ATLANTA – Rick Dudley knows a thing or two about putting together a winning hockey team from his stints in Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Chicago.
He’s taken on another major project with the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that has made the playoffs only once in its 11-year history and faces questions about how long it can survive in this city.
Dudley was promoted to general manager Wednesday, part of a wide-ranging shakeup in which previous GM Don Waddell was bumped upstairs to team president and coach John Anderson was fired.
Despite all the changes, Dudley doesn’t think it will take that long for the Thrashers to become a perennial post-season franchise – and put aside that speculation about going elsewhere.
“We thought we should have made the playoffs this year, so obviously we expect to next year,” Dudley said. “We’re at the point now where we can evolve into something pretty good, and pretty quickly.”
Dudley, who joined the Thrashers as associate general manager last summer, will run the hockey operations, looking to bolster a roster that dealt its top player, Ilya Kovalchuk, at the trade deadline when it couldn’t come to terms on a new contract. He also needs to put fans in the seats – the Thrashers averaged 13,607 this season, third-lowest in the league and a major reason the franchise has been subjected to numerous reports that it will become the second NHL team to leave Atlanta (the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980).
The 61-year-old Dudley believes the nucleus is in place, pointing to goalie Ondrej Pavelec, defencemen Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey and Johnny Oduya, and forwards Rich Peverley, Evander Kane, Niclas Bergfors, Bryan Little, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong. No one in that core is older than 29; Kane and Bogosian are still teenagers.
“It’s very simple: You can’t sell tickets to a bad product,” Dudley said. “Right now, we’re focused on building a team that will hopefully become an exciting thing in this market. I think this market can support a good product.”
Dudley coached in Buffalo from 1989-92, leading the Sabres to a couple playoff appearances, but he’s known more for his work in the front office. He served as a general manager in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida and five years as a top assistant in Chicago. He assembled much of the nucleus for a Lightning team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and his work with the Blackhawks helped revive a moribund franchise with some of the best young talent in the NHL.
“I can honestly say, when I first got to Chicago, you could shake hands with everybody in the crowd by the end of the first period,” Dudley quipped. “Now, you can’t get in the building.”
Waddell had been the only general manager in Thrashers’ history. While responsible for drafting future stars such as Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, he never put together a consistent winner and became the most visible target of the fans’ wrath.
In his new job, Waddell will largely be responsible for business operations, not the product on the ice.
“My role within the company has evolved and grown the last few years, and the owners and I agree that it’s the appropriate time to have Rick assume all hockey-related responsibilities,” he said in a statement. “I will be less involved with the team on a daily basis, but will continue to make myself available to Rick and to lend my experience in any way that allows him to succeed and for us to build this club into a perennial contender.”
Anderson served only two years as the Thrashers’ coach after being promoted from the same job with the team’s top minor-league affiliate in Chicago. He was 70-75-19 and had a nasty falling-out with one of the team’s leading offensive players, Slava Kozlov, who said the team had the talent to make the playoffs but was poorly coached.
Dudley did little to contradict that assessment, saying he felt the team didn’t put enough emphasis on defence and had trouble breaking out of slumps under Anderson. Also, there were questions about how well he developed players such as the 22-year-old Little, who slumped to 13 goals this season after scoring 31 the previous year.’
“The bottom line is, we thought we had a good enough team to make the playoffs, and we didn’t make it,” Dudley said. “When that happens, you look at the reasons for it. I’m not saying John Anderson isn’t a good coach. I would never say that. But someone has to take the blame, and he did.”
The team also fired Anderson’s three assistant coaches: Randy Cunneyworth, Todd Nelson and Steve Weeks.
“Absolute disappointment,” Anderson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after being told the option year in his contract would not be picked up. “I think we left the house in pretty good order. We almost made the playoffs. I wish we had. It might have been the difference in my job and some other guys’ jobs.”