Thursday, March 20, 2008

Is Atlanta Spirit Going to Kill Hockey in Atlanta?

That was my thought as I was reading Scott Burnside's evisceration of the Thrashers' management team. As a formerly intense, but currently casual Thrashers fan, my view from 30,000 feet is that the Thrashers are handicapped by Don Waddell's poor drafting and free agent decisions.

I did read Bruce Levenson's defense of Waddell in Sunday's AJC and was perplexed by the stance of Atlanta Spirit. Waddell has been in charge for eight years, during which the Thrashers have played exactly four playoff games and at the end of which, the roster is one of the weakest in the NHL. By every indication, the Thrashers' fan base is angry at the direction of the team and a number are unlikely to renew season tickets because of the direction of the franchise. Fan discontent is amplified by Atlanta Spirit's ham-handed decision to increase ticket prices on the heels of putting out a dreadful product this season. The natural response for ownership would be to bring in a new general manager and coach so they can sell a new beginning to the fans. Instead, Atlanta Spirit is apparently set on keeping Waddell, which would really anger me if I were a season ticket holder. It's almost like a president who knows that a military strategy isn't working and just keeps trying the same thing. That never happens.

The mismanagement of the Thrashers has serious implications. Atlanta Spirit's dogged devotion to Mike Woodson is frustrating and indicative that the ownership group is too big and/or divided to make major, necessary decisions. However, the Hawks are protected by the NBA's lucrative television contract and other shared revenue streams. Basketball is a good TV sport. Hockey is not. Whether because of the small puck or Gary Bettman's small brain, the NHL does not provide significant revenue streams to its teams. Thus, local ticket revenue is critical for every franchise. Atlanta Spirit can do real damage to its own bottom line and to the sport of hockey in this market if it continues on its present course of defending a failed manager.

Ordinarily, I would assume that Atlanta Spirit is defending its general manager because it's always a good idea to defend one's employees up until they are former employees. In this case, there is no reason not to make a move now. The Thrashers are clearly going nowhere, so there's nothing to lose by cutting bait on Waddell. If Atlanta Spirit moved quickly, they would get a leg up on other NHL teams looking for new GMs. Also, since the GM is also going to have to hire a coach, it would be better to hire one sooner rather than later. Thus, it appears that Atlanta Spirit is actually being serious when they defend a regime that has produced the third-worst record and worst goal difference in the NHL.

Burnside does an excellent job of explaining the extent of the Thrashers' mismanagement. I found the following facts striking/depressing:

1. The Thrashers are last in the NHL in terms of draftees currently in the NHL. The Thrashers have five players from its system in the regular lineup, one-third of the totals for the Devils or Sabres.

2. This is simply unbelievable:

Levenson seemed surprised when asked about the team's dotty record in the draft and the widespread belief the team's relationship with its AHL affiliate in Chicago is among the worst in the NHL.

The Wolves are not owned by the Thrashers, but are an independent entity. Their focus is not on developing players for the Thrashers, but in putting a winning team on the ice for their fans. Wolves coach John Anderson is not evaluated by how players perform in the NHL when they're called up, but by how the Wolves perform in the AHL. Sources close to the Thrashers told that players who are called up regularly ask to see tape of the Thrashers' system so they can figure out what they're supposed to do.

The Wolves' lineup is filled with journeyman players; Jason Krog is the team's leading scorer, and Steve Martins and Joel Kwiatkowski are on that list, too. Brett Sterling couldn't stick with the big club this season and neither could Darren Haydar.

WTF? Every NHL team needs a capable farm system because of the pressure of the salary cap. The Thrashers especially need help from the minors because they play in a non-traditional market and therefore don't have the money to throw around at free agents that established teams do. Instead, the Thrashers have a minor league team that is not designed to produce prospects. Is it possible that the problem isn't Waddell's drafting, but rather a farm team that has no interest in developing talent when it is trying to win with journeymen? This is especially obvious in Atlanta, where we are blessed with a baseball franchise whose farm system regularly produces quality players (as long as those players aren't pitchers).

I don't like knee-jerk "fire [insert name of coach/GM]" arguments. It's the easiest stance to take, the ultimate sports radio cliche, an emotional reaction that any mediocre mouth can voice. I am, after all, the blogger who thinks that Billy Knight gets a bad rap. All that said, as one of Waddell's GM friends says, "I love him, but I can't defend him." Atlanta Spirit does not have endless goodwill for hockey in this city and they are coming dangerously close to exhausting the supply.


BeachGaBulldog said...

I lived in Atlanta my whole life until 3 years ago. Incidentally, the city that I reside in has an NHL team.
I was in my teens when the Flames first came to town. I was already a huge hockey fan, so when they started, I was in heaven. Every year I had season tickets, and loved everything about them. The day that I heard that they were leaving Atlanta was the day that a part of myself died to.
A few years ago, when I heard that Atlanta was getting another franchise, I said that I would have nothing to do with it. Basically I said to hell with hockey in the ATL.
Well, reading the sports page everyday, I can't help but see hockey scores and standings. Everytime I see the Thrashers lose, I am so glad. This Waddell guy is a total idiot, and I pray everyday that this franchise will fold. I even hate their uniforms. At least the Flames had good looking threads. I knew the jersey numbers, names, stats, etc. of every Flames player. I could only tell you the name of one Thrashers player, ever. Kovalchuk. The fans deserve better.
Fortunately, I am in an NHL city with a fairly consistent winner, a few Stanley Cups, and a lot of tradition. Thrashers, just fold up your tent for good. You always have been, and always will be a total failure! And I am LOVING IT!

dmatos said...

bulldog... take your asinine comments and your losing basketball team and stay in your big "nhl city".

The Thrashers have major problems, but obviously you know nothing about the situation in Atlanta if you're reading it in the sports pages. Everyone knows there is no coverage of the Thrashers in the sports pages...

Praying that franchise folds is an obvious waste of energy.

I am a season ticket holder since day one and I am likely not renewing my season tickets, but I would never wish that the team folds and leaves Atlanta.

With that said, Go Jackets and Go Thrashers !

peacedog said...

Yes, and hoops too.