Q&A with Thrashers GM Don Waddell

By Holly Gunning

General Manager Don Waddell is in the midst of what he says is his busiest summer ever at the helm of the Atlanta Thrashers. The team has just undergone an ownership change, which also involved the moving of the entire staff to new office space. Waddell is also an assistant general manager for the USA World Championship and World Cup teams and has the most player contracts to negotiate in the team’s history, with 20 expected to get qualifying offers.

Waddell spoke to Hockey’s Future about the upcoming 2004 Entry Draft as well as player development on another busy day at the office at the team’s training facility in Duluth, Georgia.

HF: Where are you in the finalizing process with your draft list?
DW: Our list is final, subject to my changing. We just came from Toronto a week ago, we interviewed 112 kids there at the testing. The interview process and testing there counts about 10 percent of it. We know how the players play. We know them very well. I always say the testing and the interviews can either put a player ahead of someone equal, or behind. Because I’ve interviewed kids who are very good interviews, and I’ve also interviewed kids where I say ‘you know what, I really don’t want this kid as part of our organization.’ So our list is done.

There will be more interviews at the draft, but Holly, the way I operate is that we meet with our scouts, and although I’ve seen these players, I keep my opinion to myself because I just feel that as the General Manager, if I have too much input initially, that it’s going to sway people’s minds. I want their opinion. I’m paying them for their opinion and I’m afraid that if I weigh in too much early on, that it’s just natural for people to think ‘Oh Don likes this guy.’ So I keep my opinion to myself. I’ll sit down with (Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development) Dan Marr and (Head Scout) Marcel Comeau the day before the draft and that’s when they’ll hear my final spiel. I have the list, I like the list, but I know I’ll be tweaking it at the top there (laughing). Because I know the players. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do this, but I know the players. I’ve been out there, I’ve seen the players all play, so that’s why I can do that.

HF: What do you feel are your general needs going into the draft?
DW: Well, we’re in a pretty good situation where we know what our strengths are. But if you look at our reserve list, we could strengthen at every position. You talk about goaltending, we think we’re set in goal for a long time, but to add a goalie to your reserve list that might come out two, three years from now… Everyone says ‘well they won’t take a goalie.’ Well, if the best guy was a goalie…Where we’re picking at 10, no one is coming out at 10 to play for our team this year, and maybe not even next year. You’re probably looking at least two years and maybe three years down the road. So I think we’re in a position where we still have to take the best player. Now saying that, if all positions were equal, if we have a forward, defenseman and goalie, I have to think the goalie would be the third option of course. If all things were equal. If it was a winger versus a defenseman, I’d take a defenseman. If it was a centerman versus a defenseman, that would be the tough call.

HF: With the IIHF agreement in doubt with the Russian players, are you a little glad you aren’t picking at the top?
DW: Well certainly I think you’d have to do your homework to make sure you could sign those players. I’m happy I’m not picking at the top because it means we’re making progress (laughing).

HF: Are you in the third row (of the draft tables) yet?
DW: I don’t know, second or third, how many are there four or five in a row? What were we, the third table in or the second last year? We (picked) eighth last year. I don’t remember. But we’re working our way back so I’m happy about that. But if I was picking Russian players, and there are good Russian players throughout the draft, you’d want to make sure you did your homework and that you think you can sign these guys and that they don’t have contracts. The IIHF agreement expires and you have to be concerned about that with all countries. The talk is the Russians don’t want in, but I’m not sure there will be an IIHF agreement if you can’t get all the countries in there.

HF: Do you think it will cause teams to pick fewer Europeans overall?
DW: No, because I think everyone feels it will get solved. Or I guess I should speak for myself, I think it will get solved.

HF: What’s the market like this year as far as trading, and in particular the No. 10 pick?
DW: There’s a little market. But of course right now there are a lot of people trying to dump some big salaries. Eight and nine million dollar players aren’t appealing to me at all. So I think there is a market, not as strong as maybe it’s been in the past at this time, but I do think it’s going to heat up as we get closer to the draft. As we know, the last few days — including draft day — is when everything happens anyway. And you know, we would be very interested in trading our pick if we’re going to be adding a player who is going to help us right now. And I’m also going to be honest, I’m very interested in trying to move up in the draft because there’s a couple guys I really, really like in this draft. Forget about the top couple guys, but there’s a couple guys that if we could move up four or five spots, I think they could be very good, impact players for us down the road.

