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Busy offseason for Dudley resulted in new look

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Thrashers had not hosted a draft party at Philips Arena in years. Usually the site was a hockey-friendly sports bar where fans in the non-traditional market would gather in numbers that would not overwhelm the venue.

This year, however, represented a change. Within days of the 2010 Entry Draft, new General Manager Rick Dudley had engineered a blockbuster trade, bringing three members of the newly crowned Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to Atlanta, and had hired a respected coach in Craig Ramsay.

A few thousand fans turned out at Philips that Friday night in June, eating platefuls of pasta, garlic bread and salad. By the hundreds, they waited in line for autographs from two of the team's young stars, Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane.

And they roared when one of those recently acquired players, Dustin Byfuglien, called in for an interview that was piped in through the public-address system with hosts Dan Kamal and Darren Eliot, two of the team's broadcasters.

In a matter of just a few months, such is the enthusiasm Dudley has engendered in the fan base, which has witnessed one playoff berth and nary a postseason win in 10 seasons.

"I was on an airplane with a season-ticket holder who was at the draft party and he said it was the first one he’s been to," said Don Waddell, who served as general manager of the team from 1998 until April, when he was promoted to team president. "Everyone's so excited. We have a new coaching staff. We have a pretty good buzz right now."

The Thrashers made it to game No. 80 last season before being eliminated from playoff contention and finished five points out of the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. With Dudley's roster overhaul and the new coaching staff, the expectations are to best last season.

"But with that in mind, that would put us in the playoffs," Dudley said of the expected improvement.

To get there, the coaching staff will have to integrate a roster comprised of almost half new players while they all learn Ramsay's "safe equals death" system on the fly.

The first dramatic shake-up came just days after the season ended, when coach John Anderson was fired after two non-playoff finishes and Dudley was promoted from associate general manager to take Waddell's GM post.

Two-and-a-half months later, Dudley initiated another series of bold moves all within about 48 hours. First in the wee hours after midnight on June 24, the trade with Chicago, an organization with which he had spent five seasons in the front office until 2009, was finalized.

In return for highly regarded prospect Jeremy Morin, veteran Marty Reasoner, minor-leaguer Joey Crabb and first- and second-round picks, Atlanta received Dustin Byfuglien and his 11 2010 playoff goals, veteran shot-blocking defenseman Brent Sopel and gritty forward Ben Eager.

Within hours, the Thrashers formally announced the hiring of Ramsay, with whom Dudley shares a long association, dating back to their days as teammates with the Sabers in the 1970s, as well as Ramsay's tenure as associate coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning when Dudley served as general manager.

In another matter of hours, the Thrashers selected Barrie Colts center Alexander Burmistrov with the eighth pick of the draft, and he stands a strong chance of making the team.

After taking a breather for five days after the draft was complete, Dudley was at again on the first day of free agency. He signed goalie Chris Mason, who has backstopped two different franchises to postseason berths, and traded once more with Chicago, this time receiving top-six forward Andrew Ladd in return for minor-league defense prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a second-round pick in 2011.

Again within a week's time Dudley made another move, adding to the coaching staff at the Blackhawks' expense by bringing in John Torchetti, with whom he worked in Chicago and Florida and who was a candidate for the Thrashers coaching job, as an assistant coach.

Through the ensuing months before camp, Dudley has continued to tinker. To work with the organizations' goaltenders, he hired consultant Clint Malarchuk, with whom he worked in Florida when Dudley was general manager there and who helped to develop Roberto Luongo with the Panthers and Pascal Leclaire in Columbus.

Veterans Nigel Dawes and Fredrik Modin, who played on the 2004 Tampa Bay Stanley Cup champion of which Ramsay was a part and which Dudley helped to create as general manager until 2002, have been added to the roster. Rugged forward Anthony Stewart, a first-round pick of Dudley's in Florida, has a chance to make the team, as does former New York Rangers forward Enver Lisin, who is on a pro tryout, and veteran Freddy Meyer looks like he could be a sixth or seventh defenseman.

Meanwhile, the surprise of camp is Fredrik Pettersson, a free agent signed out of Sweden whose energy and scoring make him a favorite to land on the team. The entire picture has created about as much competition to make the roster as can be remembered in the team's history.

Ramsay said he thinks the Thrashers will be "extremely competitive. ... We want to make sure the work ethic is up and (to show) how difficult it is to make this team and to be on this team."

In past years, the Thrashers relied heavily on one or two stars, especially top scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. In helping to build not only the Lightning's Cup championship team but also last season's Blackhawks championship team, Dudley is attempting to re-create a model in which a slew of players can contribute offensively.

"If you have enough guns," he said, "they can't stop all of them."

After Dudley's changes, the Thrashers have filled their holster with a lot more ammunition.
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