"I Think We Can Fix That Pretty Quick": Don Waddell On Newest Challenge in Columbus

By Will Chase on June 3, 2024 at 1:45 pm
Don Waddell at his press conference introducing him as president, general manager, and alternate governor of the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday, May 29.

Don Waddell is officially in charge as president and general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now it's time to get to work.

As the Stanley Cup playoffs march towards an exhilarating conclusion this month, the major offseason activities ahead in the NHL are the draft June 28-29 in Las Vegas and free agency beginning July 1 at noon ET.

With Waddell now in charge, the first important cog of off-season priorities for Columbus is scratched off the to-do list. Now he'll begin the process of shaping and molding how the Blue Jackets roster and more will look come October.

"I wouldn't take this kind of opportunity at this point in my career unless I felt like we could make a difference," Waddell said during Wednesday's introductory press conference.

"There's a lot of good pieces here. The previous management has done a good job with drafting. We've got some challenges, of course. That's why they bring me in. But it's not like this is an organization that's going to take a long time to fix."

As Waddell takes these next few weeks to learn the interworkings of his team and meet with staff, he provides optimism.

"When I look at the NHL roster right now, there's some things we got to figure out," Waddell said.

"But there's enough good things there that if we can figure out the weak links of why our record was last year, which I think we can, I think we can fix that pretty quick.

"That's what I feel good about."

As you would expect, Waddell took in several questions during last Wednesday's press conference, including those about personnel.

Namely, the status of head coach Pascal Vincent, which Waddell acknowledged he'll need time to meet with everyone, take stock, and assess what he has.

As we await the first significant moves and changes to come from Waddell, it's interesting to ponder what he considers the true weak links.

What moves are plausible?

Everyone knows goaltending is a major focus, and Waddell is not oblivious to that fact, with Elvis Merzlikins under contract for three more seasons at a $5.4 million cap hit.

"(Goaltending) has to be (a focus)," Waddell said in his interview with Blue Jackets radio broadcaster Bob McElligott.

"I tried to trade for (Elvis) four years ago," Waddell said. "We have to spend as much time and resources on this player to try to get him back where he is. If we do that and it doesn't work, we got to turn the page.

"But I can't leave here right now knowing that we have him for three more years, knowing where he was four years ago, and say we didn't do everything we could have done to make this work. That would be a fault by me."

Another interesting quote from Waddell's sit down with McElligott lends insight into how Waddell might navigate this summer and future summers as it pertains to the draft and free agency.

"I love the draft and I love the trade deadline," Waddell said. "Not crazy about July 1 because some of the worst decisions in all of hockey are made on July 1, and I just don't want to be a part of that."

Getting a person like Waddell with an outside perspective installed is a significant step in the right direction for the Blue Jackets organization.

"I have lots of thoughts," Waddell said. "Probably not willing to share any yet because I don't want to poison anybody else's mind. I want to hear fresh what people think. I don't want people to think what I think unless that's what they think.

"If they know my opinion ahead of time, chances are they may want to jump on how I'm thinking. I want honesty. And your opinion might be completely opposite of mine. I might be completely wrong. You might be completely right.

"I want your opinion. I don't want fence sitters. I hate fence sitters because I've worked with a lot of people that are fence-sitters. I want to know what your thoughts are on player X, Y, and Z."

In addition to the positives that Waddell talked about, he touched on a few of the troubling concerns regarding his new challenge with the Blue Jackets.

"That's one of the reasons I took this opportunity," Waddell said. "If I didn't think there's any hope, I wouldn't have taken it. I could have chose other place or stayed in Carolina.

"This opportunity is exciting because of the pieces that are already here. We just got to continue to build off of that.

"And make the players, the younger players that are here, make them better. Obviously, injuries is a big factor last year. Work on that. Why was that? Was there a situation that happened more than it should have happened?

"Those are all things that I'm excited about because a lot of those things are fixable, very easily.

"I look at the goals against. Goals against was one of the worst in the East. You tighten that up, and you get a few saves here or there, and you can knock 40 goals off your goals against pretty easy."

Aside from John Davidson, who will step into an advisory role with the Blue Jackets this season, and who came into Columbus with previous NHL front-office experience after serving as president of the St. Louis Blues (2006-12), Waddell is the first general manager in Blue Jackets franchise history who begins his tenure with the club with previous GM experience at the NHL level.

A critical element to consider.

A spark of excitement for those who have long waited for significant change with a franchise with 25 years of experience on the ice and only six playoff appearances, with one of those appearances advancing past the first round.

Waddell has an extensive NHL executive background, working the previous ten seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, overseeing a rebuild, and the Hurricanes coming off six consecutive playoff appearances, three straight 50-win seasons, and at least 111 points in each of the last three years.

Like he's set to do in Columbus, Waddell was president of the Hurricanes from 2014-18 and then added the GM title to his résumé in 2018, as Carolina enjoyed its best seasons since their 2006 Stanley Cup win.

Before his work in Carolina, the Hurricanes hadn't made the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons.

Waddell won the Stanley Cup with the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings as assistant GM and served as the first GM in Atlanta Thrashers history. He then worked as a scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Waddell's done it all.

Now, he is tasked to do with the Blue Jackets what he was largely able to do with the Hurricanes.

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