The Thrashers slipped out of first place in the NHL Southeast this week. (They play Boston tonight, so this is subject again to change.) What’s significant is that the Thrashers were in first place this deep into a season. What’s also significant is that Rick Dudley, the first-year general manager, believes the best still awaits his club.
“If you’re asking for a philosophic outlook,” Dudley said this week, “I think it’s fair to expect us to play well the rest of the way. People around the league are coming up and saying, ‘You guys are for real,’ and I think we are. We should be nothing but better in time.”
Dudley was Don Waddell’s deputy last season, and the chief reason the Thrashers dumped coach John Anderson this spring was the belief they had enough talent on hand, Ilya Kovalchuk’s forced departure notwithstanding, to have made the playoffs. (They missed by five points.) Dudley was promoted on the same April day Anderson was canned and in short order went about poaching from the NHL’s upper crust.
In two different deals the GM landed four players — Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager — who’d just hoisted the Stanley Cup in Chicago. This gave folks reason to believe the Thrashers would be much improved. Said Dudley: “I thought it might take a little while, though. I had no doubt about [head coach] Craig Ramsay and this coaching staff, but I thought it would take half a season.”
It never hurts to mix proven winners into a dressing room that hasn’t known much winning. “The right people can dramatically change the culture,” Dudley said. “We saw that when we got Dave Andreychuk in Tampa. [Dudley was GM of the Lightning from 1999 to 2002; Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004.]
“A guy like Brent Sopel — the sacrifices he’ll make to win a game will have an impression on a team. And it wasn’t just the Stanley Cup that made these guys winners. They were winners long before.”
The Thrashers were 7-9-3 on Nov. 17 — not great but, all things considered, not awful. “We had so many new parts,” Dudley said. They’re 12-3-2 since, and for a brief shining moment they sat atop the Southeast ahead of the Washington Capitals, who were the NHL’s best team in the 2009-2010 regular season. The Thrashers had a wobble against St. Louis here Monday, but they’ve played well enough long enough to suggest they won’t make wobbling a habit.
Dudley: “With the team we have and the way we’ve played, I don’t expect us to fall off.”
Rick Dudley’s nickname is Duds. His Thrashers haven’t been.
By Mark Bradley