Commentary

Thrashers' woes go way beyond coach Hartley

Updated: October 18, 2007, 9:06 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- That acrid smell in the air isn't the South burning -- just its hockey team.

This time around, folks don't have William Tecumseh Sherman to blame, just poor drafting, poor goaltending, nonexistent special teams, no leadership and a fragile psyche.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, Atlanta Thrashers fans will no longer have coach Bob Hartley to blame as he was relieved of his duties by GM Don Waddell, who will go behind the bench for the second time in his career while he tries to find a suitable replacement.

Make no mistake, Hartley, the fiery former windshield wiper factory worker who won a Stanley Cup and advanced to four straight conference championships while coaching the Colorado Avalanche, had reached the end here.

Lose 10 straight games dating back to last spring's embarrassing sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers, and it's hard to rationalize that you're still getting through to your players. The team has yet to garner a single point this season, it has scored only nine times in six straight losses, has allowed 27 goals and boasts the NHL's 28th-ranked power play and 29th-ranked penalty-killing unit.

That's one ugly bowl of grits.

But the Thrashers' 0-6-0 start goes far beyond coaching, which is what makes the future of this franchise so troubling and begs the question: When does ownership finish the job?

The short answer: not yet, despite the fact that the failure of the coach is as much a failure of personnel as it is of coaching acumen. Waddell, if he doesn't know that, is about to find out when he takes over the team he built Thursday night against the New York Rangers.

"It's not surprising, but it's somewhat of an uncomfortable situation because it's not Bob's fault, it's everybody's fault. But changes have to be made and this is the first change Don felt like making," Thrashers captain Bobby Holik said not long after Hartley made one final address to his players and left without comment.

"If you don't feel bad about what just transpired, then you don't take pride in what you do. Because we take pride in what we do and we know none of us have done what we were supposed to. So you feel part of it. I feel responsible," Holik added.

It would be more just and right if both Hartley and Waddell had been shown the door at the same time. Their futures have been intertwined since Hartley arrived in January 2003 and so it would seem fair that their fates would be likewise connected. But it is rare for an NHL GM and coach to fall on the sword at the same time. If teams fired both at the same time, who would tell the coach that he'd been canned? Who would talk to the press? Who would coach until the new guy came in?

And so, Waddell remains -- for the time being.

A year ago, the Flyers dismissed Ken Hitchcock, another coach with a Stanley Cup championship on his résumé, after a 1-6-1 start. The team went on to finish 30th overall in the league, hardly an indictment of Hitchcock as coach but rather an acknowledgement that the Flyers were a mess that couldn't be cleaned up without wholesale change.

"You know the old saying. I don't like to use clichés, but it's easier to replace one coach than 20 players," Holik said.

The change didn't help the Flyers, who endured the worst season in franchise history. A change did help the St. Louis Blues, who canned Mike Kitchen and replaced him with Andy Murray. Murray turned the woeful Blues around and, although they missed the postseason, they look like a playoff team in 2007-08.

Waddell will have to hope he can find that kind of coach because logic dictates this is his last crack at it in Atlanta. As he pointed out in his press briefing at the Thrashers' practice facility Wednesday, you only get so many chances before they take away your office keys.

Bob Hartley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBob Hartley was 136-123-32 as coach of the Thrashers.

"Since the day I got hired, my job's on the line," Waddell said. "You're brought in here to have success. We started building something. I think we've got something good going. I still believe that. If I didn't think that, this would be the wrong move for me to make because, obviously, you're only given, as a general manager, so many times to make good with coaching.

"If I thought I was just waiting out my time, why would I make the change? I think this team is better than what we're playing, for sure. I believe in this team. I believe in a lot of guys here on this team. We've got 76 hockey games to play. I believe we have a chance to salvage this season."

Certainly that's the story Waddell sold to ownership in making the move. Now, he just has to prove he's right.

The current ownership group, embroiled for several years in a lengthy court battle over control of the team, the NBA's Hawks and Philips Arena, is not filled with longtime hockey people. It has a certain disconnect from the hockey end of the business and its conduit to the hockey product is Waddell, whom the group has trusted and continues to trust implicitly.

