A tale of caution for any GM contemplating selling the farm to bust a slump: Beware the Don Waddell curse.
This year’s NHL playoff picture contains some pixels that haven’t flashed much muscle in a while.
Heading into Thursday night’s action, the Florida Panthers held down the East’s No. 8 seed, while the Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes were each one point out of eighth spot in the West.
The Coyotes last made the playoffs in 2002, while Florida’s most recent post-season game was in 2000. Columbus, as an Ohio-based hockey aficionado can tell you, has never played beyond the regular season in seven attempts.
So why the Waddell Warning? Because in 2007, the Atlanta Thrashers found themselves in a position very similar to the ones currently occupied by the three aforementioned clubs.
The Thrashers had yet to make the post-season in any of their six seasons leading up to 2006-07, including the year before when Waddell actually guaranteed a berth.
Instead of issuing more words, Waddell took action in ’07. He brought in veteran power forward Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis and puck-moving defenseman Alexei Zhitnik from Philadelphia. Out the door went first and third round picks in 2007, a second-rounder in ’08 and young defenseman Braydon Coburn, the eighth overall pick in 2003.
Before we all get too high and mighty, let’s remember the crystallizing nature of hindsight. The bottom line is, Waddell made a bold move in the hopes his marginal team could expose a tenuous market to playoff hockey for the first time.
And don’t forget, not only did Atlanta squeak into the playoffs, the guys Waddell acquired were instrumental in getting the Thrashers to the spring dance.
Then the bottom fell out.
Atlanta was blasted in four straight games by the New York Rangers, have gone 52-69-13 since the start of 2007-08 and have returned to their natural habitat as out-of-the-running sellers as the trade deadline nears.
They also have the pleasure of watching Coburn blossom into an impact blueliner in Philly. And that first-rounder? Well, it eventually made its way to Calgary, which used it to select stud Swedish prospect Mikael Backlund.
This is not intended to be an exercise in salt pouring; it’s just a harsh reminder that even when big moves pay off in the short term, they can blow up in your face over the long haul.
I don’t envy Jacques Martin in Florida, Scott Howson in Columbus or Don Maloney in Phoenix. Not only do those three GMs have to evaluate their teams and decide if now is the time to push forward, they also have to take the pulse of their towns to determine whether they can withstand another season of watching other teams compete for the Cup.
If any of these men are looking for some support, they should give Waddell a buzz. He can definitely lend a sympathetic ear – and depending on which way the talk goes, maybe a puck-moving defenseman or plucky winger, too.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.