Wednesday November 21st, 2007

Don Waddell has provided plenty of grist over the years for detractors who questioned his abilities as an NHL general manager. But with his Atlanta Thrashers finally sitting at .500 after an 0-6 start, no one can question his last two moves: firing coach Bob Hartley and installing himself behind the bench.

Safe to say Waddell was no one's preseason pick for the Jack Adams Award. But if the polling were held today, he would earn a fair share of the votes thanks to Atlanta's 10-4 run since he took over the squad on Oct. 17.

Recognizing that the players were chafing under Hartley's demanding style, Waddell came in with a different approach, one that takes advantage of their strengths rather than forcing them into an unforgiving mold that was better suited to last season's veteran-heavy lineup.

Waddell has not only increased the confidence and effectiveness of youngsters such as Tobias Enstrom (who has emerged as Atlanta's go-to blueliner after just 20 games) and center Bryan Little. He has also freed up superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa to do what they do best. Both are thriving now. Kovalchuk has 14 goals and 25 points since the coaching change. Hossa has at least two points in six of his last seven games.

Even Todd White, a player whose signing last summer was widely ridiculed (including in this space) has hit his stride under Waddell. He has maintained a defensive presence while bringing some surprising offensive touch to the table...pretty much exactly what Waddell the GM had promised.

That's not to say that Waddell has found all the answers. Special teams remain a concern. The power play is puttering along at 15.4 percent, 20th in the league. The penalty kill is dead last at an abysmal 73.1 percent. Considering the talent on hand there's really no excuse for either group to be that ineffective. Team defense is also an issue, although rookie netminder Ondrej Pavelec, with a .917 save percentage in six appearances, is starting to make an impact.

At least Waddell has some time to work through the kinks. He announced last week that he was calling off the search for an outside coaching replacement and, barring a decision to hand over the reins to assistant Brad McCrimmon, he'll call the shots the rest of the way.

Of course, it would take a stunningly incompetent GM to remove a coach who's getting these kinds of results.

If you think Patrick Kane and Johnny Toews are packing 'em in at Chicago's United Center, just wait until John McDonough starts working his magic. The Hawks' latest acquisition won't eat up minutes on the blueline. He won't tighten up their 14th-ranked penalty kill. And he doesn't have a wand that will magically heal the perennially ailing Martin Havlat. But he may end up being the most important signing in Chicago this year.

As one baseball writer told me, "You guys stole a good one."

McDonough was introduced on Tuesday as the new president of the Blackhawks by team chairman Rocky Wirtz, a man who is quickly becoming as beloved for his progressive, fan-friendly action as his late father William was reviled for failing to adapt. The 54-year-old McDonough was hired away from the Chicago Cubs, a team whose questionable ownership situation made for an unstable working environment. With Wirtz looking to further upgrade the Blackhawks' front office, the timing was ideal to bring on a man who is regarded as one of the best at what he does: building the fan base.

For a team that's struggling to re-establish its footing in a market that thinks the Blackhawks are as fashionable as a Rubik's Cube, McDonough looks like a dream hire.

The Cubs may own a license to print money today, but it wasn't always that way. When McDonough joined the team in 1983 it was averaging around 18,000 per game and less than 1.5 million per season. Thanks to his clever marketing -- including turning the cheapseat bleachers into the hottest tickets in the city -- the Cubs averaged 42,000 per game and 3.2 million for the 2007 season. Of course, fans don't care about full stadiums any more than they worry that the team is not getting a big enough cut from each $7 beer. All that matters to the great unwashed is winning, or at the very least, the promise that winning is just around the corner.

McDonough can't make that happen by himself. But it takes more than just good players to deliver those wins. A team needs the strongest front office possible, and with the moves the Hawks have made since Wirtz's death, they're building a very strong group with a real chance to return this franchise to glory.

Hey, it's a good time to be a Hawks fan.

After just one game, it's a little early to proclaim a winner in the June 2006 deal that sent Andrew Raycroft from Boston to Toronto in exchange for Tuukka Rask. Still, watching Rask earn the first star for leading the Bruins to a 4-2 win over the Leafs in his NHL debut on Tuesday night at the ACC had to be galling for Toronto GM John Ferguson, Jr. Even worse: It wasn't Raycroft tending the Leafs net, but Vesa Toskala, the player he had to give up another first-rounder to acquire because Raycroft was found lacking last season...

Smart move by Anaheim GM Bryan Burke to tie up center Ryan Getzlaf with a five-year, $26.25 million extension on Tuesday. The 22-year-old, currently leading the Ducks in scoring, would have been a prime target this summer for an offer sheet similar to the one that led to Dustin Penner's defection to Edmonton. With Getzlaf off the market, that attention now falls on linemate Corey Perry, who won't be as easy to get under contract, especially if Scott Niedermayer returns to the lineup. The Ducks' current salary commitments top the $53 million mark for 2008-09, assuming Niedermayer returns with his $6.75 million hit. Even if the veteran backliner retires, Burke scarcely has room to retain Perry at an anticipated $3.5-$4 million salary. It'll be fun watching how this plays out...

Things are going along so well for the Blues on the ice -- winners of four straight -- that a little bit of organizational turmoil is easy to brush off. But it's worth noting that their goaltending depth -- something they've relied upon heavily during the past few seasons -- took a hit over the weekend with the defection of Juuso Riksman.

The Blues signed the Finnish vet, 31, over the summer with the thought that he might be able to push for a job, as Fredrik Norrena did in Columbus and Niklas Backstrom did in Minnesota. After a starting the season in Peoria, Riksman was loaned to a Swedish team for a month. When he indicated interest in returning, the Blues dealt Jason Bacashihua to the Avalanche to create room in Peoria. But after getting yanked early in his first start for the Rivermen -- he coughed up two goals in less than eight minutes -- Riksman told them that he was heading back to Europe. That leaves 21-year-old Marek Schwarz as the No. 3 man behind Manny Legace and Hannu Toivonen. That may open the Blues up to signing veteran Alex Auld, who was cast off by the Coyotes after Phoenix acquired Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers.

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