While nothing is official yet, it looks all but for certain that the Atlanta Thrashers will cease to be shortly. It's rather unfair. While I previously chided Atlanta fans for not coming through for the Thrashers, or almost any team, it's really not hard to blame them. What reason did they have to come? The poor team never had a chance.
It all starts with one man and an irresponsible ownership group. Their existence is what caused the Thrashers to become what they are today, on the verge of moving to Winnipeg and a league wide punch line with only one playoff appearance and no playoff victories to it's name since it's inception since 1999.
From just about the very start of the ownership from the Atlanta Spirit Group the Thrashers were looked at as the fourth option in an ownership group that consisted of the Hawks, Philips Arena, and the Thrashers. Incoming events like concerts took more importance to the ASG than the Thrashers ever did.
As a result the Thrashers floundered under the questionable running of Don Waddell. To say his track record of trades and drafting was questionable is a compliment to Waddell. Among the feathers in his cap include the following trades:
- Alexei Zhitnik from the Philadelphia Flyers for Braydon Coburn. Zhitnik did nothing in the Playoffs that year and Cobrun remains a solid piece of the Flyers defense core.
- Keith Tkatchuk from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Glen Metropolit and Atlanta's 1st and 3rd round picks in 2007 plus Atlanta's 2nd in 2008. Tkatchuk did very little in the Playoffs and re-signed with the Blues.
- Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and the Penguins 1st round pick. As of right now the only players remaining from that trade are Esposito, who has had multiple knee problems, and the pick from the 1st round pick Daultan Leveille who does not look to be much of a prospect.
- Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier, and the Devils 1st round pick in 2010 as well as swapping 2nd round picks. Bergfors spent a good part of the season on the bench, Oduya was steady but nothing flashy, and the book remains out as Cormier.
Quite the stellar trading record for the franchises key assets. Drafting was hit or miss as well, with perhaps the biggest swing and a miss coming from Kari Lehtonen as the 2nd overall pick in the 2002 draft. Instead of players like Ryan Whitney, Alexander Semin, or Cam Ward the Thrashers took a goalie who was often injured in his tenure and now resides in Dallas, where he was traded for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th round pick. Not a solid return on investment. Their first pick in their history, Patrick Stefan, turned into a similar bust.
While the ASG ignored the Thrashers Waddell continued to squander assets. The careers of Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Savard, , and others were wasted away in Atlanta as upper management continued to catch and release players who would not stick around for the core of the teams. It could have been stopped had ASG actually paid attention to how the Thrashers were being run by Waddell.
Instead the ASG decided that minimizing the damage brought on by the Thrashers was the best course of action. They were put on an imposed budget, they allowed Waddell to continue to run the franchise poorly, and washed their hands of it all. It became a vicious cycle that turned away fans justifiably.
Perhaps the most tragic part of this whole debacle is that this will be used as proof that hockey and the NHL cannot succeed in the south east. This is far from the truth. Teams like the Hurricanes, Lightning, and Predators are thriving under proper ownership and a competent head office.
The fans are the victims in this, pure and simple. Their loyal fanbase is suffering because the owernship group in charge never cared enough to make the Thrashers worth anything. At the end of the day the heat for the Thrashers moving should lay on the heads of those in charge at the ASG and Don Waddell.
Hockey can work in the South. Hockey can't work when it's ignored and mistreated. Ask the fans of the Florida Panthers, and more importantly ask the Thrashers fans while they still have a team.