Atlanta Thrashers rebuild in the image of their imposing new GM Rick Dudley

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studlydudley.jpgThere’s something really appealing about sports teams who forge distinct identities. Off the top of my head, the Detroit Red Wings have earned a reputation for being ahead of the back when it comes to European flair since the Russian-packed 90’s. The Washington Capitals and NBA’s Phoenix Suns are often criticized – but also admired – for their breakneck-paced offenses. The Philadelphia Flyers may never shake their Broad Street Bully past while the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers specialize in churning out great linebackers and tough defenses in general.

As I stated earlier this summer, it seems like the Southeast Division is going through a transformation that may someday provide competition for its model franchise in D.C.. The Florida Panthers are going big thanks to new GM Dale Tallon, but the once-flighty Atlanta Thrashers are similarly being re-made into a tough guy team.

In fact, you could say they’re being built in the image of their muscular new team builder Rick Dudley.

By bringing in former Blackhawks brutes such as Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, Dudley isn’t just showing his Chicago front office roots but rather his considerable preference toward physical forces. Kent at Five Hole Fanatics discussed the Byfuglien trade in late June, which also included the potential-over-production prospect Akim Aliu.

(Note: I know it’s a little weird to read an excerpt within an excerpt, but it’s pretty fascinating stuff.)

What follows is an excerpt from Gare Joyce’s book Future Greats and Heartbreaks featuring a brief profile on Rick Dudley, then an executive with the Chicago Blackhawks. Joyce had spent some time profiling draft prospect Akim Aliu for the Blue Jackets, and Dudley has just told Joyce that he likes what he sees in Aliu…

“I could see that he would. Dudley spends more time in the gym than any NHL executive, and probably more than a lot of NHL players. His arms are as big as Lou Ferrigno’s. Dudley was a hard-rock heart-and-soul forward in his day with the Buffalo Sabres, and an even better lacrosse player. He looks for athletes and athleticism – he’d be anti-Moneyball. Some scouts almost hold pure athleticism against a player – reasoning that what they do matters more than what they might become – in fact, to the complete exclusion of their athleticism. It’s the divide between potential and performance. That’s not to say Dudley doesn’t care how Aliu plays, but it’s Aliu’s athleticism that intrigues him.”

[Snip]

I personally don’t like the deal for the Thrashers because I don’t rate any of the players they got all that highly. For Dudley though – a man that values “toughness”, “build” and other uber-macho aspects of hockey – a package featuring Byfuglien, Eager and Akim Aliu must have been like catnip.

Even though the Thrashers are going through some considerable internal changes, it’s not clear how much they will improve from this season to last.

Laura Astorian took an interesting look at three prospects who seem primed to fight for a roster spot in training camp and who might be pushed out if one or more of them make it. She zeroed in on Swedish playmaker Carl “Klingon” Klingberg, this year’s eight pick from Russia Alex Burmistrov and the already-controversial Patrice Cormier.

So, there you have the three players who I feel will challenge for a spot come September. Who to move, though? Klingberg is a left wing. Cormier is a center, as is Burmistrov. The roster seems to be a bit packed. The forward lines could very well look like this at the start of next season, as the roster stands:

Bergfors – Antropov – Little
Kane – Peverley – Byfuglien
MacArthur – White – Ladd
Boulton/Eager – Slater – Thorburn

What to do? The easiest conclusion to jump to is that the team moves Todd White and places Cormier in his position for a bruising checking line (Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien can be switched, though I put Buff on the second line so he’ll have to play up to their level). How do the Thrashers get rid of Todd White? According to capgeek.com, he has a salary hit of $2,375,000 for this season, his last on this contract. No one expects him to have another 73 point season like he did in 2008-2009, and what team would pay that much in this climate for a third line center? Honestly, since the team can’t buy him out for right now (the window closed July 1st and a new one doesn’t open until August) for $866,667 and save the team a chunk of change, we’re a bit stuck with him unless some other team really wants to take a gamble. His salary’s too high for a team that needs to dump cost. Waiving him is probably not feasible, so it looks like White might be, if need be, the 13th guy. There is always the possibility that he is waived the month before camp as a just in case measure if Dudley really sees one of the kids making the cut.

While the trend rarely goes beyond the first five or so players drafted, it’s been stunning to see draft picks jump right into the NHL with such a high rate of success lately. You never know if Burmistrov might be able to make it. If Cormier is as “tank-like” as Astorian and others described him to be, I can imagine that would put him in Dudley’s good graces.

Either way, the organization needs to start generating positive momentum after a tough period in which they bled superstars from Dany Heatley to Marc Savard to Marian Hossa all the way up to Ilya Kovalchuk. It might take a while, but Dudley’s already flexing his muscles in Atlanta. Will this change to a beefier identity mean something substantial for the success-deprived Thrashers? That’s unclear at this point, but it sure will be interesting to find out.

Poll: Are the Pens poised to repeat?

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

By now you know the statistic, but here’s a refresher anyway.

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner since Detroit turned the trick in ’97-98, and hasn’t seen a reigning champ return to the Final since Detroit turned the trick in ’08-09.

Doing it once is tough. Doing it twice has become nearly impossible.

