Earlier this week, Don Waddell was mentioned as a possible candidate for the recently opened Minnesota Wild General Manager position. That news notched up significantly today when it was reported that Don Waddell had interviewed in person for the job. Today’s news woke up those who work the Canes hockey beat from a summer slumber which has yielded a batch of interviews and quotes but in my opinion not a ton in terms of clarity as to what is going on.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe addresses this topic from a couple different angles.
As a starting point, I would also read (if you have access) the two articles that followed today from the local beat.
To try to put some organization to a somewhat stream of conscious post, I will work from general to more specific.
Briefly recapping the what is known/reported about the actual situation
Hockey contracts generally run yearly and end on June 30, so on June 30 Don Waddell’s contract officially ending, and I guess in theory he became a free agent. All indications are that nothing changed on July 1. He has seeming been active and involved as the team has made additional moves, and his name still regularly appears in the press releases. At least everything available publicly would suggest that in terms of what he does on a daily basis as a Hurricanes employee nothing has changed. That would seem to suggest that he is being paid or expects to be paid for his work and would also seem to suggest that the role will continue into the future.
Then on Monday with the Wild needing to hire a replacement general manager, Don Waddell’s name oddly came up as a candidate. Then things escalated on Tuesday when The Athletic reported that he actually did an in person interview. Then on top of that came all of Dundon’s comments on the situation in the News & Observer article.
Just more of the new (ab?) normal
At the most basic way, the Carolina Hurricanes under Tom Dundon have been in many ways unorthodox. At the very beginning, he was very hands on with marketing, promotions and even finer details of the in arena product. He followed that up by parting ways with General Manager Ron Francis when he did not fit the committee type approach to managing the team. And from the very beginning, Dundon has played an active role on the hockey management side of the house too. The ‘breaking the mold’, ‘forging our own path’ approach has permeated every aspect of the organization. Worth noting is that the first move on the hockey side that was every bit Dundon’s doing was hiring an inexperienced Rod Brind’Amour to be the team’s bench boss. So at the most basic level, the Don Waddell situation does not stray that far from the new normal that ignores the book and is reasonably consistently unorthodox. One thing that is becoming increasingly certain is that Canes fans should become accustomed to regular doses of unorthodox.
What is the situation exactly then?
That is still a bit murky, but per what I said above, it seems to be this. Don Waddell is still working for the Hurricanes in his regular role on a daily basis as of right now, but he still does not have a contract for the upcoming season. Dundon gave his blessing for Waddell to interview, so though there definitely may be some negotiating and gamesmanship going on right now, I do not think it makes sense to declare that there is certainly some rift between the two.
Specifically on Don Waddell and his role
When the decision was announced, I was not incredibly high on what I considered to be a ‘do nothing’ decision to go with the existing group in what at least initially was deemed a general manager by committee. But evaluating Waddell and the structure in general based solely on results, I do not see how anyone could give them anything but high marks. The turnover last summer was significant. Waddell managed to unload Marcus Kruger and net Jordan Martinook who played a sizable role in developing a new culture. Waddell also revamped a blue line that was promising but slow arriving when he added Calvin de Haan via free agency and then made a blockbuster to acquire Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland in exchange for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin. The team also added reinforcements in net in Petr Mrazek and made the tough decision to part ways with Jeff Skinner. The process was messy and imperfect, but the result was a significantly revamped roster with a new head coach and a new captain. Waddell put a cherry on top when he somehow brokered a deal to send Victor Rask to Minnesota for Nino Niederreiter. And in a results business, the moves worked. I chalk playoff success up somewhat to the wonderful randomness that NHL playoff hockey is, but the push up into the playoffs was a huge win for the 2018-19 season to put a stake in the sand, change the culture and mentality and forge forward in a new way. There are obviously many contributors to that success, but I think Don Waddell deserves a sizable chunk of it for his role.
So the team was successful and is headed in the right direction, and Don Waddell deserves a good amount of credit for that situation. It would seem to be a no-brainer that he would continue in that role for the foreseeable future.
Despite have mixed feelings that leaned negative on the initial decision to go with a committee, I would without hesitation continue with Waddell in the general manager role. I lean ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and the 2018-19 season was an overwhelming success with Waddell’s fingerprints all over it.
…and maybe that is exactly what is happening
Right now, it hard to sort out how much of what is going on is simply unorthodox process versus a legitimate problem. (One could also write a full analysis of the intermingling of those two things.) But up until the point where Waddell were to leave, I think it is fair to write this off as more of the unorthodox in terms of how Tom Dundon runs a hockey business. One could reasonably assume that if Dundon and Waddell were in 100 percent agreement on what Waddell’s terms should be going forward, something would already be signed. Is Waddell asking for a two or three-year contract based on his success in 2018-19? Especially with a lockout looming in 2020-21, that could be significant. Does Waddell maybe want a raise based on his performance and the fact that he is still sort of doing two jobs? One thing we do not have is any concrete information on what has been discussed between Dundon and Waddell, so anything in that regard would be speculation.
Part of a concerning trend?
