Change of philosophy
If you've followed the Atlanta Thrashers since they joined the NHL in 1999, you know that GM Don Waddell has long eschewed the short view. On the job since the inception of the franchise, he always put the longer view of the organization's development ahead of momentary fixes or incremental improvements.
That's not to say that Waddell hasn't operated shrewdly. He moved up to attain the first overall pick in the 1999 draft, feeling that it was important to have such an event to ring in the Thrashers as a new NHL entity. He dealt Dany Heatley to Ottawa in 2005 and received Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries in return under the trying and extenuating circumstances of the tragic 2003 car crash that killed Dan Snyder while leaving Heatley battered mentally as well as physically. Yet any move made along the way, whether it worked out or not, always carried the caveat of building for the future.
Well, in Waddell's words, the future is now -- and in a span of 12 hours he consummated two deals that were diametrically opposed to his staunch builder's stance of the past seven-plus seasons. In acquiring Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk, Waddell parted with prospect Braydon Coburn -- the eighth overall pick in 2003 -- the first and third picks of the upcoming draft and a second rounder in 2008. He also sent forward Glen Metropolit as part of the Tkachuk deal -- the second roster player dealt in the past couple of weeks after defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski was dealt to Nashville for centerman Eric Belanger.
That's a lot of wheeling and dealing for a team that was 13 games above .500 at the midway point of the season, but the Thrashers have struggled to perform to that level in the second half -- the pressure mounting to get to the playoffs for the first time ever -- thus precipitating dramatic moves. These recent moves qualify. And they make the Thrashers a better team. Zhitnik will give coach Bob Hartley a stabilizing veteran on his top defensive pairing and a guy comfortable with running the power play from the point. Tkachuk will give Ilya Kovalchuk a proven center as well as providing a power-forward presence on the power play.
That's the on-ice perspective.
The real analysis comes in with the question of whether the Thrashers paid too much. This team needs to make the playoffs -- it is the last piece of the process in building the brand in the marketplace -- both at a local level and on a league-wide scale. With a stretch run that captured the enthusiasm of the locals followed by a fast start this season, and with the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2008, sustaining momentum was mandatory.
Do these moves guarantee the postseason? No, but they do keep the franchise's momentum headed in that direction. And if the Thrashers right themselves over the next 18 games, this maneuvering will be heralded as coming just in the nick of time.
There is a sense of irony here, given Waddell's original plan of building to a point of playoff inclusion and prominence. Immediacy has passed institutional building as the priority. And, while not exactly top of mind right now, there is the question that begs an answer: what happens next season?
Well, however this spring turns out, it is safe to say that the Thrashers won't be retooling their roster through the draft. Not in the short term, anyway.