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Don Waddell isn’t the most exciting choice for the Blue Jackets…but might be the right one

Jan 11, 2024; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Hurricanes general manger Don Waddell talks to the press between the 1st and 2nd period against the Anaheim Ducks at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

After months of little news regarding the search for a new general manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets, much progress has been made over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. After rumors regarding interest in candidates such as Marc Bergevin, Ken Holland, and Mark Hunter, it now appears that Don Waddell will be announced this week as the new head of hockey operations for the Jackets.

Who is Don Waddell?

Waddell was born in Detroit in 1958 and played college hockey at Northern Michigan University. He played a single game with the Los Angeles Kings but spent the rest of his professional playing career in the minor leagues.

After working in the Detroit Red Wings front office for a season, he became the general manager of the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, and would remain in the front office there until their move to Winnipeg. He was also interim head coach for two short stints. In 2014 he was hired as president of the Carolina Hurricanes, and took over as general manager in 2018. At that point, the Canes had not made the playoffs in nine seasons. Since Waddell became GM, they have not missed the playoffs, have won their division three times, and have reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice.

What makes Waddell a good GM?

Waddell took over as GM after his predecessor, Ron Francis, had drafted franchise cornerstone Sebastian Aho. In Waddell’s first draft, he selected star winger Andrei Svechnikov with the #2 pick. That year, he also acquired key depth piece Jordan Martinook in a trade, and dealt away Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to acquire Dougie Hamilton. He also sold off Jeff Skinner, with one of those picks becoming goalie Pyotr Kochetkov. The next summer, when he took on the contract of Patrick Marleau in a Toronto cap dump, he received the first round pick from the Maple Leafs that was used to select Seth Jarvis.

The most impressive part of Waddell’s tenure in Raleigh is his ability to manage the cap. Despite their consistent success, the Canes have always avoided cap hell. More than that, they’ve always had enough room to take advantage of other teams and cheaply acquire talent such as Brent Burns for a low cost. Heading into next season, Carolina has an estimated $27 million i cap space available to work with.

The key to this approach: being willing to move on from players who are too expensive. While Waddell made a good trade for Dougie Hamilton, he also let Hamilton walk in free agency, but the Canes didn’t skip a beat defensively, thanks to a combination of their remaining defensive corps (Slavin, Pesce, etc.) and a strong system under coach Rod Brind’Amour.

What are the reasons for concern?

Waddell certainly hasn’t been perfect. The Canes have consistently made the post-season, but have yet to reach a Stanley Cup final despite their regular season success. They have had a revolving door of goaltenders, and often that proves to be a vulnerability in the playoffs. In addition, they are a strong possession team but that doesn’t translate to wins as reliably in May as it does in October-April if you can’t capitalize on the offensive chances you create. I thought the acquisition of Jake Guentzel would solve that problem, but alas it was not enough this year.

The biggest whiff is the eight year contract offered to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, which still has $4.82M AAV remaining for six more seasons. I get the gamble made to entice a signed offer sheet from a top 3 draft pick, but he hasn’t shown himself to be more than a depth piece.

The other major issue is age: Waddell is 65 years old, just five years younger than current Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson. Ideally we would have been hiring a long term GM here, and Waddell is not that. We will still need to find a new GM, or at least some sort of succession plan. Will that be accomplished before the draft next month, or will it drag on until next year?

Why this might work

I’ve said several times that my #1 choice for GM was Eric Tulsky, who was a top assistant to Waddell in Carolina, and was named interim GM after Waddell resigned his position this weekend. Tulsky was a pioneer of advanced hockey analytics, and one of the first bloggers in that field to earn a front office position in the NHL as a result of his work.

I’m under no illusions that Waddell can bring Tulsky here, but perhaps he can find another Tulsky type and groom him as a successor. Most importantly, the reporting that Waddell is here in a role larger than just GM suggests that we are finally getting the long-awaited wide-spread overhaul of the front office. Waddell is not just replacing Jarmo Kekalainen, but also John Davidson (with JD’s blessing) and even longtime team president Mike Priest. This organization was desperately in need of a culture change, and Waddell is now in position to make some sweeping changes.

When he took over the Hurricanes, they were a team that was starved for success since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. They were starting to acquire promising young talent like Aho, but it was under Waddell (and new owner Tom Dundon, who acquired majority ownership just months before expanding Waddell’s duties from president to GM) that the Hurricanes finally made the leap to perennial contender.

Say what you will about Jarmo, but he left a full cupboard. There are proven veteran stars like Zach Werenski, Johnny Gaudreau, and Patrik Laine, as well as promising young stars like Adam Fantilli, David Jiricek, and the Troika/Globetrotters line of Russian forwards.

There is something amiss with the vision and culture of the Blue Jackets organization, and Waddell will provide a much-needed outside perpsective. He demonstrated in Carolina that he can make hard decisions that benefit the roster over the long term.

There is no guarantee of success with this move, and there are going to be some hard decisions made (do you fire Pascal Vincent? Trade Kent Johnson? Trade Patrik Laine? What do you do with Elvis Merzlikins?). Waddell had to face many of these same decisions when taking over as GM of the Hurricanes in 2018, and he turned them into a great team.

Hopefully he can do the same thing here, and then choose a successor as GM who can see his vision through to completion and make the Blue Jackets the contending team that Columbus deserves.