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Southeast: Can new voice produce new results for Thrashers?

by Robert Picarello

After watching his team -- especially the veterans -- go through the motions during a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, Atlanta GM Don Waddell knew it was time for a change.

With the loss to the Flyers, the Thrashers found themselves winless in their first six games of the season and Waddell didn't see his team turning its season around anytime soon. When he glanced at the stats Wednesday morning, the GM saw the Thrashers last in goals (9) and sporting the worst goals-against average in the League (4.50).

He also noticed that Atlanta's special teams weren't so special. As a matter of fact, they were downright awful. After six games, the Thrashers had the second-worst penalty kill in the NHL, allowing 10 goals on 35 chances, and the third-worst power play, only connecting on two of their first 26 opportunities.

Knowing it's easier to replace the coach than all the players, Waddell made the tough decision to relieve Bob Hartley of his duties after the Thrashers lackluster effort in Philly.

"We weren't getting the most, particularly out of our veteran players, and that was a concern," Waddell said. "I was just hoping we would win a game. We lost last night (Tuesday), 4-0. We played a very good first period and once Philadelphia scored their first goal, it was panic mode. I could see we were in big trouble. We gave up two really quick.

“Witnessing that, I just said this team needs a fresh voice, maybe a fresh face here to take some of the heat off them and let them just go play their game and just go out and have some fun and win a game."

While the move may have taken some of the heat off his players, it didn't take any pressure off Waddell, who has been with Atlanta since 1998.

First, Waddell had to fire not only his head coach, but also a friend. Then he had to announce to everyone that he was taking over behind the bench -- where he posted a 4-5-1 record in 10 games as interim coach during the 2002-03 season -- until the team finds a new head coach, which, by the way, will also be Waddell's responsibility.

"This is always a very difficult decision to make, but we feel that this is the best thing for our team right now," Waddell said. "We thank Bob for his service over the last four-plus seasons, but we believe that a new approach is necessary to get the club back on track and compete at the level we feel we are capable of. Any time you have to let your coach go, someone you know has been dedicated to the success of your team, led your team to the playoffs and is a good person, it makes it all the more difficult."

It was also difficult for Hartley, who guided the Thrashers to a 136-123-32 record and their first-ever Southeast Division title and playoff appearance. He also thought Atlanta has the talent to compete on a higher level than has been shown in the first half-dozen games.

"I was excited to enter the season and face the challenge of building on the success of last year, but things just didn't come together as we anticipated," Hartley said in a statement. "I dedicated myself to helping this team reach its potential and I understand the decision following our disappointing start. I still believe in this organization and I'm confident things will turn around."

For the time being, the job of turning things around in Atlanta is all Waddell's, but the general manager doesn't seem to mind that his job may be on the line if the Thrashers don't respond to this wakeup call.

"Since the day I was hired, my job has been on the line," Waddell said. "You are brought in here to have success. We started building something. I think we have something good going and I still believe that."

If you look at the core of Atlanta's roster, you can't argue with Waddell. With the talent the Thrashers have, this team should not have started off the 2007-08 season 0-6-0, especially coming off a year where they earned a franchise-best 97 points off a 43-28-11 record.

Sure, some of the players from last season are gone, but the franchise is still anchored by young stars like Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen. Atlanta also still has experienced veterans like Slava Kozlov, Niclas Havelid, Bobby Holik and Alexei Zhitnik. During the summer, Waddell brought in additional veteran talent when he signed free agents Todd White, Eric Perrin and Ken Klee.

It will now be Waddell's job to get the most out of the team he personally assembled through the draft, free-agent signings, and shrewd trades, before the Thrashers lose any more ground in the highly competitive Southeast.

"I think this team is better than the way we've been playing for sure," Waddell said. "I believe in this team and I believe in a lot of the guys here. There's no reason why we can't (turn things around). We still have 76 hockey games to play this year and I believe we have a chance to salvage the season."

Who’s hot -- In three straight Carolina wins against the Maple Leafs, Senators and the Canadiens, Matt Cullen and Justin Williams combined for 11 points. Cullen contributed three goals and two assists in the three victories, while Williams added one goal and five assists. … After losing his first two starts of the year, Florida's Tomas Vokoun then went out and won his next three straight, stopping 105 of 110 shots. His best effort of the season so far came on Tuesday night in Montreal when he backstopped the Panthers to a 2-1 shootout win against the hometown Habs. Vokoun stopped 36 of the 37 shots he faced in regulation and then stoned Chris Higgins, Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev in their shootout attempts to net Florida the victory. … Tampa Bay's Vaclav Prospal has been on fire since the start of the year, scoring five of his team's first 14 goals of the season. In a losing effort Oct. 13 against the Panthers, the 32-year-old forward scored two of his team's four goals. … Washington's Alex Ovechkin started off the 2007-08 season with a five-game point streak, posting one point in each of his team's first five games.

Southeast quotes – "We were still in it because of our goalie. He played unbelievable and he gave us a chance to have that opportunity at the end."

-- Florida's Nathan Horton said after Tomas Vokoun carried the Panthers to a 2-1 shootout victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.

"Sometimes changes need to be made. At the same time, it tells all of us it's a big wake-up call and we need to fix this."

-- Thrashers defenseman Garnet Exelby after Bob Hartley was fired Wednesday.

A look ahead – On Friday, Oct. 19, Carolina is in Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, Oct. 20, the Panthers are in Ottawa, the Hurricanes are in Philadelphia, the Lightning are home to the Penguins and the Thrashers will be in Tampa Bay.


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