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Waddell: Drop the puck, we're ready to win again

by John McGourty / NHL.com

 

NHL.com's 2007-08 Thrashers Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster





The Atlanta Thrashers had their most successful season ever in 2006-07. For the first time, the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and earned a Stanley Cup Playoff berth. But the successful regular season exacted a price. Heading into the postseason, the Thrashers were a tired team and inexperienced in the nuances of Stanley Cup play.

Fans, players and management were frustrated by the sudden end of the season, a sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers. But GM Don Waddell has been around hockey for a long time and understands that few teams have won Stanley Cups without shedding some tears along the way. Waddell believes his players will incorporate their frustration and disappointment and motivate themselves to greater success this year.

Waddell provided NHL.com readers this frank appraisal of his team's prospects for the 2007-08 season:

NHL.com -- Atlanta fans, after watching you win the Southeast Division and get swept in the playoffs, probably feel a lot like New York Islanders fans the year before they won four straight Stanley Cups or Edmonton fans the year the Islanders knocked the Oilers out in 1983, just before Edmonton won five Stanley Cups in seven years. Doesn't it seem like what happened to you last spring helps a team develop the awareness of what it takes to win a Stanley Cup? Isn't that the kind of hardening Stanley Cup champions go through? Boys don't win Stanley Cups, battle-hardened men do?

After winning the Southeast Division and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time last season, Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell believes that his team is ready to take the next step this year.

Waddell -- No doubt about it. We had three goals last year: Win our division, make the playoffs and go deep in the playoffs. Obviously, we left one on the table. We spent so much energy in March and April in trying to win our division and then we met a very good team in the playoffs. We have to use that as a learning experience. Everyone in hockey knows you have to go through it. Our goals haven't changed this year. We have to get there first and once we get there we have to take that next step. I really believe that with the players we have, (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Marian) Hossa, our defense and (Kari) Lehtonen in goal, we're ready to take that next step.

NHL.com -- You know how an accountant can look at a balance sheet and "see" how much inventory is in the warehouse and how old the equipment is and other important details? When you see a goalie with a nice save percentage and high goals-against average and he was fourth in shots against, it says Atlanta needs to improve its team defense, no?

Waddell -- Team defense is always a concern but that high number of shots is also a coaching style. We give up point shots. We don't worry about them. We think that if a shot is coming from the point, he should save them. We tend to give up more shots than other teams but they're coming from the outside. We're trying to break up what they want to do as a five-man unit and keep them from getting key opportunities. I don't mind getting out-shot but I don't want to give more quality scoring opportunities than we're getting.

NHL.com -- When we see the Thrashers in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, why should we not be surprised?

Waddell -- If you watched our team last year, we had a heck of a year, but we had a really bad January, one of the worst months for any team in all of last season. Yet, we still bounced back to win our division. The core of our team is still young. We got a little older at the trade deadline, but we're much younger now. These guys are only getting better. The experience they got last year in the playoffs will help. For guys like Kovalchuk, Lehtonen and others, it was their first time in the playoffs. It's going to make them better players.

NHL.com -- Todd White is the most important of your free-agent signings. How do you intend to use him?

Waddell -- We signed Todd White this year which we think will be a big addition for our hockey club. Kovalchuk and Hossa don't play on a line together so we don't have a clear-cut No. 1 line. We think of it as No. 1 and No. 1A. We'll experiment a little bit, but Todd will center one of those two lines. Hossa and (Slava) Kozlov have good chemistry together. They played very well last year. (Bobby) Holik really stepped up for us, especially in the second half of last year. We think he should be bumped up to second-line center. You'll see White with Hossa and Kozlov and Holik centering Kovalchuk. The right side of that line is open. We've got some kids, like Brett Sterling who was the rookie of the year last year in the American Hockey League after scoring 53 goals. He'll compete for that job, along with some other players. Right wing is the position we're really going to be looking at in training camp.

NHL.com -- Your centers, White, Steve Rucchin, Bobby Holik, Jim Slater and Eric Perrin are considered two-way players, rather than big point producers. The scoring seems like it will continue to come from the wingers?

Waddell -- Right. Slater didn't play as much last year as we would have hoped. He got a slow start and other guys jumped ahead of him. He has great work habits and I think he'll be a good NHL player for a long, long time. He's never going to be a top No. 1 or No. 2 center, maybe a No. 2 center, but he'll be a solid third-line checking center who's going to get points. We're looking for a big, big year from Jimmy this year. Steve Rucchin is a bit questionable right now. He got hurt last Feb. 8 and has been battling concussion symptoms since then. We signed Eric Perrin from Tampa Bay. He can play center or a wing. If Rucchin can't play, Eric will play center. Bryan Little, who will go to training camp with us, is a scorer.