One thing that comes into play especially if Waddell does depart is the volume of departures since Dundon bought the team. Ron Francis was obviously a decision made by Dundon for reasons, but just this summer the team has seen Goalie Coach Mike Bales, Assistant General Manager and Charlotte Checkers Head Coach Mike Vellucci, Assistant General Manager Brian Tatum and a couple scouts leave. Of significance is that the management departures were not for promotions but rather were sideways moves. If Waddell were to depart for Minnesota, that would be the biggest yet in terms of key management leaving just to take the same job somewhere else. But with the Waddell situation to the side, I think this situation is murkier than some think. When new ownership/management takes over a company, it is normal for there to be a significant amount of transition as people with ties and sometimes loyalty to the old guard depart and as the new regime puts some of its own people in place. I think I would feel better about the situation if the team proves able to attract some talent from outside the organization, but more generally I am sort of in wait and see mode on this trend and open to the possibility that only about 18 months into Dundon’s ownership and only in the second off-season that the personnel transition is still in process.
A conspiracy theory
As noted above, there is not much for information on what Dundon and Waddell have discussed or negotiated. If Waddell was just looking to sign up for another year maybe just with a modest raise for performance, my thinking is that this would already be done. So the fact that the situation is what it is right now suggests that there is likely some disconnect between Dundon and Waddell. That is not to say that it is a contentious situation.
Again, this is not based on anything being said/reported from any of the parties, but here is my wild speculation…
I think Dundon’s long-term plan is for Eric Tulsky to be the general manager. In fits and spurts and with some struggles along the way, I think the NHL is slowly going that direction anyway. The Maple Leafs and Coyotes have appointed general managers who though they do come from a longer hockey pedigree are more futuristic in terms of shifting to more an analytical approach to building an NHL hockey team to be successful in 2020 and beyond. With his unorthodox, ‘break the mold’ type of approach is there another NHL owner even remotely as likely to be the first put an analytically-leaning professional in a general manager role?
If one takes that to be plausible, it could definitely impact the relationship and role for Waddell. He serves three purposes. First is to play a part (as noted he did that well for 2018-19) in building a winning hockey team. But second is to help Tulsky get up to speed on a role and a business with a ton of moving parts. The ‘committee’ approach that has multiple people at the table, including Tulsky, is perfect for that. Post-transition, Waddell could still have a role as President likely with more emphasis on the business side but also the possibility of some engagement on the hockey side since the committee approach is accommodating for that.
The schedule for such a move is unclear. Based on the fact that the team waded this deep into the off-season would suggest that the plan (at least the original one) was not to make that transition soon. But at the same time, Dundon could prefer a shorter commitment and/or more flexibility with Waddell’s contract and role. If Waddell enjoyed his return to the hockey side after many years away and also feels emboldened by the 2018-19 results, asking for a three-year contract would not be outlandish. But if Dundon’s ultimate plan is as noted above, such a request could cause a gap between Dundon and Waddell that is much larger than things appear at first glance.
The myth of a whimsical Dundon
Because his approach is unorthodox and does not match how the hockey men think things should always work, I think his actions are sometimes incorrectly characterized as random. While there does seem to be an instinctual part of Dundon’s decision-making to think that a businessman with his level of success does not have a plan or a reason for certain actions seems naive. If my speculation about a long-term path to Tulsky is correct, Dundon’s seemingly odd ’employment at will’ and ‘doesn’t like contracts’ verbiage could well be a smoke screen that steers around a confrontation with Waddell. Dundon did sign Brind’Amour for two years when maybe he could have pushed for a one-year trial with the rookie coach. And remember that the Aho situation came about largely because the team wanted a maximum eight-year deal. So if Dundon’s approach is to go year to year with Waddell because of a longer-term plan, doing so in a way that neatly categorizes as ‘just more unorthodox’ steers around a negotiating confrontation that could occur if Dundon pushed too hard specifically for one year and would not budge.
I touched on it really briefly above, but some seem to be short-sighted whenever a mini-storm pops up. The sample size is small, but the results are incredibly good so far under Tom Dundon and also the current management structure. Though there is always some random luck to sports success, I think there are a couple unmistakable wins so far. First is the decision to hire Rod Brind’Amour despite his inexperience. Success in the long run is not a sure thing based on a successful first season, but I think the change being effected right now in terms of attitude and culture is a much-needed step in the right direction. I also think the dramatic changes in terms of how the team interacts with the fan base are substantial and meaningful. No doubt, winning and playoffs boost attendance and energy, but those with a good memory will duly note that the fun vibe and closer contact with the community preceded the winning.
I think in trying to break the mold and do things differently from how everyone else is doing it will inevitably come with some errors. And the hockey good old boys network will rain down criticism and derision each and every time it happens or even looks like it might happen. But if the gains outweigh the losses and more significantly the results continue to be there, it will be three steps forward one step back. And based on the fact that the team took the three steps forward in 2018-19 arguably without the one step back, I think the fan base needs to give Dundon and the management the benefit of the doubt much more than the broader hockey world will.
The local media
As an aside on the state of our hockey market, it was reports out of Minnesota jolted the local Hurricanes beat reports awake from an off-season slumber, but in reality this is something that should have received attention in the form of questions back in mid-July, Once the dust settled on busy season for the other hockey dealings, this should have been on the radar and newsworthy enough to at least garner a few questions and an update. The arrival of The Athletic with Sara Civian has helped, and if it is extended, winning will also boost local and other coverage. But the coverage locally again proved to be more reactionary than truly on top of it.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the Don Waddell situation?
2) What do you make of my conspiracy theory? Could there be something to it and a method to the madness? Or do you consider it to be the wild musings of a starving Caniac who is just trying too hard with even the slightest bit of real news in the middle of the August desert of the NHL off-season?