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Teflon Don is the Matt Millen of the NHL


Revised on February 10, 2010.

Now that Ilya Kovalchuk is donning a New Jersey Devil sweater and ‘goaltender of the future’ Kari Lehtonen has traded in his Thrashers blue for a Dallas star, it may be time to switch our (AP Photo/John Bazemore)speculation from ‘what team will win the Kovalchuk sweepstakes’ to ‘what city will the Thrashers be moving to’.

Don Waddell who was an assistant GM of the Detroit Red Wings and won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1998, has all but bombed since taking the helm for the Atlanta Thrashers and his journey has ‘Matt Millen’ written all over it.

Not to be outdone by Millen, in the same week he dumped Kovalchuk, he also traded another first-round pick Lehtonen. Add those two players to the other stars like Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa who have also left the building.

Know as Teflon Don for his ability to survive ‘sticky situations’ and somehow hang onto his job as his team remains near the cellar of his league for much of his 10 years as GM, he has set up the Atlanta Thrashers for failure by allowing his star players (again) to leave the building.

Many expect these latest moves to bury the franchise. With an arena that on many nights is blanketed with empty seats, this move may prove to be the team’s demise. In a recent column, Hockey News columnist Ryan Kennedy opines, “The future is bleak.”

Former GM and Hockey Night in Canada analyst Mike Milbury was highly critical of the Thrashers’ GM, and doesn’t believe Waddell got fair value in return for his star. “I think he misplayed his hand, and I think he badly misplayed his hand,” Milbury said. He went on to say that Waddell has a history of making bad trades.

In a more recent published piece in The Hockey News Rory Boylen explains, “In trading away Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas Stars Tuesday night, the Thrashers have now disconnected themselves from all but one of their six first round draft picks from the first five drafts of the team’s existence.”

That should sound familiar to Detroit Lions fans as they witnessed a similar situation under Matt Millen. Of the first round draft picks for the Lions between 2002-2006, only one player remains on the team and like the Thrashers many of those were high first-rounders.

Waddell jumped into a sort of ‘save face’ mode with a press release last week explaining in detail to the fans and media the millions that were offered and turned down by Kovy and his agent Jay Grossman but that dog and pony show may not go far with the fans here in Atlanta. The bottom line is Teflon Don let the face of his franchise go and could not convince the player to sign on the dotted line.

It has to be embarrassing to the franchise when a player refuses to accept $100 million to play NHL hockey in Atlanta. Shunning an offer of this magnitude speaks volumes and may represent what lack of faith Kovy may have in Waddell’s ability to build a winner.

Normally in sports negotiations, real estate transactions and corporate buyouts when lucrative offers like Kovy’s are put on the table they end up signed and done as long as the people at the top have the ability to close it.

After the trade Waddell had the audacity to say “I don’t think it sets us back at all. I think it moves us forward.”

That statement reminds me of when Millen, who is regarded as one of the most incompetent GMs in NFL history, was asked by the Detroit Free Press about his 0-2 Lions start and their record-setting string of losses under his management, he responded, “What we are doing is the right thing to do . . . stay the course.”

If Waddell truly believes that removing a superstar like Ilya Kovalchuk from the team and replacing him with a rookie who hasn’t scored in 13 games, a draft pick and a few other unproven players, then like Millen it may be time for him to move on. Millen also believed and he said it himself, “My initial thought was this: If you can’t get it done in five years, get out.”Problem in Detroit was, Millen said those words but did not live by them and years later he had to be pried from his seat.

Atlanta fans are experiencing a similar situation where a GM has been granted more than an adequate amount of time to produce a winner and has not.

Waddel made a few more comments that may have the fans shaking their heads. “We’re struggling with our attendance as it is,” said Waddell, whose team is tied 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, just a few points out of playoff spot. “The only way we’re going to bring fans back is by winning hockey games.”

So do you do that by trading away your leading scorer and one of the greatest players in the world?

It’s common for GMs to deal away players for a lot less value if they believe they will not get a deal done in the off-season but this is a case where the team could have kept Kovy and at least tried to make the playoffs then possibly coax him to accept one of the deals that was offered. This would have certainly put more fans in the seats for the remainder of this year, especially if they could have gotten hot like early in the season and gone on even a short playoff run.

Now that Waddell was once again unable to retain a star player, will the ownership have the guts to make the move that many fans in Atlanta (like Detroit with Millen) have been begging for, for years? Millen never willingly agreed to resign and the same is expected of Waddell.

Over the past several years it has been more than challenging for Waddell to get players to sign here even with Kovy on the team. UFA Brian Campbell turned down a reported $60 million contract that Waddell was said to have offered and opted to go to a team located in a snow belt who hadn’t made the playoffs in years.

Last year, that trend looked like it may possibly be changing when having Kovy in a Thrashers’ uniform convinced players like Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina to lace them up in the south. Now that Kovy is in New Jersey, many people expect these players to move on elsewhere when the opportunity arrives.

Also with Kovalchuk gone there is a strong possibility of losing two other players of the Thrashers Russian trio as well. The Thrashers obtained Maxim Afinogenov for $800,000and after a comeback season that has produced (17g-27a-44pts) ranking him first on the team in scoring, expect him to test the free agent market.

Ex-Red Wing player Slava Kozlov is the other of the trio we should expect to move on and possibly try to follow Kovy. Owning some of the league’s best shootout stats, Kozlov would help whatever team picks him up.

During this roller-coaster week of trade talks and negotiations, Kovalchuk spoke to the media. “You don’t want to be a distraction. We are in a playoff race and we are only one point from the playoffs, said the star winger. “Hopefully, we are going to figure something out.”

Waddell believed Kovy sincerely wanted to stay and said this after trading away the franchise’s best hope, “I think, Kovy right to the last day, wanted to be a Thrasher. But it’s a business decision.”

Yes it was Teflon Don, and a really bad one.

More Thrashers:

Waddell Releases Statement to the Media

Kovalchuk Showing Great Leadership in Atlanta

Copyright © 2010 – Sports Climax

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