In fact, winning the Stanley Cup in recent years has, more often that not, paved the way for an extremely difficult encore. Chicago won it all in 2015, and was bounced in the opening round last year. L.A. hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug in ’14, and missed the postseason entirely in ’15.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On paper, this year’s Pens are a virtual carbon copy of the club that won the Cup in June. Their most noteworthy departures were defenseman Ben Lovejoy (off to join former Pens GM Ray Shero in New Jersey) and third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff, who signed in L.A.

And that’s it.

Everyone else is back.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back. The HBK line is back. Both goalies, Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, are back. Even the depth guys that some weren’t sure the Pens could afford — Justin Schultz and Matt Cullen — are back.

Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff are back, and reigning GM of the Year Jim Rutherford is back.

At first glance, this would make Pittsburgh a likely candidate to “do the Detroit” (as outlined above, in either scenario). But the NHL is fickle, and a grind — and it’ll be curious to see what that does to a Pens team coming off an extremely long season, with six players set to participate in the World Cup of Hockey.

Anyway, go have a vote:

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been a summer of celebration for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They enter the upcoming season as the defending Stanley Cup champs.

The Stanley Cup made its way to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in a heart-warming visit from Phil Kessel. Bryan Rust was photographed cuddling with hockey’s silver chalice, because, why not? Jim Rutherford was named the GM of the year when the end-of-season awards were handed out.

All of it a reward for a Penguins team that was struggling in the Eastern Conference before a mid-season coaching change. And shortly after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins took over the conference, rolling to a championship.

This summer, the Penguins made their pitch to land coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, with Sidney Crosby reportedly reaching out to the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner. Pittsburgh, like many other teams, was ultimately unsuccessful in its quest, as Vesey signed with the Rangers.

The Penguins did sign another college free agent, forward Thomas DiPauli, on a two-year entry-level contract.

They also re-signed forward Matt Cullen to a one-year, $1 million deal. Defenseman Tim Erixon re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $575,000 in the NHL. Justin Schultz, who initially didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins, making him an unrestricted free agent, eventually re-signed in Pittsburgh and that could give Derrick Pouliot, another young blue liner, some stiff competition when the season opens up.

A Stanley Cup victory did not come easy. The Penguins came out of the playoffs with injuries to several players, including Kessel, who underwent hand surgery.

But Rutherford is confident all the injured players — The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review listed Trevor Daley (ankle), Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow) as those on the road to recovery this offseason — should be ready for the opening of training camp.

The Penguins could also have a competition in the crease.

Matt Murray, who turned 22 years old in May, backstopped the Penguins to their championship. But Marc-Andre Fleury, 31, would like the opportunity to regain his old No. 1 spot.

Capitals have big plans for Dmitry Orlov, but there is just one problem . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25: Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center on November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Orlov is still without a contract for the upcoming season.

A restricted free agent, the 25-year-old defenseman had eight goals and 29 points last season, while making $2.25 million in salary for the season, as per General Fanager. His previous two-year contract had an annual cap hit of $2 million. But with training camps approaching, he remains unsigned for right now.

As noted before, there is a cap crunch for the Capitals heading into the new season. Orlov is the only RFA left for the Capitals to re-sign.

From the Washington Post:

According to generalfanager.com, Washington has $3.4 million in salary cap space left, but to allow for in-season roster flexibility or a 14th forward, the Capitals have around $2.6 million to devote to re-signing Orlov.

Still, despite that fact, the Capitals coaching staff has big plans for Orlov for the upcoming season.

“I envision him playing with a [Matt] Niskanen or a [John] Carlson, probably more prime minutes as we try even out our defense a little bit in terms of [workload],” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

“It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s at the right age where he can really contribute. We’ll look for his contributions on the power play, the penalty kill, playing in that top-4 on a pretty regular basis. I just think it’s right for him.”

Maurice: ‘Zero repercussions’ for Jets prospect Laine following offseason knee surgery

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 21: Patrik Laine #29 of Finland looks on against Russia at Ice Palace on May 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Finland defeated Russia 3-1.(Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
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With NHL training camps approaching and the beginning of the World Cup of Hockey next month, Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice had some good news to report.

It appears that forward Patrik Laine, the second overall selection in this year’s draft behind Auston Matthews, is progressing well from the minor knee surgery he underwent following the NHL scouting combine. That same operation kept him off the ice when the Jets held their development camp early in July.

“He was held out of (Jets) development camp for precautionary reasons, but he’s back to full training and has been for quite some time,” Maurice told NHL.com.

“There will be zero repercussions moving forward.”

Laine, the reigning World Hockey Championship MVP from earlier this spring, was named to Finland’s World Cup team. The tournament begins Sept. 17. Finland begins the competition the next day against Team North America.

After an unbelievable 2015-16 season — he was named the Finnish league’s playoff MVP and won gold for Finland at the 2016 world juniors with seven goals and 13 points in seven games — Laine now looks to make the leap to the NHL.

With his shot and skill — not to mention an entry-level deal with that carries an AAV of $3.575 million, including $2.65 million annually in performance bonuses, as per General Fanager — he’ll be given plenty of opportunities.

“Patrik is going to be able to do all those things he’s always been able to do,” Maurice continued.

“How long it takes him to do it, I don’t know, but he’s going to get a chance to play. He fits in to what we’re trying to do as a hockey team, so you’ll live with some mistakes that are youth-generated, but he’s a very special talent and I would not be surprised if he comes in and is able to finish and put up numbers.”