Luke DeCock

Don Waddell flirts with Wild as Carolina Hurricanes face front-office dysfunction

The general manager and team president doesn’t have a contract and interviewed for another job. Two assistant general managers and several scouts left and were not replaced. The goalie coach was allowed to leave, and a new one hasn’t been hired with a month to go until training camp.

Over the course of a summer where the Carolina Hurricanes have done solid business to upgrade their roster, their front office has already seen a considerable exodus. If Don Waddell departs the Hurricanes — the out-of-contract president and GM interviewed for the Minnesota Wild vacancy on Monday — it would not only be unprecedented, but also it would leave the Hurricanes rudderless at a moment when they desperately need to capitalize on the momentum of last spring’s playoff run.

Some of this turnover is natural and organic after the departures of previous owner Peter Karmanos and former general manager Ron Francis, accounting in particular for the exits of the two assistant GMs, Calder Cup-winning AHL coach Mike Vellucci and two-decade employee Brian Tatum, but owner Tom Dundon’s belief that everyone and everything is a replaceable part is being taken to an extreme this summer.

Especially with Waddell, who was nominated as a finalist for general manager of the year honors by his peers in part as an acknowledgment of his extraordinary workload doing both jobs.

“Even if he had a contract I would let him interview, so what’s the difference?” Dundon said Tuesday. “It’s not going to stop somebody from doing whatever’s better for them. If they’re going to pay somebody more money, I’m not going to stop them. I told him he’s got to do what’s best for him.”

Waddell on Tuesday said it has been business as usual for the general manager with the Hurricanes since he returned from his in-person interview with the Wild, including dealing Tuesday with the aftermath of an arbitrator’s bizarre decision that gave minor-league goalie Anton Forsberg an NHL contract for next season. That includes his relationship with the owner.

“Tom doesn’t believe in a lot of contracts,” he said. “Tom’s told me I have a job for life. But he’s also encouraged me to explore other opportunities to see what the market will pay. We started something here, I love it here, but when the job opened up and Tom said you should explore it, that’s what I’m doing.”

For everything Dundon has done with the franchise, enabling everything from the “Bunch of Jerks” marketing to the turnaround on the ice that got as far as the conference finals, it’s curious how the general manager position has become, and remains, an unusual source of controversy and consternation.

The demotion of Francis in March 2018 left a malcontent simmering in the front office until Francis was finally fired. Then a long and eventually fruitless leaguewide search led all the way back around to Waddell, the team president and interim GM, with the hockey world mocking Dundon for refusing to pay market value for a GM while Dundon insisted he never found any candidates who stood out to him as worth that much.

This summer, after Waddell’s contract expired in June, Dundon has so far declined to give him a new one, and Waddell at the time seemed agreeable to continue on an at-will basis. Two months later, Waddell clearly has happy feet and the spectacle of a sitting general manager interviewing for another team’s opening has little precedent in NHL history.

“I’m not going to pay what other guys pay GMs, so me having a contract with a GM doesn’t really help me,” Dundon said. “Don in essence has a contract. I already told Don, ‘I’m not going to fire you. If I did, I’d tell you a year in advance.’ My life’s pretty good. I want people to do what’s best for their life. If this is what’s best for Don, the Hurricanes will be fine.”

In any case, the whole debate has a surreal aspect to it, because whether it’s Waddell or someone else, NHL bylaws require the team to have a general manager under contract by the end of the month.

Whether Waddell is genuinely interested in the Wild job or using it as leverage to get a contract out of Dundon is immaterial; it should never have gotten to the point where front-office dysfunction became a distraction from everything the Hurricanes have accomplished over the past four months.

Get Sports Pass for the Carolina Hurricanes

Follow beat writer Chip Alexander and columnist Luke DeCock.
Sign up for The N&O's digital sports-only subscription for only $30 per year.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.