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by Ben Wright

Shortly before the NHL Christmas break sat down with Thrashers Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell to talk about the Thrashers' season and some of the challenges of being a general manager in the NHL. Here's what he had to say.

The team has been tested lately as several players have missed time with injuries and illness, particularly on the blueline. How does it feel to finally have enough depth to rely on during these stretches?

This is the most depth we've ever had at every position starting with goalies right through defense and forwards. We know we're going to have injuries. We went through it last year and we've gone through it every year. There's no doubt that we feel good about the guys that have been able to jump right in and play. With Coburn coming in and doing well and with Popovic playing a few games for us- we feel that he can step in right now also. It's a nice luxury to have, but you can never have too many quality defensemen, especially at this time of year because you know that injuries are always going to be a part of the game.

Speaking of the defense, is it a coincidence that most of their contracts are up at the end of this season or are you making room for some of the prospects that might be ready?

It's just the way things work. A lot of the guys had long term contracts. Andy Sutton had a multi-year deal. Garnet Exelby had a three-year deal. It's just the way it worked out- there was no plan to time it that way. It could be a positive or a negative. I think we've proven in the past that we make a strong effort to keep the guys we need to keep, but like you said, we also feel that we have some strong young guys that will be challenging for jobs next year.

Did that strong group of prospects have any influence on the length of contracts that you offered to free agents this past summer? It seems that you were favoring shorter contracts.

When you're going out in the marketplace and getting guys you're not real sure about you know them as players but not necessarily as people. I think keeping players on shorter contracts works both ways. The players have a little more to play for, but obviously if it goes well they can set themselves up for a much bigger contract. But we feel like we have some pretty good young players coming up through the system and we wanted to make sure that we have opportunities for them in the upcoming years.

Looking at the last few drafts, is there one that you can say was the best?

I don't know if we can call one our best draft, they all run together on me. But you look back at guys like Valabik who's having a tremendous year, guys like Pavelec, Bourret... We think Pavelec is going to be the real deal. He's having a tremendous year in junior. Chad Denny (from 2005) is another one- how could I forget him? He's going to be a good player. Drafts are funny. I always say measure a draft five years later. You can't get too excited with them and you can't get too down on them. Some players take one or two years to develop and others take four or five years.

The crop from this year seems to be doing extremely well.

We're really excited about the kids we drafted this year so far. We think we're going to have some NHL players out of this draft pretty quick. In the future, the way the economic system is set up you're going to need some young players coming into the system.

How hard is it to walk that line between flexibility and stability as you look at turnover within the organization?

It's tough, especially in today's market, because you can't make any mistakes. Before you if you made a mistake it would cost you some money but you could get out of it. Now with the salary cap it's going to cost you. You've got to be careful and do your homework. It's never been as important as it is now to do your research and make sure you know the guys before you sign them so you can avoid as many mistakes as possible.

Looking at some of the signings and acquisitions from this past summer, Niko Kapanen looks like he's starting to find his groove and feel at home.

Yeah he is. He's played better lately and is getting more ice time than he did at the beginning of the year. That was a trade for us where we needed to move a little money and we got back a player that we thought could help us. Kapanen is a very quiet guy and it took him a little while to fit in with his teammates. But as we've seen here in recent games, I think he's done a pretty good job for us.

How tough was it to decide what to do about J.P. Vigier as a free agent coming off a serious injury that ended his season prematurely? Were you confident he could bounce back?

He had a real tough injury, and he had to put a tough summer in coming back from knee surgery. When he came into training cap we were concerned with what his speed would be. JP's not the fastest guy in the league, and the surgery certainly wasn't expected to make him any faster, but he came in to camp in tremendous condition and battled for a job. Truthfully, coming into camp I didn't know if he'd have a chance to make the team, but he battled hard and he deserves to be here. He's been a valuable player.

As the trade deadline gets closer, are there any particular needs that you see yourself looking to fill?

We've talked about it. We'd see where our team is at and how things are going, but we've talked about adding another center. A lot of things can dictate what happens. Right now we have a couple of defensemen out, and if we lost another one long term maybe we'd be looking for a defenseman. If we lose a scoring winger or another winger we might have to look at that. The good news is that we have almost two and months until the trading deadline and by then we'll know what kind of position our hockey club is in- from a standings standpoint and we'll know what our needs are. Or maybe we won't need anything and we'll roll along. We're on pace to lose around 20 games in regulations, and that would be a heck of a season if we could pull it off.

You have the reputation of a GM who is capable of pulling off some pretty shrewd trades. Which one was your best?

Probably the Slava Kozlov trade (during the 2002 NHL Entry Draft). We actually picked up an extra pick in the draft for not taking a certain player, and then we took Lehtonen who we wanted to take anyway. It was kind of a free pick for us and we ended up trading it to get Kozlov, so that worked out well (Note: another draft pick was acquired with Kozlov, and it was dealt to Columbus for their late first-round pick, which was used to draft Jim Slater). That certainly has to be up there. Then, not knocking the player, but Hnat Domichelli at the time, scored 15 goals for us and the next season (2001-02) we traded him for Andy Sutton. Nobody knew a whole lot about Andy Sutton at the time but he's become a pretty important part of our hockey club. I would think that those guys would be right up there.

What was the toughest deal you've ever made?

Our first year, trading Kelly Buchberger was tough (traded on March 13, 2002 with Nelson Emerson for Donald Audette and Frantisek Kaberle). We knew what he meant to this franchise and he'd done a lot of things for us. I sat down with him and talked about it because I knew there were only a couple of years left in his career. That one and Ray Ferraro. Two guys that I have so much respect for what they did in the league and what they did for us, and those are the only two players I've traded that I've sat down with ahead of time and talked about the trade with the player so they wouldn't be caught off guard. Those guys were tough to trade for sure. Kelly Buchberger was my daughter's favorite player that first year too, so she didn't speak to me for three days. I think the fans forgave me faster than my daughter did.

Do you get a pretty good feel throughout the season of who is willing to deal and who isn't?

You look around the league and you can tell by the standings who might do what, but then you look at the GM's and you know that some guys will pull the trigger quicker, so you have to be on top of it more. Some guys they want to take a lot more time and dissect everything and get the best deal possible. Then there are other guys who as soon as they hear a deal they like will pull the trigger just like that, so yeah, we all have books on each other for sure. Everyone knows each others style. As you get closer to the trade deadline, or even get past the first of the year, that's when things pick up. There are always one or two early deals- Carolina picked up Doug Weight last year. They didn't wait until the deadline. You have to be prepared for those if you're looking for a certain player.

Do you know which team you've traded with the most?

That'd be interesting. I don't know if there's one team, or one GM. We have a lot of Ducks. Vitaly Vishnevski was a trade, Niclas Havelid was a trade, and we got Mark Popovic from Anaheim. As an organization it might be Anaheim, but I dealt with different GMs. Al Coates, Brian Burke- different guys. Dallas might be another one.

Switching gears, in all of the talk about tinkering with the NHL schedule, what would your ideal schedule look like?

Ideally if you took one game out of your division and played it against the Western Conference, you could play 14 of the 15 Western teams every year. That's once every 15 years that you don't see a team and that's pretty good. If you say "We're not going to see Vancouver 15 years from now" I don't think people are going to get too upset about that. But if you play almost everybody once at home or on the road, I could live with that.

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