Waddell has a lot to work with CBJ

COLUMBUS -- When Don Waddell stepped away from the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday after 10 years, the past six as their president and general manager, he didn't know what his next step would be, nor where it would take him.

But the more he looked at the Columbus Blue Jackets, the more comfortable he felt about taking over a team that has not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for four straight seasons and has finished no higher than sixth in its division since the 2019-20 season.

“With the players the players that are currently on the roster, and knowing how this organization runs and everybody that's been here ... there's no excuse from an ownership standpoint,” said Waddell, who was named Blue Jackets president of hockey operations and GM on Tuesday and was introduced Wednesday. "They give you all the tools, all the resources to make it work.”

He replaces Jarmo Kekalainen, who was fired as GM on Feb. 15, and John Davidson, who had been the president of hockey operations for 10 of the past 12 years. Davidson will become a senior adviser and alternate governor.

“The great thing is, there's a lot of a lot of smart hockey people in this organization and we’re going to count on everybody to be part of these discussions and as we make decisions as a group,” Waddell said. “We'll get this figured out and make everybody here in Columbus proud of the Blue Jackets.”

As for leaving the Hurricanes after they reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of his six seasons as GM after not qualifying the previous nine, Waddell said he needed a change.

“I thought it was time to move on," he said, "but you know, my wife and I, we talked probably the whole year about what our next move was going to be, never making the decision of what we were going to do. I had a lot going on there. I ran a whole operation, the building the team arena, all the stuff, I just said, 'Let me get through this year.' ”

Blue Jackets President of Hockey Ops/GM Don Waddell

Waddell said it was a personal decision and had nothing to do with his relationship with Carolina owner Ton Dundon.

“Lots of discussions, lots of debate but always supported each other once a decision was made,” Waddell said.

Waddell said after he resigned from the Hurricanes, he was contacted by three teams.

“At this point in my career I was looking for a new challenge,” he said. “I had some options and when I looked at this option that made the most sense, and so that's why I'm excited about having that opportunity to take this job. … I go back to, I would never come to this potential opportunity if I didn't think there was going to be a great outcome.”

Waddell, 65, inherits a franchise that has some promising youthful pieces, including centers Adam Fantilli, 19, Cole Sillinger, 21 and Kent Johnson, 21; and forwards Kirill Marchenko, 23, and Dmitri Voronkov, 23.

Also, several of Columbus' key players are signed for at least two more seasons, including forwards Johnny Gaudreau (five seasons), Boone Jenner (two) and Patrik Laine (two), defensemen Zach Werenski (four) and Damon Severson (seven), and goalie Elvis Merzlikins (three).

However, the Blue Jackets are shy on success. They have advanced to the second round of the postseason once, in 2019, since joining the NHL as an expansion team in 2000.

“When we made the decision to look for a general manager, we wanted someone with experience in building a team that wins at a high level within a culture that is strong and sustainable,” Davidson said.

Waddell said a young, talented roster is nice but he wants to add veterans who have won the Stanley Cup.

“I think there’s few guys out there that we felt that could contribute on the ice and help us with some of the players off the ice,” he said.

There is a lot on Waddell’s to-do list, but he said the coming months will be exciting for the fans as he navigates the NHL Draft, negotiating player contracts and evaluates the front office and coaching staff.

Columbus has six selections in the 2024 Upper Deck NHL Draft, including the No. 4 overall pick.

“We will be a better team next year,” he said, “but ask me in three months how much better we’ll be.”

Blue Jackets name Don Waddell as new GM

Waddell’s top priority is the status of coach Pascal Vincent. The Blue Jackets (27-43-12) finished last in the Metropolitan Division this season, his first, after replacing Mike Babcock, who was fired days before the opening of training camp.

Columbus finished 31st in goals-against per game (3.63), tied for 24th in goals per game (2.85), 31st on the power play (15.1 percent) and tied for 25th on the penalty kill (76.3 percent) this season.

“In the next few weeks, I’ll definitely spend a lot of time with Pascal, as much as I can,” Waddell said. “No timetable on any decision with anybody on our staff. You don't walk into a new place where people sit here and make changes without having a reason to change. So until we do that, I'm not going to lay a timetable out on it.”

Waddell will also consider options for Merzlikins, who will make $5.4 million in each of his next three seasons to finish a five-year, $27 million contract he signed on Sept. 21, 2021.

The 30-year-old, who said Jan. 12 that "There has to be a new scenario for me for my career," was 13-17-8 with a 3.45 goals-against average, .897 save percentage and one shutout in 41 games (40 starts) this season. He is 68-79-30 with a 3.20 GAA, .904 save percentage and 10 shutouts in 191 NHL games, all with the Blue Jackets.

Columbus can stick with him, try to trade him or buy him out. Waddell said he tried to trade for him four years ago with the Hurricanes, but the Blue Jackets weren’t interested.

“We’ve got to put our best foot forward to try to make it work,” Waddell said. “It may not work, but we’ve got to do everything in our power. When I put my head on the pillow at night, I’ve got to say, 'We did everything we can, it's just not going to work.'
“He can play goal. He can play goal. I’ve watched enough of him over the years.”

Waddell is excited to get started and said he spent the Memorial Day weekend planning a road map for success.

He also said he has no timetable for possibly relinquishing his GM responsibilities at some juncture, but he wants to have a successor ready.

“You want to set yourself up for a succession plan," he said. "You’re not going to do this forever. You want to leave the franchise in the best shape you can. It would be smart for me, maybe at some point, to start off with an assistant GM here. Someone you fell you can turn the keys over to at some point.”