HF: How does the expiring CBA change your draft strategy?
DW: It doesn’t change it one bit, it’s business as usual for us. The CBA is going to get worked out – I don’t know when, but it’s going to get worked out eventually and you’re going to need prospects and you’re going to need players. I think the draft becomes even more important because we all know that you’re going to have to bring new players into the new system. It really doesn’t change for us. I addressed it with our scouts. I said ‘your decision should never be based on CBA issues, ownership issues, money issues. Those are all my worries. They pay me to worry about those things. You guys have to tell me who the best players are. That’s all I want to know. Let me worry about the other objects that follow.’

HF: How many games were you able to scout personally this year and was that more or less than usual?
DW: Definitely less this year because of the whole situation at the beginning of the year, with Dan Snyder and Dany Heatley. That kept me pretty occupied for the first couple months of the season. My first real good road trip was the World Junior Tournament. And then being able to go over to Europe a couple more times. So how many games this year? Outside of our games, I would guess probably 75. And I would say that would be probably a little low in my five years here. The first year I saw 200 games, that’s counting our team. But normally if I see 70 of our games, I would say I normally see another 90 to 100 other games.

HF: Now were all of those for the amateur draft?
DW: No, I would say probably 50 of them were for the amateur draft. The good thing about tournaments is that there are two or three games in a day. You get to see a lot of players in a quick time. I went for the heaviest part of the tournament. I don’t want to go in there and have a day off. I don’t want to go and see one game if I can help it. I want to see as many teams as I can. People say ‘you’re only going for four days,’ but I might see 10 or 11 games in those four days.

HF: Would you say that scouting is the part of the job that you love the most?
DW: Absolutely. I love to watch young players play. I love to see kids play. Well, I don’t know if it’s the part I love the most, but it’s certainly a nice break from the day to day of running your team, to go out and watch prospects play. I really enjoy that.

HF: The Thrashers seem to draft a lot out of the WHL. Why is that?
DW: There’s never any intent going into the draft saying we’re going to draft more Western Hockey League players versus others. But it just seems that the type of players that we talk about, character players, that’s where they happen to be from. We haven’t made a conscious effort to take WHL players. We don’t scout that league any heavier than we scout the other leagues. We have more scouts in the Western League only because the range is from Vancouver, Seattle, all the way over to Manitoba. It’s the biggest region and I guess we have three guys who cover that area now. But no purpose. I’ve always said that you need to have a certain number of Western Hockey League players on your roster to be successful and I do believe that. But it’s never been an intent going into the draft that we’re going to take six Western players or anything like that.

HF: You also seem to have a tendency to take guys who have one outstanding attribute, size or fighting ability or whatever, but the rest of them is a bit raw. Can you talk about that?
DW: Everyone brings something different, but I like someone who, like you’re saying, who is top level at one thing. We’re not going to find all goal-scorers, we’re not going to find all the tough guys, or all the great skaters. There are lots of normal players. And they could be rounded out, they could be average players, play a long time in the league. But when I talk about players, I like to have a player who is a top goal scorer in his league, this guy is the top tough guy in the league. I like when they bring an attribute that is real high on the list, absolutely. And that’s a pretty good point by you, no one has ever brought that up before. Certainly we talk about that in here. I like ‘specialty players’, guys with something special, they get recognized. Hey, Garnet Exelby. People watched him in junior and he couldn’t skate a lick. We took him in the eighth round, 240 players taken in front of him. There’s a good example. Look where he is now. But what we saw in him, he was a tough kid, good character. He was going to go through anything to be successful. Same thing with (Pasi) Nurminen. We took him in the sixth round. I was over there and I watched him break his goal stick over the post over there just like he did here. And when you meet him, he’s an emotional kid who wants to win. There’s something to be said for those guys.

