ATLANTA — It could be a memorable draft weekend for Don Waddell.
There is much anticipation that Waddell will take a highly regarded defenseman with the No. 3 overall pick in the NHL draft tonight, but the Atlanta Thrashers’ general manager also could be close to hiring a new coach.
Waddell, taking a break from his draft preparations Thursday night, wouldn’t rule out the possibility he could leave the NHL draft in Ottawa with a new head coach.
“I don’t want to say never,” Waddell said when asked if he might have his new coach at his draft table on Friday.
Waddell said he has interviewed “everybody we want to interview” as he seeks to replace himself as coach.
Waddell fired Bob Hartley following an 0-6 start and served as interim coach the rest of the season.
The Thrashers were 34-34-8 with Waddell on the bench, but he wants no part of another season in that role.
“I announced as quickly as I could I will not be back coaching the team,” he said. “Truthfully, we were in a difficult situation last year. ... The worst thing I did was go 11-4 in the first 15 games.”
Waddell confirmed he has interviewed Thrashers assistant Brad McCrimmon, who is a favorite of the players and would provide continuity, and John Anderson, coach of the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Waddell also is believed to have strong interest in former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, who was fired four years after winning the Stanley Cup.
Waddell said he has continued to work on hiring a coach even as the draft preparations gained momentum this week.
“We’ve talked to some people more than once,” Waddell said. “We’re going to just keep going here. It’s such an important decision for the franchise. I just want to make sure I do all my due diligence.”
Tampa Bay is expected to take center Steven Stamkos with the No. 1 overall pick, leaving two defensemen — Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian — as the possible next two picks.
The Los Angeles Kings may take Doughty or Bogosian with the No. 2 pick. Waddell is expected to quickly draft the other.
“Certainly we’ve said all along we know we need to improve our defensive core for our season to move forward,” Waddell said.
Waddell said he believes there are four top defensemen in the draft but confirmed Doughty and Bogosian head the list.
“These two look like the cream of the crop on defense,” he said.
The Thrashers also have the No. 29 pick in the first round, a selection acquired in the trade that sent Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh last season.
Waddell, known for his draft-day trades, said he expects there will be interest in the No. 29 pick. There is more interest in the No. 3 pick, but he said he doesn’t expect to trade from that valued spot.
“I’ve told teams we think we’re getting a special player,” Waddell said. “I have gotten a lot of calls so everybody else feels the same way.
“I’ve told everybody, ‘You’re going to have to blow me away. We think we’re getting a defenseman we could have for years to come.”’