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Two weeks ago, when I asked new Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley how close the team was to competing for a Stanley Cup, he remarked, “We’re as close as Chicago was two years ago.” Whether he was being realistic with that comment or was setting himself up for a fall has yet to be determined, but you had to admire the man’s confidence.
Now we know something else about Dudley. He’s proactive. In the last 24 hours, he has swung two trades involving nine players, three draft picks and “future considerations” — the major deal bringing forward Dustin Byfuglien from the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks – and finalizing the hiring of head coach Craig Ramsay.
This franchise needed a jolt, and Dudley didn’t take long to provide one.
Dudley said he has a mandate to “get better now.” You would like to think that would be written on the door of every general manager’s office. But maybe the sign was a little late arriving to the Thrashers’ headquarters.
No deals and certainly no coach hiring guarantee success. Through most of their 10 seasons — including three head coaches, an oft-maligned general manager (Don Waddell) and ownership that exuded mostly ignorance and little passion or sometimes even a pulse — the Thrashers have mostly proven how not to succeed.
Part of the problem in assuming success now is that the Atlanta Spirit is looking for new investors and may attempt to dump the franchise altogether. The last thing these guys are going to do is provide Dudley with a healthy payroll to work with.
But give Dudley credit. He is giving it a go. The Ramsay pick won’t have anybody screaming, “Inspired!” He is 59 and a relative lifer as an assistant coach. But he very well could be the right choice. (John Torchetti, thought to be the favorite, may still be brought in as assistant.) He was a terrific player for 14 seasons in Buffalo (where he was a former teammate and roommate of Dudley’s), a smart, 20-goal scorer who excelled defensively. He has long been one of the NHL’s most respected assistants.
Ramsay represents stability and discipline, not fire. But the Thrashers need stability and discipline at this juncture. They need a teacher. They certainly need defense because chances are they won’t score a ton of goals next season.
Oddly enough, Ramsay was thought to be a candidate for the Thrashers’ first head coaching job back in 1999 but he never received a call. “I thought I would have a chance to interview for the job, but I didn’t actually [pursue] one,” Ramsay said. “I might not have been as aggressive as I should have been.”
This is his first real chance. He coached 21 games (4-15-2) in Buffalo’s miserable 1986-87 season after Scotty Bowman resigned. In 1999-2000, he took over for the cancer-stricken Roger Neilson in Philadelphia and led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost in seven games to New Jersey. The Flyers thanked Ramsay for this by firing him 28 games into the following season.
“I’ve been in some awkward situations,” he said in amusing understatement.
And later this, about his attitude with the Thrashers: “We’re not just trying to survive. We’re going in with the attitude where we expect to win.”
Dudley pulled off a nice deal with the Blackhawks. He knew their personnel well from his Chicago days and was aware the team needed to trim payroll. Byfuglien and defenseman Brent Sopel are solid players.
Picks and prospects are just that — picks and prospects. For the Thrashers, that’s so yesterday.
A nice jump-start by the new general manager.
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