HF: I remember watching Exelby and being frustrated by his skating too, but the more I watched him the more I realized that he has bad form, but he gets to where he needs to be.
DW: Where he needs to be, that’s right. We talk about this all the time. Everyone talks about good skaters. I think it’s overblown sometimes. Tell me how a player gets from point A to point B. A lot of bad skaters can get there, as you said, and can be successful. As they get experience in the league they only get better at it.

HF: There are some types of players who are scarce, and also tough to trade for. How do you weigh that in your draft order, do you move them up?
DW: We have categories with our draft list. We have our draft list and we have a ‘small but special’ category, that would be the Simon Gamaches and those type of players. You can take them late, but they have something. They have a quality that you like. We have a tough, a fighting, category. Then you’ll have, let’s see: ‘small and skilled’ and ‘small and gritty’ and a ‘big and tough’ category. So what will happen is, if we get to like our third or fourth pick and the guy who is on the list doesn’t excite us that much, then we’ll go and look at the other lists. If someone excites us, then we’ll jump over and take a guy. It probably won’t happen in the top picks. But definitely after the fourth or fifth round.

HF: So you wouldn’t slot them higher on the overall list then.
DW: No, we have an overall list of 150 players. Oh and we have a separate goalie list. Then we have a list of about five or six players on the special lists, it depends. We stop listing players when we don’t like them anymore. ‘Small and skilled’, ‘tough guy’. Our tough guy list might only have seven guys on it this year. Last year it had 15 guys on it. But we don’t slot them on the overall. It’s hard to slot those guys into your overall list because if you look at their abilities and try putting them in there, they drop way down. But you always get to a point where you’re drafting what we said earlier, average players. You come to a player that doesn’t really excite you. Then you start looking at guys who maybe excite you.

HF: How do you feel about high risk/high reward players versus playing it safe?
DW: I’ve never been one to play it safe. I think you have to take the best prospect possible. My line to my scouts is ‘tell me about this player five years from now. Not next year, not two years from now, tell me where he’s going to be five years from now.’ First round picks, we know where they’re going to be. Guys that we take in the third, fourth, fifth round, tell me where they’re going to be five years from now. That’s what I’m interested in. If you’re in this job and you play it safe, you won’t survive. There’s some risk in it and you’ve got to take the risk. With risk comes people questioning you why you do things. You’ve questioned me a thousand times along with everyone else (laughing). That’s OK though. We could be safe and not trade guys, and keep guys, and that. I always say that ‘I love my job here, I don’t own this team, I work for this team, I love living in Atlanta.’ I’m going to make decisions that are the best for this franchise and I want to stay here. We have a great staff and they all give their input.

HF: You talked about evaluating five years down the road. We recently did an evaluation of the 1999 draft by a lot of the teams. How would you evaluate that draft class?
DW: Very average. Overall, and I’m not knocking the players, but you look at the top 10 picks in that draft, and there are no Kovalchuks or Heatleys. The best player is probably (Martin) Havlat, who was taken, what, 20th or something? 18th? If everyone thought he was going to be that good, he wouldn’t have been through 17 teams. He’s a guy that came on. Which is going to happen in a lot of draft years – why did (Nicklas) Lidstrom get drafted in the fourth round and he’s the best player in the league for the past 10 years? But when you look the 1999 draft, it’s very average. I don’t want to pick on individual players, but obviously some guys didn’t develop the way we thought they would. Saying that though I guess, Exelby came out of that draft. A player who is going to play for our team. Tommi Santala came out of that draft.

HF: Blatny, Sellars…
DW: Yeah, it was Stefan, Sellars, Blatny, David Kaczowka in the fourth round, MacKenzie in the fifth round.

HF: Dobryshkin.
DW: Dobryshkin was another, who actually doesn’t have any interest in coming over. Santala was our (ninth) pick, Exelby was eighth. I don’t remember who was ninth.

HF: Ray DiLauro.
DW: Ray DiLauro, there you go (laughing). What’s Ray doing now?

HF: Last year he played for the Columbus Cottonmouths in the ECHL. But of course they’re not in the league anymore.
DW: Right.

