LAS VEGAS - It's been nearly six months since Don Waddell was officially elevated to the role of president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Since then - and in the months prior when he had the interim tag affixed to the front of his job title - Waddell and his hockey operations brain trust have retooled almost every facet of the club, both on and off the ice.
I had the chance to catch up with Waddell during the first intermission of Saturday's game in Las Vegas. He assessed the team's performance through the first month of the season and also provided updates on Victor Rask's rehabilitation from a right-hand injury and contract extension talks with Sebastian Aho.
CarolinaHurricanes.com: We're now a month into the regular season. How would you assess the team's performance thus far?
Don Waddell: I think overall, it's pretty positive. We've been in every game. A couple games we've lost by a couple goals and given up an empty-net goal. The one thing I like about this team is that there's no quit in it. We've had some games where we haven't played as well and gotten down, but we've found a way to battle ourselves back into it. What you're hoping is that, particularly your younger players, by game 10, they're better than they were in game one, and by game 20, they're better than they were in game 10. That's how you're going to get better in this league: experience of playing the game. Overall, we'd like to have a few more points. We've had some tough luck, but we've been competitive in every hockey game.
CH.com: Where does that resiliency come from? Is it from how Rod Brind'Amour carries himself as a head coach and how the leadership group commands the room?
Waddell: It's a trickle-down effect, for sure. We all know Rod as a player. He's been an assistant coach here for quite a few years. The good thing is he knows all the players. You also have to look at your leadership group because they're the ones who really control the room. Coaches can only do so much. It comes down to Justin Williams, (Jordan) Staal and (Justin) Faulk and even guys who don't wear letters. You need the whole team together thinking we don't want to be denied.
CH.com: You mention young players improving by game 10. What have you thought about the rookies in the lineup?
Waddell: (Warren) Foegele came in and probably wasn't, in our mind, on the radar to make our hockey club, and he made it. I always say that we don't make the decisions; the players make it for us. He came in here and proved that he deserved to be here. He's cooled off some, which you've always seen this with young players. They go through stretches where they're very good, and other times they're going to have to find their way. (Andrei) Svechnikov, it was probably the opposite way. Started a little slower but has gained more confidence with the coaching staff and is getting more ice time. You can see his ability when he's got the puck. He can make plays, and he's going to score goals. He's the kind of guys who is going to get better as the season progresses and as he earns more ice time. (Haydn) Fleury played some games last year for us. He's been in and out of the lineup. He went down to Charlotte and did a really good job for us there. He deserved the opportunity to come back here and play. (Lucas) Wallmark, I can't say enough things. If Rask doesn't have an injury, probably doesn't make our hockey club. Now coaches are putting him in situations where they trust him to succeed. His faceoff percentage in some games has been tremendous, and that's something you desperately need.
CH.com: Speaking of Rask, what's the latest on his recovery?
Waddell: We've targeted that first week of December. We met with the doctors the last game at home and talked about it, and we're probably still on that same schedule.
CH.com: And when you get a guy like that back into the lineup, that's like adding a player in a trade.
Waddell: For sure. You haven't had him all year. Everything we've done to date has been without Rask. I've always said that about players, and people sometime overlook that. It's like acquiring a player because he hasn't been able to contribute all year. He's had some success with us, and he's going to play a role with our hockey club.
CH.com: You're currently carrying three goaltenders. What's the plan moving forward with that situation?
Waddell: This is like an insurance policy. Very rarely do you have this luxury because of the roster. When Scott Darling got hurt and we picked up Curtis (McElhinney), he came in and has done a good job for us. Maybe it might have been an easier decision if it didn't go so well, but he's won some big games for us, particularly his first game in Columbus. To keep another goalie around right now, it's an insurance policy. If something happens, it's not easy to go find someone. We're real happy with Ned's (Alex Nedeljkovic) play down in Charlotte. He's off to a tremendous start, but right now, we need him to be playing hockey games. That's what he's doing. For us to carry an extra goalie right now is fine, and I think it will sort itself out in the near future.
CH.com: Sebastian Aho had a huge start to this season. What does he mean to this hockey club, and where do contract negotiations stand moving forward?
Waddell: Our team goes as Sebastian goes. Offensively, he's a catalyst out there. But, he doesn't care about his points. He cares about winning. As good of a player as he is, he's a better guy. It's those kinds of guys you want to invest in and lock up long-term. As far as the contract right now, we've had lots of meetings. We've kind of tabled it right now. Sebastian wants to focus on playing hockey. Things change all the time, but for the next period of time, I think we're going to stay pretty quiet on the subject. We own his rights for four years, so it's not like he's going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, so time is on our side, on both sides. They realize that, too. There's no hurry to get something done. We've had great meetings, and Sebastian has sat in on some of them. They've been very cordial. It's just a matter of trying to figure out what the value is for this type of player moving forward.
CH.com: How impressive has the start in Charlotte been for that Checkers team?
Waddell: Incredible. When you look at that schedule and the first four games on the road, they go 4-0. Mike Vellucci has done a great job down there, and we've got some good, young players down there, which is something you need. You need to develop your players. In the system the way it's set up today, there are not many players that get to unrestricted free agency anymore. They all get locked up. You have to develop more players. They've done a good job down there. A lot of guys have stepped it up, and it starts with Ned in goal. He's been outstanding.
CH.com: Martin Necas came into the season with high expectations. What's the message to him in Charlotte, and what's his progression been like since?
Waddell: You have to learn how to play the 200-foot pro hockey game. You see his skill. We watched him play with us, and he's got that offensive skill. He skates really well. We told him to go down there and learn the position at this level. I'm not worried about points and all that. That will come. He's going to put points up in the National Hockey League, there's no doubt about it. What he's focusing on right now is learning to be a good pro, knowing how to defend in his own zone, things that he maybe hasn't had to focus on as much in his career. The NHL is a hard game, and you have to play 200 feet.