Kukla's Korner

Don Waddell’s Biggest Mistake

How did it all go so terribly wrong for the Atlanta Thrashers? At one point there was a whole heck of a lot of hope and exciting surrounding this team. They could score, they had young goaltending talent, and they had a proven Stanley Cup-winning coach.

Since then, the Thrashers have been dismantled into a train wreck of a franchise, with accusations of apathy from the head coach and a star player getting more press for trade rumors than goal scoring. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that the Thrashers only made the playoffs once in their existance or that their only playoff appearance was a pitiful four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers.

Where did it all go wrong? I’m betting that Don Waddell’s biggest regret stems down to one transaction. That is, one transaction that didn’t happen.

Right before the lockout, it seemed like the Thrashers had finally turned Marc Savard’s potential into tangible results. The year after the lockout, Savard flew even higher with 97 points. With Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk powering the way and Slava Kozlov still putting up good numbers, things sure looked rosy in BlueLand. Sure, they had some holes but the foundation was there for success.

With Savard hitting free agency, few people—myself included—would think that he’d put up the same numbers without Ilya Kovalchuk on his wing. Boy, were we wrong. More importantly, Don Waddell was wrong for not ponying up the cash necessary to keep Savard in the fold.

The following season (2006-07), the Thrashers did indeed make the playoffs. However, their goals-for dropped by 35. Having Savard would have certainly kept the team around the 281 goals they had scored in the previous season with Savard. Hartley had the team playing better defense, dropping their goals-against from 275 in 2005-06 to 245 in 06-07, though their power play sunk from the league’s top 10 to the league’s bottom 10. As for Savard, he maintained his dynamite playmaking and was recently named to this year’s All-Star team.

So let’s look at what transpired. The year after Savard, Atlanta’s team defense got better but the team failed to score anywhere near as many goals. As a result, Atlanta’s trade deadline involved a disaster deal for secondary scoring in Keith Tkachuk (Glen Metropolit, 1st round pick, 2nd round pick, and a 3rd round pick). The team also tried to get a power-play defenseman in Alexei Zhitnik, though it cost promising young blueliner Braydon Coburn.

Now let’s speculate a little bit here; say Savard had stayed with Atlanta and the team was putting up goals at their 2005-06 clip (281) while keeping them out at their 2006-07 pace (245). Let’s also assume that their power play stayed strong enough that acquiring Zhitnik wasn’t necessary. They could have kept Coburn, who’s developed into a quality defenseman in his own right, and used the other assets in different ways (either draft or trading for better pieces to the puzzle).

The following season, Atlanta traded Marian Hossa when Waddell felt Hossa wouldn’t re-sign with the team. Would Hossa have stayed if the Atlanta offense was still a league powerhouse? It’s hard to tell but it certainly would have helped. With this season’s development of forward Brian Little, a Thrashers squad with Kovalchuk, Hossa, Savard, Kozlov, and Little would have one of the best top-two lines in the league.

Of course, Savard wouldn’t have prevented goalie Kari Lehtonen from constantly getting hurt. However, the Thrashers could have had the scoring prowess to overcome it, and the team’s defense could have been augmented through lesser transactions into a solid, not spectacular bunch. Perhaps a culture of winning would have aided Tobias Enstrom’s development even further, as the young blueliner has struggled in his sophomore season. You can also bet that Atlanta wishes they still had Braydon Coburn.

Instead, the Thrashers play to empty seats and the Ilya Kovalchuk trade rumors float by just about every hour. Fans are calling for Don Waddell’s head and any success appears to be at least a few years away—though no one’s quite sure where it will come from (hello John Tavares).

Was Savard the single thread that caused everything to fall apart? It’s hard to say, but it sure seems like it.

Filed in: NHL, | Mike Chen's Hockey Blog | Permalink
  Tags: atlanta+thrashers, marc+savard

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