HF: Would you say you signed more of the players from that draft class than normal?
DW: Absolutely, 100 percent. We needed players. Thinking back, I mean, I don’t think we signed anybody that didn’t deserve to get signed. We were under the gun to get guys signed though. If you don’t sign any young players, and play the safe way, you might save a few dollars but you’re never going to (succeed). You’re only going to hit on a few guys. If you don’t sign guys, you’re never going to know what they’re going to develop into. People think ‘oh but you signed 10 guys and only got one or two out of there’, but that’s the way the system works. If you only sign three or four, you might not get any! So, yeah, we probably signed more that year though for sure to make sure we covered our bases.

HF: Do you ever go back and do a formal evaluation of each draft year, or how you’ve done over time?
DW: We do, but I’ve always said it’s a five-year period though, so we’re just at that first draft. You can evaluate the top picks within a couple years, but the whole draft, you look now and you’ve got guys like Derek MacKenzie, and Blatny, Sellars, those guys, are they going to be NHL players? Some might, and some might not. I won’t name who I think those guys are. But I don’t think you can do that in the first few years after a draft.

HF: Do you really enjoy draft day, or is it more work than fun?
DW: (smiling slyly) I love draft day. I thrive on draft day. Draft day and trading deadline day. I’m a pressure person. I like to have to make a decision under pressure and I think I make good decisions. That’s one thing I do evaluate, the trading deadline. After a few days I go back, I do this exercise on my own. Every trade we are talking about, I write down. I write everything down. You have to make decisions like that (snapping fingers). And then I go back after. As far as the trade deadline day, I think we’ve done pretty well. So I look forward to those days. And the days leading up to it. They are a lot of work but you know if you weren’t prepared for it, it would be work and no fun. But I think our staff and myself are so prepared for the day, that’s why we can make those decisions instantly. You can’t go out and watch a player the day before the draft and say ‘OK here’s the guy we want.’ You better know the players.

HF: Have you ever had any draft day disasters, things that went wrong?
DW: Well, Dan Marr our chief scout announced the wrong player, that was the biggest one (laughing). Let me think. I don’t know. I’ve been mic’ed most of the years so I have had to be a little careful about what I say. Nothing else really.

HF: Is there one pick that you’re most proud of, someone that you guys saw that no one else thought much of?
DW: The easy answer would be Exelby, but I can’t even say that because that was such a longshot. Nurminen for sure. And forget about the first picks. Nurminen, we were real happy to get him where we got him. And probably Jim Slater, we think he’s going to be a really good player. Jim Slater was a guy we had to trade for on the floor there, we didn’t have that pick, to move up because I knew the team behind them was taking him. I had one shot at moving up and in about three minutes we pulled that deal off to get him.

HF: If next season was completely lost, how would they do next year’s draft order?
DW: I have no idea.

HF: There’s no contingency plan.
DW: No, we don’t even talk about that.

HF: How is drafting and player development different in Year 6 than in Years 1 and 2?
DW: I think our whole system, we’re more focused on player development with our summer camps and that. Not that we didn’t do them in our first year, but we didn’t have the knowledge that we have now of what our strengths are. I think our strength and conditioning coach Ray Bear does a fantastic job. I think we are much more organized and focused on development in the summertime. And that’s when development should be. Dan Marr’s job now during the season is to see all of these players and talk to them all, but that’s more of a relationship thing, not development. They have to worry about what they are doing for their team. But in the summertime, we can bring them in here and we have a power skating coach that comes in, and we can spend more time with them individually. So I think every year we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. I feel very very good about what we do in the summer with our kids.

HF: Some teams have actually cancelled their summer prospect camps this year, how much is it a priority is it for you?
DW: It’s big. To me, it’s money well spent. If the owners told me I couldn’t spend it, I would get rid of Rob or something (smiling and pointing to media relations manager Rob Koch). I’d find the money someplace else.

HF: How about the Traverse City tournament, is that going to happen again this year?
DW: Traverse City is going to be a pass for this season. There are a couple teams that are still trying to pull together. We look at it for two things. One is that we don’t have that many guys. We signed Lane Manson, Brad Schell, so they’re going to turn pro. The benefit of Traverse City is the young kids that are going back to junior. We have about seven kids right now, so we felt with everything going on that we would take a pass on it this year.