NHL.com -- There's been quite a bit of turnover in your defense this summer. You signed several free-agent defensemen in the off-season. Net gain or loss?

Waddell -- We lost Greg de Vries, Shane Hnidy and Andy Sutton to free agency. We traded last year for Alexei Zhitnik and he'll be on our No. 1 pairing with Nic Havelid. We signed Ken Klee in the off-season. We think Klee and Garnet Exelby, who had an excellent year last year, will be paired together. Steve McCarthy is another guy who will compete there. We kept some spots open for our younger players to compete for a position there. Tobias Enstrom is a player we drafted four years ago who played in the World Championships last year. He was the top defenseman in the Swedish league last year. We think we're going to OK back there.

NHL.com -- Which prospects have the best chance to make the team this year?

Waddell -- Tobias Enstrom has the best chance. Bryan Little is very close and has played very well throughout his career. He's going to get a good look at camp. Skilled centers are always something I'm looking for. Those two guys have a good chance. Chad Denny has good skills. He's a big kid. He just has to learn the position a little better. Going from juniors to the AHL is a big jump. If he does well there, his future in the NHL will be sooner rather than later.

"Right wing is the position we're really going to be looking at in training camp."
-- Don Waddell
NHL.com -- It's always unfair to compare young players to veterans who have mastered their positions but Enstrom reminds me of Kim Johnsson with his style of play.

Waddell -- Very good comparison. We'd be blessed if he played as well as Kim Johnsson. Very similar type. Tobias is a heads-up player. You can't teach the detailed skill things he does or the vision he has. Not everybody has to be 6-foot-3 in this league anymore. You need to have players who have great hockey sense and can go back and get the puck and get it up to the forwards. We have great forwards and we have to get the puck to them and get it to them on their sticks. The more we can do that, the more opportunity we'll have for rushes.

We tried to get Enstrom last year and he wanted to do one more year in the Swedish league. We think a lot of Tobias. He's been in Atlanta for several weeks this summer, leading up to training camp. He has great poise and hockey sense. I think he's going to be OK.

NHL.com -- Steve McCarthy was a first-round draft pick who set scoring records in juniors. He's on his third NHL club and hasn't come close to his projections. He's had some shoulder problems. Can you help him develop into the player we thought he'd be?

Waddell -- Earlier in his career, he had a first season where he didn't play a lot and he saw a lot of turnover in coaches. He didn't play a lot in Vancouver either. I go back a long time with Steve, so do our scouts, and I remember watching him play a lot of great games in juniors. When he became available, we needed somebody on the power play. He came in here and was outstanding, scoring nine goals in 30 games. He got a slow start last year and he lost a lot of ice time when we made the trade for Zhitnik. We expect to see him play a lot more this year, not just on the power-play, as one of our Top Six defensemen. He's still a young guy and everybody's development is different.

NHL.com -- You maintained your faith in Kari Lehtonen through a couple seasons of injuries. It looks like that faith has been rewarded based on last season. Do you see him continuing to move forward in his development?

Waddell -- Going into last year, our goaltending was still in doubt because Kari wasn't healthy in the years before. But he put in an unbelievable off-season in 2006. He stayed in Atlanta all summer working with our strength and conditioning coach. He came into training camp in totally different condition than he ever had before. As a result, it was the first time in the history of our franchise that we didn't use more than two goalies. It was at least five goalies in every other year and one year we used seven.

We may use (Johan) Hedberg more this year to give Lehtonen more rest, especially down the stretch. We expect big things from Kari. He's a franchise-style goalie, maybe not yet, but he's getting there.

NHL.com -- Talking about Hedberg, what a job he did for you last year. Every GM would look like a genius if he signed a backup goalie who won more than twice as many games as he lost. One of your best signings?

Waddell -- If you look at what he did in Dallas, you know he's done it before. I called (Stars GM) Doug Armstrong the day before free agency and asked him if he was going to sign Hedberg and he said no because they had a kid coming up. So, I said; ‘Tell me about Johan’ and Doug said he couldn't say a bad thing about him. He competes every night he plays and he didn't play a lot behind Marty Turco. But when he did, he won. He's the first guy on the ice and the last guy off. He's a great team player. He won our Players' Award last year, which is voted on by the players as an appreciation award. In all my years in hockey, I'd never seen a backup goalie win that award.

NHL.com's 2007-08 Thrashers Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

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