nashville kinda fits with Carolina / DC / Florida in the NASCAR division.

  8. Why do we even need conferences? We can keep traveling down and rivalries up without 2 conferences. 5 divisions of 6. 6 games against each of your 5 division rivals with 2 against everyone else. That’s 78 games. The season is too long anyway. Top 16 teams go on. Tournament is set up by normal seeding.

    Boston, NYI, NYR, NJD, Phi, Mont.
    Wash, Nash, TB, Fla, Car, Dallas
    Tor, Buff, Ott, Pitt, Det, CBJ
    LA, SJ, Phx, Col, Ana, Van
    Edm, Win, Cal, Min, Chi, Stl.

  9. But if Phoenix moves to a North Eastern city (Quebec?) then Nashville/Detroit/Columbus might have to move back to the West next year.

    No city’s fans are going to want a flip flop of rivals like that. I think Winnipeg plays in the East this year till Phoenix has a permanent home.

  10. Hockey is hard to sell in Columbus because everyone lives vicariously through the Buckeyes, although as a student I’m hoping that will change will the recent OSU football fuckup.

  11. wow it is a nice,i like it, and will back for reply

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