HF: So in other words the tournament will still happen…
DW: Detroit and Tampa are still in it and they’re trying to get some other teams to still do it. But we’re going to pass on it. That doesn’t mean we won’t go back in future years. We left that door open.

HF: (Buffalo GM) Darcy Regier was quoted in early April saying there might be a 50 NHL game limit for players going to the AHL next year. Is that still being talked about?
DW: I think what he’s referring to is the last time we were in this situation. But nothing’s been decided for this year. The last time in 1994, the way the system was, if a player had played the year before in 50 NHL games, he wasn’t eligible to go to the minors. So I’m sure that’s what he’s speaking of and I’ve heard that being mentioned around, but nothing’s been determined for this year. What they wanted to stop was that you didn’t have kids who played here all year and then send them down. But there’s still a waiver process with the whole thing regardless, so if there’s a guy who needs waivers and you’re going to send him down, someone can still pick them up.

HF: Do you think it’s necessary for a farm team to play the same system as the big club?
DW: No. It’s impossible. We’ve tried different things. I think there’s some things you can do, but I think every coach is going to coach differently. You can’t try to change a coaching style. I think players are smart enough now. And that’s what training camp is good for. Everyone leaves here knowing what system they will need to play up here. But no, we’ve talked about it and we’ve tried a few things, but I think it’s impossible.

HF: How did you think the affiliation with the (ECHL) Gwinnett Gladiators worked out this year?
DW: I thought it was kind of fun actually to be able to stop by there for a period here and there. I popped in on the way home. For me personally I thought it worked out well, but for our players I thought it was good too. First of all, they are a tremendous organization, I know the ownership, I know the GM, I know the coach. I think the coach (Jeff Pyle) does a great job. It’s a good place for our players to be. To play in this atmosphere, in that facility, I think it’s outstanding.

HF: How many times would you say you stopped in and was it as many as you would have liked?
DW: Early on I would have liked to have gotten in there more, but again because of everything that happened I was traveling a lot. I probably saw bits and pieces of 10 games.

HF: Did you send a goalie coach or consultant there at all?
DW: No.

HF: Would that be something you would consider in the future?
DW: If I didn’t like the coaching staff and the coaching situation, maybe, but I know Jeff and we talk a lot and Jeff has a pretty good feel for what happens. You’ve got to be careful. I’m not a big fan of sending goalie coaches. I like the idea of having (Assistant Coach) Steve Weeks here who is with our guys every day. Guys popping in and out – I know a lot of teams have it. We did it for a few years but I didn’t feel that it worked real well. So I like our situation and you know, let the kids play. Let them play. Steve would watch tapes of Lehtonen in Chicago and stuff like that and he would talk to the coaches there. He wouldn’t talk to the kid. I like our situation.

HF: How do free agent invitees get invited to come to Traverse City and then training camp, take for example a Kevin Doell, are these players you have seen around and liked or are they guys (AHL affiliate) Chicago likes?
DW: Combination of both. Kevin Doell is a player we all knew playing in college, using him for an example. We all liked him, you know, so we were real involved with that one, but there are times that Chicago has said ‘is there a chance to get this guy into camp’ and we work together. They are our partner, so both ways it works.

HF: Sometimes players say that when they left camp they were told things to work on, others say no. Do you make a concerted effort to give them things to work on?
DW: Depends on the player. Young players we spend more time with. I think every situation is different.

HF: You mentioned before the signings of Schell, Manson and Sipotz. What do each of them bring to the table?
DW: Well, Lane Manson obviously you’ve got a kid who is 6’8 or 6’9, and if you look at (Zdeno) Chara back when he was first was playing, people didn’t think he was going to play in the league because he couldn’t skate. Lane Manson is a better skater at this point. We think he’s going to play for sure. But you know, it’s going to be a three-year project, there’s no doubt. When you get a guy with that kind of size and range. He’s got to continue to improve. If Schell plays he’s going to be a top two line guy. He’s not going to be a checker. He’s a skilled player that if he plays in the NHL he’s going to have to be a top two line guy. Again, he’s got so much skill. He had a troubled year last year, was hurt all year. So we still think he’s got a ways to go with his development. But we like him, he’s a good character kid, and we like what he brings to the table with his skill level. Sipotz, he’s a longer project. We talked to him and he’s got to work on many parts of his game, but again, it comes back to what we talked about. If you judge right now what you’re watching, you probably wouldn’t sign too many kids. But this is where your scouts and everybody come into play saying ‘we see something in this guy, he’s got a chance to be a player.’ It might be three years, it might be five years.

