Waddell signs on for sixth season, more

Updated: April 29, 2004, 8:29 PM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen -- with so much young talent already in place, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell never thought of leaving Atlanta.

The team's new owners had no intentions of letting him go.

Waddell agreed to a new multiyear contract Thursday and will be back for his sixth season with the team, hoping to finally lead the Thrashers to the playoffs.

"The best thing is that our best players are our youngest players," Waddell said. "To able to draft these players and watch their development, that's exciting and I want to be a part of that."

The sale of the Thrashers and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks to a nine-man group of investors was completed in March, and longtime sports executive Bernie Mullin was selected chief of operations for both teams.

A friend of Waddell's for more than 10 years, Mullin made keeping Waddell a priority.

"He's been the architect of this team from the beginning, and he's going to be the architect for the foreseeable future," Mullin said. "He's built what we feel is the best young team in the NHL, and it's very, very, very deep with prospects in the minor leagues.

"We've put our faith in Don for the future."

During his tenure, Waddell has acquired most of those players through the draft, including former rookie of the year Heatley and Kovalchuk, who tied for the NHL lead with 41 goals this season. Lehtonen, a goaltender and another draft pick by Waddell, finished 4-0 in four starts after he was called up late in the season.

But Atlanta has yet to reach the postseason. After a 19-14-3-1 start, the Thrashers slumped badly in January and won only two of 14 games to drop out of contention.

Still, they finished with franchise highs in wins (33) and points (78).

Before the season, the Thrashers had to deal with the death of center Dan Snyder, who was killed in a car accident during training camp. Heatley was driving and missed the first 51 games with his own injuries.

"I've got to tell you, reflecting back on this year, this is the proudest I've ever been to be associated with our players and our organization," Waddell said. "It would have been an easy time to pack it in, but the players battled right through to the end. It was another huge step in the process."

Waddell also selected coach Bob Hartley, who joined the team in January 2003 after Curt Fraser was fired. In about 1{ seasons with Atlanta, Hartley is 52-56-13.

But Waddell often has been criticized for not improving the team through a trade or free agency. He hopes this offseason might be different.

"We've never been a team that's been in the free agent market, but this summer might be an opportunity that we get into that," Waddell said. "As you look at our team, we really need a key, veteran defenseman, and we might be able to fill that this offseason."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press