Waddell GM

The last time Don Waddell was in charge of a team playing in Nationwide Arena, it didn’t end well.

At the time, he was running the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Blue Jackets finished the 2023-24 season by posting a 6-3 victory over the visitors back on April 16.

“The last time I was in this building, I got my butt kicked by you guys in the last game of the season,” Waddell said with a laugh last week during his introductory press conference.

Little did he know at the time of his mid-April visit that he’d go from hating the cannon he heard six times that night to embracing it. Hired as the Blue Jackets’ fourth general manager as well as president of hockey operations, it’s Waddell’s job now to do what he did in Carolina and turn a talented young team into a winner.

Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations and General Manager, Don Waddell, sits down with Bob McElligott for an exclusive one-on-one interview during his first day on the job.

Waddell pointed out that “We have a pretty good start here” when it comes to building a roster because of the players and prospects on hand. But it is still a start, and the Blue Jackets have plenty of areas of improvement after finishing last in the Eastern Conference this year.

The good news is Waddell has a good handle on what he’s facing as he takes over a Metropolitan Division squad he’s battled closely the past few seasons.

“We knew they were gonna play hard; they weren’t gonna give up at all,” Waddell said when asked what he knew about the Blue Jackets. “Toward the end of the year, you had so many players out and were missing some of the higher-level skill players. But the team always played hard. The kids – I call them kids because they're so young – but we always talked about that makes a difference. And they also played hard.

“You have a hard team to play against with some of the guys, the (Erik) Gudbransons and (Mathieu) Oliviers of the world. There were a lot of injuries that happened this year, of course. We have to get some of the younger players to take the next step to continue to develop what we have going right now, but I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t think we didn’t have any chance, that’s for sure.”

Multiple times during his introductory press conference, Waddell spoke of how he believes the Blue Jackets might not be that far away from being a much better team, with many of the pieces in place to build a contender.

But there are still some places he’ll likely look to start as he makes decisions this summer. One of those areas might be in adding some veteran presences to the room, as the Blue Jackets have been one of the youngest teams in the NHL each of the past few seasons as they’ve embarked upon rebuilding the roster.

It’s fair to say he won’t make signings or trades just to make them, but one thing he knows from Carolina is the benefit of having some experience around, both when it comes to winning games but also helping the young players learn what it takes to win. Carolina had a veteran captain in Jordan Staal who helped, but Waddell acquired a bevy of other experienced players over the years as the Canes chased the ultimate prize.

“I’m a big believer in surrounding yourself with people who have won,” he said. “Once you’ve won, there’s no second place. It has to fit the roster, and it has to help the roster. What’s going on in Cleveland right now is the best thing for our organization, for them to win a championship.

“I don’t care what level you play at, you play to win. If you win, you’re always known as a winner. If there are a few guys out there you think can contribute on the ice and help us with some of the young players on the ice, you automatically make those moves.”

Some of the biggest speculation on what Waddell will do has to do with personnel matters, including the coaching staff. Pascal Vincent took over as the coach just before training camp and was a first-time leader at the NHL level, but Waddell said any and all changes will come after he gets the lay of the land in his time in Columbus.

“I’m here now, so ... for the next week or two weeks, I’ll meet with everybody, including Pascal,” Waddell said. “I only know him as a coach, watching his team; this is the first time I’ve actually met him. We have a lot to get done here – draft, free agency, coaching. Getting everything settled is vitally important.

“It’s gonna take some time. I don’t want to put a timetable on it – we know the draft is gonna happen at the end of June, we know free agency is gonna start July 1. The other things, as we work through them with the group here, we’ll get some answers.”

Waddell had the same answer when it came to specific improvements to the roster. From his time in Carolina, he’s familiar with many of the team’s NHL players – he noted he once tried to trade for goalie Elvis Merzlikins when he was an up-and-comer – but the rest will come with time.

“I need a little time,” he said. “I know the roster, the guys that have been in the NHL. I don’t know the players coming up. Obviously Cleveland is on a great run right now in the American League; I know some of the names, but I couldn’t tell you that they’re ready to play next year. We have a great staff here that runs that – Chris Clark and Rick Nash and that. Those guys will be able to fill me in a little bit more in time.”

The comforting thing, though, is Waddell isn’t afraid to make moves. More than that, he sees potential with the roster and farm system he’s inherited.

“When I look at the NHL roster, there’s some things we have to figure out,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious, but there’s enough good things here that if we can figure out the weak links of what our record was last year, I think we can fix that pretty quick. That’s what I feel good about.”

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