As the NHL trade deadline approaches on Monday and the Atlanta Thrashers continue to struggle, general manager Rick Dudley has to keep an important idea in mind as he looks to deal.
"If we're doing things for today," Dudley said on Thursday, "it has to be with an eye for the future."
By sending 34-year-old defenseman Brent Sopel, a top shot-blocker and one of the team's best penalty killers, to Montreal on Thursday with forward Nigel Dawes, who was in the minors, for 22-year-old center Ben Maxwell, also in the minors this season, and a fourth-round pick, Dudley kept that aim in view. And he might not be done dealing yet.
The Thrashers continue to get younger as they deal. Last week, they traded 28-year-old center Rich Peverley with defenseman Boris Valabik, a player Atlanta had put on waivers multiple times this season, to Boston for 24-year-old forward Blake Wheeler and 26-year-old defenseman Mark Stuart.
That trade, essentially, was what ended Sopel's brief tenure in Atlanta. Sopel joined the Thrashers in June just weeks after winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago. Sopel ranked second on the Thrashers with a plus-7 rating. He was a healthy scratch on Wednesday for Atlanta's 4-1 loss in Buffalo. Coach Craig Ramsay, prior to the trade, would not reveal whether that was because a deal was in the works, only saying that after acquiring Stuart the Thrashers had seven NHL defensemen and had some difficult decisions to make.
"Yes, when Stuart was acquired it made it someone was going to be expendable and Brent turned out to be the guy," Dudley said.
Dudley said that Sopel's agent had called earlier this season and asked when they might begin talks on a contract extension. Dudley told him that his priorities were to get Dustin Byfuglien re-signed, which he did last week, and to re-sign captain Andrew Ladd. Stuart also will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but Dudley pointed to the relationship that Stuart shares with Ramsay. Prior to joining Atlanta, Ramsay was an assistant for three seasons in Boston where he worked with Stuart. Atlanta wants Stuart to play plenty of minutes.
"I think he enjoys Craig as a coach a great deal," Dudley said of the chances of re-signing Stuart. "There are a lot of positives. One of the positives is it's a good relationship."
As for Ladd, those talks are ongoing, but Dudley characterized them as positive on Thursday.
"We had what you'd have to call substantial talks," Dudley said. "I can't say it will happen today or tomorrow or the day after that. They want to get it done and we do and that's usually a precursor for doing things."
That's just one of the many things on Dudley's plate these days. Prior to addressing the media on Thursday about the trade, Dudley had said "we're constantly looking for scoring help right now." The Thrashers have fallen to 10th in the Eastern Conference, five points out of a playoff spot and offense has been a struggle at times.
In that sense, the search continues. Maxwell, who has played all season with Hamilton of the American Hockey League, has 11 goals and 29 assists in 47 games, but none in the NHL. He is a former second-round selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Immediately, he will be assigned to the Thrashers' top minor-league affiliate, Chicago of the AHL. Dudley said he likes Maxwell's ability to finish and sees him as a possible top call-up.
"We won't look for him to be our savior," Dudley said. "We'll let him feel his way into the NHL. We're still on the lookout for scoring."