ATLANTA – Having watched his team open the season with six straight losses on the heels of a four-game sweep that ousted them from the playoffs last spring, Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell felt he had no choice but to make a coaching change.
Waddell fired head coach Bob Hartley on Wednesday and announced he will take over behind the bench until a replacement is found. “It’s obviously something that I felt we had to do,” Waddell said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We started the year 0-and-6 and if you go back to last year how the playoffs went for us, we’ve lost 10 games in a row. And I didn’t see anything that was going to change for us.”
The Thrashers, swept by the New York Rangers in their first ever post-season appearance, find themselves in the NHL basement. They have the fewest goals for in the league at nine and the third-most goals against at 27, ahead of only Toronto (28) and Los Angeles (30).
“Whether Bob should be the victim here or not, time will tell, but unfortunately in this business coaches, all have shelf lives,” said Waddell. “And Bob’s has wore out I believe here. And it’s time for the guys to hear a new message.”
Still, Waddell said it was a difficult decision.
“This is one of the toughest days I’ve had as a Thrasher because Bob and I have become very close friends,” he said. “It was very emotional. He’s a good man. He’s done a good job for us. But more importantly he’s a good man.”
Thrashers defenceman Garnet Exelby said he was shocked by the news.
“I don’t think anybody saw this coming,” he said. “It’s only six games.”
“Sometimes changes need to be made,” he added. “At the same time, it tells all of us it’s a big wake-up call and we need to fix this.”
Waddell will probably be behind the bench at least a week, if not longer, as he compiles a list of candidates to succeed Hartley. He would not speculate who might be on his list. Possibilities include John Anderson, Waddell’s AHL coach in Chicago, as well as former NHL coaches Craig Hartsburg, Mike Sullivan, Robbie Ftorek, Kevin Constantine, Steve Stirling and Pat Quinn. Randy Cunneyworth, head coach of the AHL’s Rochester Americans, and OHL coach Peter DeBoer could also be in the mix.
“You know, I haven’t changed, I still have that passion to do that,” Quinn told The Canadian Press. “I still feel like I have a lot of ground to cover and obviously I’m still driven to win a Stanley Cup.”
Waddell said he has no timetable for a hiring and indicated he may look for a coach who is less intense than Hartley.
“Maybe we’ve got to back off a little bit and let the players have some fun in the game,” Waddell said. “Certainly Bob has been here a long time. … We weren’t getting the most, particularly out of our veteran players, and that was a concern.”
The problems for the Thrashers have been many this season.
Neither Kari Lehtonen nor Johan Hedberg has been able to deliver consistent goaltending, an injury to Marian Hossa that sidelined him for three games has hurt an offence struggling to hit its stride and the club’s special teams have struggled.
“We know we’re in a deep hole, but the good thing is that it’s just the beginning of the season,” said Hossa. “You can’t blame the coach for everything. But it’s always easier to replace the coach than 22 players.”
Expectations were higher for the Thrashers, who finished first in the Southeast Division last season at 43-28-11. Michael Gearon Jr., who represented the ownership group at the announcement, said there was great concern the team was losing all momentum gained from that campaign.
“From our perspective, it’s important to see progress,” Gearon said. “From the start of this season we’re not seeing that.
“This is an important time for the franchise. It’s not taking one step forward last year and two steps backward. The point is to keep moving forward and to be competitive for a long time.”
Added Gearon: “Clearly, there needed to be a change.”
The Thrashers returned back mostly intact this season, losing captain Scott Mellanby to retirement and trade deadline acquisition Keith Tkachuk to free agency. Centre Eric Perrin and defenceman Ken Klee were their main summer additions.
Hartley spent more than four seasons as coach of the Colorado Avalanche before joining the Thrashers midway through the 2002-03 season. He was 136-123-32 with Atlanta. The Hawkesbury, Ont., native won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001.
-With files from The Associated Press