ATLANTA – Rick Dudley called upon his five years as an assistant coach in Chicago to bring one of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks’ top young players to Atlanta.
Dudley, who in April was promoted to general manager in Atlanta, completed two deals late Wednesday that he said made the Thrashers “significantly better, immediately.”
The key acquisition was Blackhawks’ playoff star Dustin Byfuglien, who had 11 goals in the post-season.
“I think what we saw in the playoffs is the Dustin Byfuglien we’ve seen evolving for some time now,” Dudley said in a conference call early Thursday morning. “As a forward he’s probably one of the premier power forwards in the league.”
The Thrashers also acquired defenceman Brent Sopel and forward Ben Eager for a package of draft picks and players.
Chicago gets first- (24th overall) and second-round picks in this week’s NHL draft as well as forwards Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and Jeremy Morin.
Atlanta also receives prospect Akim Aliu in the deal that became official early Thursday morning.
The trade clears salary cap space for the Blackhawks and provides more experience for the Thrashers, but it was still a surprise to see Chicago deal the 257-pound Byfuglien. The powerful 25-year-old scored three game-winners in the conference finals against San Jose.
“He’s probably as big a player as there is in the National Hockey League and he can skate,” Dudley said. “That skill, that combination is so attractive. We think we got something special there.”
Chicago’s Duncan Keith, who won the Norris Trophy on Wednesday night as the NHL’s top defenceman, said the Blackhawks had to start making changes even though the Cup victory was still fresh in their thoughts.
“There might be some more and it’s not going to be fun,” Keith said. “Everybody is going to have to keep moving forward, and a lot of times that’s part of the business.”
The Thrashers had to clear salary cap space to bring in the players they got from Chicago, so Atlanta made another deal with San Jose, shipping defenceman Mike Vernace, forward Brett Sterling and a seventh-round draft choice to the Sharks for future considerations.
Sopel addressed the trade on his Twitter account before it became official. He tweeted “Thank You Everyone for the Amazing Well Wishes, but this is all just Rumor and has not been Confirmed yet. But regardless I LOVE U CHICAGO!”
Byfuglien can become a restricted free agent after the 2010-11 season.
Led by young stars such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks beat Philadelphia for their first Stanley Cup title since 1961, but they were hardly a two-man show.
With one of the deepest rosters in the league, they set franchise records for wins (52) and points (112) in the regular season while finishing second to San Jose in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, they went through Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose before beating the Flyers, but with major salary-cap issues, changes were expected.
Kane and Toews signed lucrative contract extensions with the Blackhawks in December—five-year deals worth US$31.5 million each.
Marian Hossa (12 years, US$62.8-million deal) and Duncan Keith (13 years, US$72-million deal), who signed the same day as Kane and Toews have large long-term contracts. Defenceman Brian Campbell just completed the second year of an eight-year, US$56.8-million contract. Goalie Cristobal Huet, who became a pricey backup, has two years left on four-year, US$22.45-million deal. Antti Niemi is a restricted free agent who is due a raise.
Someone had to go.
Against the Flyers, the six-foot-four Byfuglien struggled at times against defenceman Chris Pronger but scored three goals over the final two games. Byfuglien had 17 goals during the regular season and has three straight seasons with more than 30 points.
Sopel, 33, had a goal and five assists in the playoffs but had only one goal in eachof the last two regular seasons. Eager, 26, had a goal and two assists in the playoffs after having 16 points in the regular season.
Reasoner, 33, had four goals and 13 assists in his second season in Atlanta.
AP sports writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Associated Press writer Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.