What will be a busy offseason has already begun for the Thrashers.
General manager Rick Dudley has a list of priorities this summer, which includes obtaining a top-6 forward and perhaps a top-5 defenseman. There are also seven unrestricted free agents and 12 unrestricted free agents in the organization.
The following is a breakdown of the team’s plans based on Dudley’s exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday.
At the very top of the wish list is a scoring forward, Dudley said. The team struggled for goals at times this season, especially during a 7-17-6 stretch that likely cost them a postseason berth. The Thrashers finished with just two players – Andrew Ladd (29) and Dustin Byfuglien (20) with at least 20 goals.
Dudley said the line of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler established itself as a top-2 line in the NHL and were often the best line, on either team, on the ice on given nights. The team needs a second line to match.
“We have components that fit,” Dudley said. “I don’t know how soon it can happen. If you look at guys like [Alexander] Burmistrov and [Evander] Kane and you see two-thirds of another spectacular line, which will be a fast, fast line with a lot of skill. I’m not the coach, but you would like to think of them at some point in time playing together.”
Dudley said his preference would be to “force the issue” and acquire another top-6 forward. That could come via free agency or a trade. Dudley would also not rule out signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet should a team be up against the salary cap.
On the NHL roster, forwards Eric Boulton and Radek Dvorak are unrestricted free agents. Dudley said he has spoken to both and they reiterated their public statements that they would like to return. Dudley said he plans to speak to their agents.
Ladd and Wheeler are the top priorities on the restricted free agent front. Both are classified as Group 2 and are expected to return, but the team would like to work out new contracts with both.
“We want them back and they want to come back,” Dudley said. “All that bodes well. It doesn’t seal the deal, but you know if you have two sides that really want to get something done that we will figure it out somehow.”
Ben Maxwell, just finishing his entry-level contract figures to return. The organization will take a hard look at Anthony Stewart and Rob Schremp but Dudley expected to speak to their agents.
While Dudley said he was comfortable with the current defenseman on the NHL roster and the depth in the minor leagues, he would consider a deal that brings in a top-3 defenseman. Such a move would force the coaching staff into some tough decisions.
“The coaches and management have to make a determination if we have a top four [on defense] now,” Dudley said. “For much of the year I think we would both say we did. At other points we weren’t so sure. We have to take a look at that. If it’s a case we are not comfortable with a top four, then that’s going to be something we look at.”
The inconsistent play of defensemen Zach Bogosian and Johnny Oduya were a concern this season. Bogosian is restricted free agent and Dudley didn’t expect any issues re-signing the former No. 3 overall pick.
The future of unrestricted free agent Freddy Meyer is uncertain. Dudley said he would love to have Meyer on the roster. However, the organization has depth at defense. Such a young player could be involved in a deal to acquire a scoring forward. Arturs Kulda, who played two NHL games this season, is a restricted free agent. He would also be subject to the waiver wire next season. That could mean he makes the team as a sixth or seventh defenseman.
Noah Welch is an unrestricted free agent and the organization will give “some thought” to bring back should he be open.
Both Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec are under contract next season. Dudley reiterated Thursday the need for Pavelec to come to camp in top condition.
“There are two things I expect to happen,” Dudley said. “Chris Mason was hurt a lot last year and I think he will have a big bounce back year. The character of this person is so high that he wants to make sure.
“Pavs has to buy into the theory that conditioning is an aspect of goaltending. He hasn’t been a brilliantly conditioned athlete. He has to be. If he does, he can be the goaltender that he can be. At his best, he is very good.”
Dudley also said the organization has two minor-league goaltenders that could challenge for a job in the near future in Edward Pasquale and Chris Carrozzi. Pasquale, who played at AHL Chicago, has the tools to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL, Dudley said.
* Here are some quotes from Dudley on each of the pending free agents:
Radek Dvorak: “I had a talk with him. He expressed an interest. He liked the guys on the team. He liked the coaching staff. He liked everything about it. He wants to play again, so we are going to talk to him.”
Eric Boulton: “I talked to Bolts and told him we would be getting in touch with him and his agent. Bolts played well for us. People ask about Ben Eager, the pure and simple answer is Bolts outplayed him. It’s a fact. Surprising a little bit? Maybe.”
Freddy Meyer: “You never mind having Freddy on or around your team. It’s something we told Freddy as a staff we have to talk about and we’ll be talking to him. We just have to make some tough decisions as to what we want on our seven-man rotation.”
Noah Welch: “Welch we have to give some thought to.”
Jamie Sifers: “Sifers was probably a guy who should have come up and didn’t. He may or not to come back because of that. In fairness to the kid, he should have come up. We just had a few people at that position. He could have easily been here.”
Jason Krog: “We didn’t call Krog up this year. He knows we have moved people past him in that situation.”
Jared Ross: “In Ross’ case, he was hurt and then we never had a need for his role. He played well in Chicago in the second half. He is a small center and we have [Alexander] Burmistrov and [Bryan] Little and at the time [Rich] Peverley.”
Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler: “We want them back and they want to come back. All that bodes well. It doesn’t seal the deal, but you know if you have two sides that really want to get something done that we will figure it out somehow.”
Zach Bogosian: “I don’t think we will have a problem re-signing him.”
Ben Maxwell: “I assume given the opportunity he was given here, he would want to come back. He expressed that in our meeting. The coaches like him quite a bit. He’s smart. Coaches like smart players – a guy that goes to the right places. That was the thing on him. He was always smart.”
Rob Schremp: “He’s an interesting one. We’ve beaten that one up quite a bit because we like the kid. He came in and worked hard. He was a good guy. He seemed to be a guy that fit into what we are trying to do. Schremp has his warts. He also has some very positive things. He’s an offensive weapon. Will we talk to his agent? Absolutely.”
Anthony Stewart: “We’ve got to talk to. Stewy is an interesting guy because he had a productive first half and a non-so productive second half. Both our side and their side has to take a look at that. I think he’s found a home. I think he likes playing for Craig [Ramsay]. I think he’s had some success playing for Craig. We have to arrive at a number.”
Arturs Kulda: When Kulda came up, he didn’t play as well as we would have liked. I don’t think he was in the condition he should have been that you need to play at that tempo. He was a guy we hoped would come in and force us to do something. He wasn’t a major disappointment, but he didn’t play as well as we expected.”
Brett Feasterling: “He’s a guy that can play in the league. I’ve watched the guy play many times. He can play somewhere between a 5 and 7 [defenseman]. I believe he will be one of those guys that will be battling for that [spot].”
Spencer Machacek: Spencer can play in the league. We believe he can play in the league as a fourth-line player. We would like a little more from him. He’s capable of scoring but he has to work on his skating. … We have a plan in place that we think he should do.”
Riley Holzapfel: “He’s had a bit of an up and down career with us so far. He probably hasn’t played at the level of where he was drafted. In training camp and at times this year, he showed that intellect. People like smart players. He has to make a commitment to being more of that. He has to work on his strength. He has to work on his skating. It’s not bad, but he has to make it better. He can play in the NHL if he does a number of things.”
Andew Kozek and Ian McKenzie are also restricted free agents, but we did not discuss them specifically.
I also asked Dudley about Angelo Esposito and the progress he made this season after suffering two torn knee ligaments.
Angelo Esposito: “He played some good games for Chicago. We are encouraged about that. I would like to see him establish himself as a regular American League player. It’s very difficult. He was playing behind some East Coast League players and I’m sure that was tough for him. It was to the point where I was thinking of putting him in the East Coast League so he could play 25 minutes a game. It never quite got to that because he started to play. I think Angelo can become a player. He’s got to stay healthy.”