HF: You’ve got two college guys to possibly sign this summer, Colin Stuart and Jeff Dwyer, how is that coming along?
DW: Jeff Dwyer is signed. We signed him right at the end of the year. We put him in Chicago there and then he went back to school. Did we announce that yet? He went in on an American League deal. Did we announce we had signed him to an NHL deal?
Rob Koch: No.
DW: OK, you’ve got the first scoop then. He is signed. We put him in Chicago on an American League contract so you don’t burn a year on an NHL contract. We did sign him though, or we agreed. Maybe that’s it, we didn’t get the contract back. Some teams announce it when they reach agreement, but I’m dead against that. I want to see a signed contract because if you announce you’ve reached agreement and you ever have any hiccup in it, the agent has all the (leverage). We can’t go back and say ‘no we didn’t sign him.’ So I’m a big believer that we never announce anything until we have a signed contract. So Dwyer is signed and we’re trying to sign Colin Stuart.

HF: Is the CBA affecting the signing of prospects at all?
DW: Not at all. We’ve signed every guy and we’re negotiating with Coburn right now trying to sign him too, so no.

HF: Who was the biggest surprise in their development this year?
DW: This year? Talk about Exelby, for a guy who played how many games last year and then to play all year this year. Certainly his was very good. Let me think.

HF: Oystrick came on strong.
DW: Nathan Oystrick had a very very good year. In fact, he’s close. He’s going to go back to school which he should for another year, but he had a very very strong year. Jim Slater had an outstanding year as well, candidate for the Hobey Baker. The other kid though is Jimmy Sharrow. He’s been a heck of a player. I saw him a couple times this year, his progress is really good. Those are three guys for sure.

HF: I heard Sharrow was playing forward for a while again this year, does that concern you at all?
DW: No, not at all. It tells me he’s a smart enough player that he can play both positions.

HF: Was there anybody who was a disappointment this year that you would want to mention?
DW: There’s no one who caught us off guard. We didn’t sign Tyler Boldt, but it’s not that he disappointed, he just never developed the way we thought. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are some guys that you hope would be further along, but it’s hard to consider them disappointments.

HF: (Braydon) Coburn didn’t seem like he lit the world on fire last year, did you think he made good progress?
DW: Absolutely. I watched him play a lot. He’s playing 27-30 minutes a night. He’s a big kid, he’s the smartest player in the Western League as I’ve seen play in my five years. Will he have to play a little meaner here? There’s no doubt. I think he’s capable of that too. No, I think his progress was very good this year. That would be not just my opinion, but the opinion of the scouts. In fact, the other thing, when you’re trying to trade for other players, everyone always wanted him. He was the one everyone always wanted.

HF: He’s ineligible for the AHL next year, correct?
DW: Yes, correct.

HF: (Ilja) Nikulin coming out of Russia, are you going to make him another offer?
DW: I talked to his agent a couple weeks ago. We’d like to bring him over. He’s a comfortable kid in Russia. Doesn’t speak a lot of English. I talked to him when I was over there at the beginning of the year. Some of these kids take longer. We’ll keep him on our reserve list and we’ll try to sign him, but if he doesn’t, well… We think he could play in the NHL, but you have a different country you’re dealing with and he’s pretty comfortable there. Maybe in another year, you just don’t know. Maybe he’ll never decide to come over.

HF: Tough to have wasted a pick then.
DW: You never know though. You could have said that with Kovalchuk. Doesn’t speak English, maybe they offer him millions to play in Russia. Again Holly, you have nine or ten picks every year, how many of those are you really going get out of it. So taking a chance like that, to me that wasn’t even a chance at all. He’s a good player that we liked and think can be an NHL player.

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