Here's the problem with that blind trust: This will be Waddell's third coach since he took over as GM when the Thrashers entered the league in 1999. The franchise is still looking for its first postseason victory.

At some point, the buck has to stop stopping at the coach. That's assuming someone at the ownership level can accurately assess the situation and has the will to stop the buck from being passed. It's a big assumption.

"In this situation, we defer to Don in all player and coaching decisions and he came to us and said that he thought this was the appropriate time to do something based on the start and we were supportive of that," part-owner Michael Gearon said.

But going forward, what happens to this team will say as much about ownership and its understanding of what ails this franchise as the team's inability to cope with the forecheck and power play or rise to the slightest challenge on the ice -- all things the Thrashers have failed to do so far this season.

Some see this is a precipitous fall from grace -- the defending Southeast Division champs off to an 0-6 start. But this is all about the roosters coming home to roost for a franchise that has been forced to fill gaping holes in its lineup with castoffs from other teams because it has not been able to develop its own talent.

Of the 82 players drafted by the Thrashers since their inception, only two homegrown defensemen are in their current lineup -- Garnet Exelby, an eighth-round selection, and Tobias Enstrom, another eighth-round project.

Up front, there are a couple of interesting prospects, including Bryan Little, Jim Slater and Brett Sterling. Waddell insisted Wednesday he thinks this team is better than the one a season ago that won the franchise's first division title. He told ESPN.com before Saturday's grisly 6-5 loss to New Jersey that he thinks his young players have been the team's best performers thus far.

Now, if the veterans weren't playing like such dogs, that might be cause for optimism instead of a damning indictment of the entire team.

On Tuesday night, Slava Kozlov, who signed a three-year, $11 million deal with a no-trade clause in the offseason, was minus-3. Holik, in the last year of a three-year contract that pays him $4.25 million annually, was minus-4. Kari Lehtonen, the goaltender of the future, is 0-4 with a 4.72 goals-against average and .870 save percentage.

In a little dose of irony foreshadowing Wednesday's firing, former Atlanta prospect Braydon Coburn turned in a plus-2 performance while logging 21:23 of ice time for the Flyers. Paired mostly with Derian Hatcher, Coburn has been a big part of Philadelphia's defensive turnaround from last season. Coburn was the eighth overall pick in 2003 and should have been the cornerstone of the Thrashers' blue line for years to come. But he was slow to develop and was dealt to Philadelphia at last season's trade deadline for veteran Alexei Zhitnik.

Zhitnik and his $3.5 million salary (this season and next) helped bump the Thrashers into the playoffs in 2006-07, but his contract and uneven play have turned into a debilitating anchor that has prevented Waddell from adding defensemen of substance in the offseason. Sadly, he ranks as one of the team's best defenders -- another damning indictment of the current state of affairs along the Atlanta blue line.

Ilya Kovalchuk has consistently been the Thrashers' best forward this season and has three of the team's nine goals. The enigmatic Russian star has offered comments on occasion (this season and at the end of the playoffs) that could have been construed as being at odds with Hartley. Waddell told ESPN.com he addressed that issue specifically with Kovalchuk when he met with him during the World Championships in Russia last spring.

Kovalchuk's main concern was getting a center with whom he and/or Marian Hossa could play. There was never any criticism of Hartley, Waddell said. Asked Wednesday whether his relationship with Hartley had been strained, Kovalchuk denied that his relationship with the coach had ever been "strange" and credited Hartley with making him a better hockey player.

The relationship between the two is now a moot point. What is not moot is Waddell's failure to address the team's most glaring need, which was to bring in an elite center. Todd White may be one of the nicest players in the NHL, but he has never produced more than 60 points in a single season. To date, White has zero goals, prompting Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz to wonder aloud whether there had been a language barrier and "Todd White" was really Russian for "Peter Forsberg."

White follows in the footsteps of Steve Rucchin, a checking center asked to do more than he could last season and whose career is likely finished as a result of concussion problems, and Holik, who is being asked to do a job he is ill-suited for as a top-two center.

Waddell likes to point to the options the team has down the middle, including newcomer Eric Perrin and Slater. They may be able to play center, but they are a combined minus-13 and have no points.

Does anybody smell smoke?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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