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The "Gambler" In Every GM

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Heading into his third season as a contributor for Leafs TV,Scott Burnside gives you some of the best NHL and Maple Leafs insight. You can watch Scott on the Hockey Buzz on Leafs TV and read him in the Hockey News.

by Scott Burnside
November 18, 2003

(ATLANTA) -- Every NHL general manager has to have a little of the Kenny Rogers in them.

And those that know when to fold 'em, when to hold 'em, when to walk away, well, you know the song, are the ones that a) generally ice the most successful teams, and b) hold their jobs the longest.

For the first four years of the Atlanta Thrashers' existence, general manager Don Waddell hasn't been on the right end of many winning hands.

His experience in wheeling and dealing has been restricted for the most part to unloading veteran players that didn't fit into the Thrashers' plans either in terms of style of play or more often, salary demands. Hence Donald Audette, Jiri Slegr, Steve Staios, Ray Ferraro, Andrew Brunette and others were dealt to clear a path for a brighter future, always foretold, never quite in evidence.

Now, after a series of circumstance that range from the tragic to the inspiring, Don Waddell suddenly faces his most compelling moment as a manager, a moment that will shape the future of the team one way or the other.

After the death of Dan Snyder on the eve of the regular season and the loss of Dany Heatley for what is expected to be the majority of the regular season to injuries suffered in the same car accident that took Snyder's life, the team surprisingly enjoyed its best start in franchise history.

Even when their best centre, Marc Savard, was lost for eight to 10 weeks with an ankle injury, the team persevered.

But in recent days they appear to have hit the wall.

Prior to Sunday's 5-2 victory over division foe Florida, the Thrashers had lost three in a row and been outscored 14-4.

After starting the season 5-1-2-1 they had stumbled through a 2-6-1-0 stretch prior to Sunday.

Credit coach Bob Hartley and the collective will of his players that has seen the Thrashers remain competitive to this point.

But without Savard for another six weeks and Heatley until late in the regular season, there is almost no way this team can make the playoffs without some scoring help.

Waddell has done well to acquire some assets in preparation for doing just that. He shrewdly picked up Jani Hurme from Carolina who had snatched him from Florida during the waiver draft and now could deal either Hurme or the more experienced Byron Dafoe, should the market for goaltenders suddenly open up.

But the real gem that Waddell possesses and the one that may be the deal-maker, or breaker, is young defenceman Braydon Coburn of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.

At 6-foot-5, 205 lbs., the likable 18-year-old evokes images of Chris Pronger and Rob Blake. But the eighth pick overall at last summer's draft is at least a year away from being an NHL player. More likely two years.

The Atlanta Thrashers, who have never challenged for a playoff berth let alone secured one, need to win and they need to win now.

Waddell was unequivocal about that prior to the accident and now he has a chance to give his team the best chance to fulfill his promise of a post-season appearance.

Erstwhile Edmonton Oiler Mike Comrie has been the name most closely linked to the Thrashers although there are other players who would provide offensive assistance including Anson Carter in New York and Martin Straka in cash-strapped Pittsburgh.

So, Mr. Rogers, er, Mr. Waddell, the cards are in front of you. Do you pull the trigger?

We say, yes, in a heartbeat to all three but let's take Comrie because he is the one that will most certainly end up somewhere, sooner or later.

Yes, he slumped from 33 goals two years ago to 20 last season, a drop-off due largely to injury. But he can play the middle which is where the Thrashers are most needy. Like Savard, Comrie is small in stature (5-foot-9), but likewise, has shown great heart and should be the kind of player that would thrive under Hartley (as did Savard).

Waddell has said he will not pressured into a deal by external factors like Savard's injury or by a losing streak.

But the longer Waddell waits the greater the chance another team, the Los Angeles Kings perhaps, will beat him to the punch.

It is a dilemma for which there is no certain solution.

The Maple Leafs discovered this last spring when, after years of being castigated for not making a deadline move, they offered up top prospect Brad Boyes and 2002 playoff hero Alyn McCauley for Owen Nolan.

Nolan registered two assists in the Leafs opening round loss to Philadelphia and while his play has improved this season after a sluggish start, his overall health remains of grave concern to Leaf fans.

Was it worth it?

We answer that rhetorical question with one of our own; isn't a chance at a Stanley Cup always worth it? Will the Leafs, who once mortgaged their future under Cliff Fletcher with the famous words ""draft schmaft"", regret the move?


A long playoff run this spring will silence those voices while another early exit (or even worse a finish out of the playoffs), and the howls of despair will reach a crescendo.

Now Waddell must make the same kind of decision.

For an Atlanta team with an iffy fan base, making the playoffs will in some ways be like winning a Stanley Cup.

In the face of what may be a protracted labour shutdown starting next fall, making the playoffs or at least being in a playoff race, will be crucial to sustaining fan interest.

But is Coburn too big a price to pay?

For the Atlanta Thrashers, the future must be now.

Regardless, whichever path Waddell chooses, his decision will leave an indelible mark on the team's future.
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