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.

Report: Connor McDavid undergoing concussion protocol (Updated)

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 23:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on November 23, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Oilers defeated the Avalanche 6-3. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Connor McDavid is going through the league’s concussion protocol, according to multiple reports during Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

Per Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, McDavid was ordered to undergo the protocol after falling to the ice when he got tangled up with Jared Spurgeon. As McDavid fell to the ice, his face hit hard and he appeared in immediate discomfort.

McDavid held the NHL lead with 34 points in 26 games coming into Sunday’s contest.

Updated: McDavid has returned to the Oilers bench to begin the third period.

The Flyers have won five straight and Steve Mason has been solid in goal

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason reaches up to make a glove save against the Colorado Avalanche during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Denver. Philadelphia won 4-2. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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The goaltending in Philadelphia has been talked about plenty this season, mainly because it had struggled.

That is only until recently, even with Michal Neuvirth still out with an injury.

The Flyers are on a five-game winning streak, reaching the mark with a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday. Wayne Simmonds had a pair of goals and he now has six points in his last six games.

Ivan Provorov had a productive, two-goal game on Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

But goaltending has been much better for Philly as of late.

Steve Mason has been in net for four of the last five wins and he’s given his team the goaltending it needs to have a chance for those victories. Take his first win in this stretch: He faced 47 shots against the Bruins and stopped all but two of them.

He didn’t face the same workload Sunday against the Predators but he was still busy, particularly in the third period as Nashville pushed for the equalizer.

He stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced. In his last four games, he’s allowed only seven goals and no more than two in a game. That save percentage — recently at an ugly .892 — has started to improve. It’s still at .904, which isn’t great. But better than a week ago.

That’s solid goaltending.

And right now, the Flyers are on a roll.

“For me, it’s really the last nine or 10 games. Some of those games, the results didn’t come… games 8, 9 10 ago,” said coach Dave Hakstol.

“But we were playing really complete games. There’s a time or two in a game where the momentum goes against you, but the bench stays strong and they just go out there and try to push the momentum back our way.”

Video: Gaudreau scores in return from injury — and this goal was a softie

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau celebrates his goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Calgary, Alberta. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)
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Welcome back, Johnny Gaudreau.

The Flames forward returned to the lineup Sunday, after missing 10 games with a finger injury. He scored on his very first shift, on his very first shot of the game.

It’s a goal Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier would probably want back.

Gaudreau picked up the puck after briefly losing control and casually fired it toward the net from inside the faceoff circle. It made it’s way through Bernier, who wasn’t screened on the play, giving Calgary an early lead.

Nielsen admits there were ‘some butterflies’ in return to Brooklyn to face Islanders

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 04:  Nick Leddy #2 of the New York Islanders checks Frans Nielsen #51 of the Detroit Red Wings during the first period at the Barclays Center on December 4, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) Frans Nielsen admitted he’ll have “some butterflies” when he faces the New York Islanders for the first time since leaving for Detroit as a free agent last summer.

“For sure it’s not going to be just another game,” Nielsen said Sunday about three hours before the Red Wings faced the Islanders at Barclays Center. “There’s going to be some butterflies for me and some nerves. Hopefully it just gonna take a couple of shifts and I can relax and play my game.”

The 32-year-old Danish center was drafted by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 draft, No. 87 overall, and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York before signing a six-year, $31.5-milion deal with Detroit.

Nielsen, one of three players to leave the Islanders in free agency along with Matt Martin (Toronto) and Kyle Okposo (Buffalo), says he wasn’t looking to go elsewhere, but began exploring other options when talks with the Islanders stalled.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I don’t have anything bad to say about anything here. It dragged out for some reason and got to a point where I got a chance to talk to other teams and kind of realized it might be fun to get a new challenge and try something new.”

So what does he cherish most about his time in New York?

“A lot, from playing the first game to scoring the first goal,” Nielsen said. “The first playoff series I was in against Pittsburgh (in 2013). The (Nassau) Coliseum, just how loud it was. I don’t think I’m going to experience that again. To winning a round last year. All the friendships, all the people you met not only with hockey, but away from the rink. … One-third of my life I lived here, so lot of stuff you miss about (not) being here, too.”

Nielsen said it felt `weird’ flying into town Saturday night after Detroit’s loss at Pittsburgh, and then staying in a hotel nearby. When he arrived at the arena, he saw former teammate Johnny Boychuk by the player’s entrance and jumped in his car for the `two-minute ride’ down to the parking level.

The Red Wings were in the market for a new center after former star Pavel Datsyuk decided to end his NHL career and return to Russia. Nielsen has fit right in with his new team, totaling six goals and eight assists in 25 games.

“I love him,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s got inner drive to be great. He’s selfless, he does what it takes to win for the team. He’s an all-around player who plays in most situations for us, penalty kills, power plays, can go up against other teams’ best players. … He’s got lots of experience, he’s a leader-type person. There’s no question he brings a presence just by with the way he handles himself and the type of teammate he is.”

With the Red Wings remaining in town overnight before flying out to Winnipeg on Monday, Nielsen expected to spend time with some of his former teammates after the game.

“The friendship you build up with all these people over the years,” Nielsen said. “We had some really tough times and a lot of the guys went through the tough times here where we weren’t winning. Just going from that to building a competitive team, you just build a special bond when you go through that.”