The Thrashers are 8-9-3 after 20 games, the quarter-mark of the season. On Thursday, I sat down with General Manager Rick Dudley for a question and answer period to get his thoughts about the first part of the season and what is ahead.
Here is the complete transcript from that interview:
Q. What have you seen that has gone right so far this season?
A. Obviously our offensive play has been brilliant. It was a big question in most people’s minds whether we would score enough to be successful. It’s a lot easier to get a team to play well defensively. I expect that will improve. Would I like us to be 14-4? Sure but we are not. We are about where I expected to be, to be honest with you. We’ve played good games, we’ve played some not so good games. The only thing with our hockey team right now is we can play at times so well that you want desperately to get that consistency, but it does take time.
Q. What have you seen that has gone wrong so far this season?
A. We started the year, two minutes into the first game, our goaltender went down and [Chris Mason] had to play every minute of every game after that. That was tough. [Ondrej Pavelec] is still getting himself together and Mason is playing quite a bit. That was a tough break.
I would have liked to have been healthy at the forward position all year. Everybody wants to be. Last year, we had almost no injuries. This year we’ve had some.
I’d like to see some of the guys that are capable of contributing more, contribute more. I’m not going to sit here and say everybody has played brilliantly. They haven’t. I think in general we’ve had good contributions from people we wanted to have good contributions from. I watched the game that [Alexander] Burmistrov played the other night and I said this kid is going to be special. You know what, when you pick eighth and you watch that kind of play, it’s pretty encouraging. He will help us go some place. I think the play of [Pavelec] last night was pretty impressive. I think the play of [Dustin Byfuglien] on defense has been nothing short of fantastic. I think Andrew Ladd has been every bit and more than we could have expected. [Rich Peverley] is starting to play. [Niclas Bergfors] is starting to play. [Bryan] Little is healthy again. [Evander] Kane has been scoring. We go on down the list. I think [Tobias] Enstrom has been wonderful. I think [Zach Bogosian] and Ron Hainsey can give us more offensively. [Nik Antropov] is coming back from an injury that’s been tough on him. He was our best player a year ago. If he can get back anywhere near that level, which he is doing slowly, we could be a fairly impressive offensive group.
I’m disappointed in a few guys, not a lot.
Q. So Antropov’s injury is still affecting him?
A. The problem with Antro’s injury was it affected his training. He didn’t get to train much at all during the summer. He went through all of training camp and wasn’t even able to play the exhibition games. It’s been a slow process. He’s a big man. Everything has to be right for Antro to be the player we know he can be and he’s slowly getting there. We knew it was going to take a little time. We were thrilled he could start the season with us to be honest. It’s not like he had a hangnail. It was a tough one.
Q. Overall, some people have pleased you and some you expect more from?
A. Yes. The record is the record. Would I like the record to be reversed and we were over .500? Yes. I expect this team to continue to get better. There has to be a certain element of desperation because you can’t slip too far down. Then you can’t catch up. I do expect us to get better on a consistent basis. I like the play of Hainsey lately. I like Bogosian’s progress. Enstrom and Byfuglien have been spectacular since day one. If we can get that defense playing at the level they are capable, they are one of the best. I know what Bogo’s capacity is. I know what Ronny’s capacity is. [Brent] Sopel is going to be Sopel. You know what you are getting there. He is a consistent, hard-nosed player who you know what he’s going to give you. Johnny Oduya I thought he struggled a bit early in the season but he’s playing all right now. We’ve got a top-6 defense that’s as good as anyone.
Q. You brought coach Craig Ramsay here, in part, because of his teaching ability. He’s had to teach a lot and there are still things that clearly frustrate him. Did you think it would take this long?
A. Yes, I did. I knew it would take some time with some of the players. To be honest with you, there is a time frame here. Some of the things that Rammer is teaching are the right things but are counter to what some of these guys have done their whole career. Will it take them time? The secret to teaching is that it becomes a habit. Habits sometimes take a while to break and to change into other habits. It’s about repetition. It’s about learning from mistakes. It’s about watching video. All of these things take time. Some of the guys have the visual skills to look at a piece of paper how something is drawn up and go out on the ice and do it. The vast majority it takes time, it takes repetition. That’s what this is all about. We knew it was going to take time.
The first game against Washington, a brilliant team, we played brilliantly. We did all things right and probably played on adrenaline a lot. You knew it wasn’t going to all be like that. You are going to go through periods where what they are doing now is what they need to be doing. They need to get to the point where there is a different mindset. A lot of these guys have played that lock-on or man-on-man defensive policy their whole life. Now we are asking them to do something different. It’s the right thing to do. Are they are going to be times like [the second period Wednesday against Florida] when you go ‘Oh my God?’ Yeah. Eventually it’s going to get there. I’ve seen this man work. I’ve seen several good coaches work. It takes time.
The one advantage this team has is it wasn’t a bad team. [At some of his other stops in management] Tampa was a bad team. Chicago was a bad team. Florida was a bad team. This is an easier job than those jobs. When you got to Tampa and you look at your board and you say ‘I’ve got three players here who can conceivably play in the NHL.’ That’s a task. …
I go to games now and it’s very specific what we are looking for. We will probably make changes as this year goes on. We will probably add things and delete things. I’m a long way of saying we are a perfect team. I’d like to think that all these people here understand that this can be a really good gig here. When we get these fans excited, which we will, it’s going to be fun. That group of athletes is a good, good group of guys. I think they all know that. I hope they all want to be here. To do that, you have to perform at a certain level.
Q. Are there trades, call-ups in the works, and how do you see this roster changing?
A. That’s a tough question to answer. Have a talked to people about trades? Sure. I try to talk to people on a semi-constant basis. Is there anything imminent? No. I don’t look at it and say we are going to make a trade. Do I anticipate that we are going to try to tweak things? Yeah, that’s the way I work. I think I’ve made a lot of trades that have helped the hockey teams I’ve been involved with simply because I don’t care if I help the other team. There are some guys that want to [fleece] you every time they talk to you. If we are toward the deadline and there was a team that we were tied with for seventh or eighth in the conference, would I be hesitant? Yeah. If it’s not that situation, I don’t care. The reality is trying to get better than 29 teams and in the conference better than 14 teams. Do I care about helping another team? Not if it accomplishes what we are tying to do. We’ll keep talking.
Q. You mentioned the play of Ladd and Byfuglien. They are restricted free agents. Have you started the process of trying to lock those guys up with new contracts?
A. I’m here this week and it’s something [President] Don [Waddell] and I have talked a little about. We are going to make a decision but this organization, in general, doesn’t negotiate a lot during the season. Are there players on this team that we would like to have back for sure? Absolutely. You never want to go through [RFA negotiations]. They are a pain. Andrew Ladd is a wonderful guy and it was a pain [last offseason] to be honest with you. Not him, the process. There is no question we were going to get something done. Would we have liked to tie him up for a long, long period of time? It didn’t happen. We’d still like to? Yeah. Obviously he’s played very well.
We would like Buff for a long period of time. We’d like to think these kids like it here and like what we are doing. I’m pretty sure they do. By the same token, they are pretty good players and they are not going to say I’ll give you the home town discount. We are going to talk about that.
With Ladd we went back and forth on a longer-term deal. He is one of the athletes I would say it wouldn’t matter how long the contract was. He’s going to play the same. At the end of the day, for everyone concerned, his representative, ourselves and himself – he’s a confident kid in his own way – everyone decided it was best to go on a one-year deal. That doesn’t mean we had any less respect for him or he had any less respect for us. It wasn’t them. They would have signed a multi-year deal. We just couldn’t get the right agreement. Can we do that in the future? We hope so.