If you ask me to name the NHL’s most pleasant surprise of the 2010-11 season, my gut reaction would probably be the rapid increase in competence enjoyed by teams that were once punching bags in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman brings the Detroit Red Wings mindset to his new team while the Chicago Blackhawks have two off-shoot GMs in the division, with Dale Tallon giving the Florida Panthers a makeover while Rick Dudley transforms the Atlanta Thrashers.
It was reasonable to predict some nice immediate improvements from the Lightning and Thrashers, but both teams have made bigger jumps than expected. Yet in the case of Atlanta, that jump launched them into the Eastern Conference’s playoff bubble, presenting Dudley with a bit of a conundrum.
It’s unclear whether the team should be a buyer or seller, even if they only trail the eighth-ranked Carolina Hurricanes by four points. But as people focus solely on the chase to earn a playoff spot, it’s easy to forget that a given team needs to actually have a chance to compete for the run to be worthwhile. After all, the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets probably weren’t nearly as excited about making the playoffs in 2009 once they were absolutely flattened in embarrassing first round sweeps.
Luckily, Dudley continues his track record of having a clear vision, as he acknowledges the fact that the best course of action is to improve the team’s short-term future only if it doesn’t impair the big picture renovation.
Amusingly enough, the imposing general manager also seems keen on adding more and more muscle to the team, keeping in stride with his noted preference to favor size even though the post-lockout NHL began as a small players’ league*. (After all, his signature move remains the blockbuster Dustin Byfuglien trade.)
“I’d like to win a championship,” Dudley said late last week. “I’d like to do it over a period of time. I can’t say right now that we are a Stanley Cup favorite, so any deal we make the definition of it has to be both present and future. We won’t do anything to take away from our chances to make the playoffs this year. We also won’t trade for a 35-year-old player either. If a deal comes up that meets that criteria we will certainly entertain it.”
Dudley made no secret that he wanted to add two forwards and a defenseman. He got two of those when he acquired forward Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart from Boston on Feb. 18. The Thrashers also traded veteran defenseman Brent Sopel to Montreal on Feb. 24 for minor-league forward Ben Maxwell.
“We think we put a couple of pieces in place so we are not looking for quite as much as we were,” Dudley said. “If we could make a deal to get another Blake Wheeler-type player, we would do that.”
Dudley also said last week that he is constantly looking for scoring and wants the team to get bigger.
* – This might not be a foolish preference for two reasons: it makes Atlanta fairly distinct and it also readies them for the fact that the neutral zone trap is creeping its way back into the game.