Wednesday October 17th, 2007

You can certainly call the managing acumen of Don Waddell into question, but not his instinct for self-preservation.

Waddell, his spider senses tingling since his Thrashers were meekly swept aside in the first round last spring by the Rangers, knew he was on a very short leash as a result of his team's listless 0-6 start. After watching the Thrashers offer little resistance to the Flyers in Tuesday night's 4-0 loss, it was clear that a shake-up was on the horizon. So rather than wait for that leash to turn into a noose, Waddell gassed head coach Bob Hartley and announced he'll step behind the bench himself for Thursday's home game against the Rangers.

Not that it was a bad call on his part. The walk down the plank shouldn't have been a lonely one for Hartley, who failed to complete his fifth year with the Thrashers, but it was deserved. His taskmaster act was clearly wearing thin on the troops, an inevitability for those who follow this tack. But just as deadly as losing the room were the questions about how he handled his charges.

Hartley was second-guessed for several of his decisions during the playoff disaster, including his use of goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg. The feckless special teams, which ranked in the bottom third of the league last season, were even less effective through these first six games. No team had given up more than the 10 goals allowed by Atlanta while on the penalty kill, and the power play was clicking along at a limp 7.7 percent.

Safe to say, Hartley deserved the collar. He was part of the problem...but hardly the only part.

It was Waddell, after all, who asked Hartley to win with a roster that included neither a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 center. It was Waddell who failed to replace Marc Savard, who departed for Boston in the summer of '06, and who this summer committed four years and nearly $10 million to Todd White, a free agent who scorched opposing goaltenders for 44 points last season. It was Waddell who maintained a scouting department that has delivered sub-par results in any situation other than a chip shot like calling Ilya Kovalchuk's name first overall in 2001. It was Waddell who painfully cashed several layers of the team's future, for the departed Keith Tkachuk and a couple of diminishing assets in Alexei Zhitnik and the dime-a-dozen Pascal Dupuis. And it is Waddell who's yet to come to terms with Marian Hossa, the team's most important asset, and one who seems more likely by the moment to head elsewhere when he reaches free agency this summer.

Already there are plenty of whispers about Hartley's potential successors. Pat Quinn, last seen standing on top of the mast as the good ship Maple Leaf sank to a ninth-place finish in 2005-06, is the most intriguing option. Quinn has deep ties to Atlanta hockey, having spent the final five seasons of his playing career as captain of the Flames. The style he employed behind the bench in Toronto -- full-speed ahead and damn the torpedos -- would go over well with offensive stars like Hossa, Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov. But Waddell, preservationist that he is, seems unlikely to hire a man who is able (if not exactly capable) of wearing the GM's hat as well.

More likely candidates include John Anderson, head coach of the Chicago Wolves (Atlanta's AHL affiliate) and Randy Cunneyworth of the Rochester Americans. Anderson is familiar with several of the young players the Thrashers will have to rely on the rest of the way, including Brett Sterling and Darren Haydar, and the Wolves are a consistently competitive team. After seven seasons as coach of the Americans, Cunneyworth is highly regarded for his role in the development many of Buffalo's young stars, including Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Brian Campbell.

Waddell did what he had to do to save his job. But this was a reprieve, rather than a stay of execution. Unless he performs some miracle while wearing his GM hat, the on-ice fortunes of the Thrashers seem unlikely to improve significantly while he's behind the bench.

The other skate will drop soon enough.

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