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.

The Buzzer: Tatar’s three-point night; Matthews makes more history

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Three Stars

1. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. Two big wins in a row for the Canadiens. Two big nights for Tatar, who now has six points in his last two games. During a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar scored a goal and assisted on two others. Last season, Tatar had only two multi-point games the entire year.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs. Kapanen continued his red-hot start with a pair of goals during the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He now has four goals and eight points through seven games this season, really making most of this opportunity in William Nylander‘s absence.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. A 37-save effort from Anderson helped the Senators dispatch the Dallas Stars 4-1. It was Anderson’s second win in a row and over his last two games he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots faced.

Highlights of the Night

• During their game Monday night, the Senators remembered the late Ray Emery:

• Maxime Lajoie can’t stop scoring. The Senators defensman potted his fourth of the season and now has seven points on the season.

• In his 1,000th NHL game, Tomas Plekanec scored:

• One of Kapanen’s goals was this bank shot:

• Good luck trying to stop this Matt Dumba rocket:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1

Senators 4, Stars 1
Canadiens 7, Red Wings 3
Predators 4, Wild 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.