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.

Lightning lament Game 6 effort, Cooper doesn’t blame disallowed goal

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Brian Boyle #11 of the Tampa Bay Lightning reacts after losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final with a score of 5 to 2 during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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The Tampa Bay Lightning seemed to sleepwalk through the first two periods of Game 6, and waking up in the final frame wasn’t enough to edge the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On the bright side, at least the Lightning aren’t in denial about that weak first 40 minutes.

It seemed like everyone on the team more or less admitted as much in unison.

Brian Boyle added that he felt like the Lightning tiptoed around this game. Jon Cooper often provides great quips, yet he was pretty matter-of-fact in this case.

Many will linger on this disallowed goal for Jonathan Drouin, which would have provided a 1-0 lead for Tampa Bay in the first period.

Let’s face it; that moment came pretty early in the game. To Tampa Bay’s credit, they’re not pinning the loss on that setback.

Now they must set their sights on competing throughout Game 7 … and maybe earning some bounces of their own in the process.

Read more about Game 6 here.

Penguins force Game 7 after holding off Lightning rally

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with his teammates Sidney Crosby #87 after scoring a goal against Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins played with fire late in Game 6, but they also showed plenty of fire in beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2.

With that, this thrilling Eastern Conference Final will go the distance with Game 7 on Thursday.

There are at least a few “What if?” scenarios to consider, especially for the Lightning.

What if that offside goal counted?

Jonathan Drouin played some fantastic hockey on Tuesday, yet his most memorable moment came via something that ultimately “didn’t happen.” An offside call on a goal review kept a 1-0 lead from happening for Tampa Bay:

Instead, the Penguins poured it on during the first period and eventually went up 1-0. They then carried that momentum over through the second period, adding two more goals to go up 3-0 heading into the final frame.

What if Tampa Bay played more like they did in the third period?

The difference between the level of play in the first 40 minutes and the final frame were night-and-day.

Now, you can make a chicken-and-the-egg argument here. Did the Penguins take their feet off the gas with that lead? Maybe Jon Cooper finally unleashed the hounds when the Lightning were facing a big deficit?

Maybe it’s a combination of those factors; either way, the Bolts couldn’t come all the way back even after making it interesting. At one point the game was 3-2 before a Bryan Rust breakaway goal and an empty-netter put things out of reach.

Both Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy faced plenty of tough chances and came through more often than not. We’ll see if there are any goal controversy rumblings, but each netminder came through at times tonight.

***

Now the series shifts back to Pittsburgh for Game 7 with a Stanley Cup Final on the line. Excited and/or nervous yet?

More: Great goals by Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.

Sidney Crosby scores a superstar goal

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With the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season on the line in Game 6, plenty of eyes are on big guns Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel.

Those marquee names are really coming through so far as they’ve now built a 3-0 lead through two periods against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You likely already saw Kessel’s display of high-end hand-eye coordination (if not, check it here). Kris Letang scored his first goal of the series to make it 2-0 on a very tricky, well-placed shot.

The highlight really might be Crosby’s tally, though. He left multiple Lightning players baffled and beat a very-much-game Andrei Vasilevskiy to beef that lead up 3-0.

Video: Phil Kessel displays incredible hand-eye coordination on goal

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This has been a tough postseason for Phil Kessel haters.

The supposed “choker” is on a team that’s in the Eastern Conference Final, but Kessel obviously isn’t just in for the ride with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He scored his 18th point in 17 postseason games by scoring the 1-0 goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6.

(Watch that goal in the video above.)

It was a dramatic first period, with a Jonathan Drouin goal getting disallowed and Andrei Vasilevskiy making some huge saves on tough chances.

Can Pittsburgh protect this slim lead with 1-0 down one period? We’ll see, but either way, what a great postseason for Kessel.

Update: Here’s the goal Kessel accidentally “scored” for the Lightning:

Ouch.