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.