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Dudley a wild card as trade deadline approaches

by John Manasso /
DULUTH, Ga. -- An NHL general manager on and off for the last 12 years, Rick Dudley has a reputation as a tireless scout and for his willingness to make bold moves. Twice he has traded the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

In his first year at the helm of the Atlanta Thrashers, he has made three big trades to shake up his team -- acquiring Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager (since traded away), Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart.

Entering Thursday night, the Thrashers sit four points out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, as they have won just six of their last 26 games. That boldness makes him an intriguing manager to follow during the week leading up to the League's Monday trade deadline. This week, he discussed his approach toward the trading deadline with

Trades have come earlier and often this season, as the Nashville Predators kicked things off by trading for center Mike Fisher from Ottawa for a first-round and a conditional draft pick on Feb. 10. He said most managers will make a list of seven players at every position that they covet. Once those players start to go -- and the best ones often go first -- for prices that a manager might not have been willing to pay, the market heats up.

"It was a great thing for sellers because now you can compare what they gave up and now (Kris) Versteeg goes (five days later from Toronto to Philadelphia for a first-round and a third-round pick) because you could argue that Versteeg was in the same range as a player as Fisher," he said. "If Nashville didn't get Fisher, it would've been criminal. So they had to be able to step up further. When that happened first, all of the sudden the bar's set pretty high and people are scrambling and they're figuring you've got to give up more than you thought you did. That's where the sellers have positioned it right now and the toughest position is a team like ours -- because we can't be sellers. We have to maintain a 'now' position, but by the same token we want to win a Stanley Cup, so we have to put the pieces in place.

"It's tough. And this year unlike any other year there's more of those -- people who don't know whether they're in or out, so it's the best year to be a seller."

Atlanta traded a first-round pick (which it received from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk deal last year) to Chicago in June in the Byfuglien deal. Then it traded a second-round pick in 2012 to the Blackhawks for Ladd.

Dudley is surprised by the willingness to trade first-round picks and top young players (such as the recent Erik Johnson-Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk deal between Colorado and St. Louis).

"We will not trade our first" pick, he says, then hedging, "I don't think. It would have to be a hell of deal.

"Nowadays, first-round picks don't mean what they used to … I think it's the demand is for a more and more immediate impact. Even if you sense that there's a chance in the draft that there's somebody there that could be special -- if you can get a player who's special or very, very good in the next year or two -- a lot of people are going with that. I have a tough time doing it."

When he traded the first overall pick in '99, he said it was because his staff was sold on Pavel Brendl and he wasn't and because he didn't like Patrik Stefan's concussion history and couldn't get both of the Sedin twins, as Brian Burke did in Vancouver.

He said he also thinks some teams are trading first-round picks because they might not be so high on this year's class. And while rumors have persisted that Thrashers defenseman Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in 2008, is on the trading block, Dudley has a hard time understanding the willingness to trade what he deems "assets" of such high value.

"I think there's an immediacy and an urgency that's been put in place that's not necessarily healthy," he said.

Of the team's own struggles at the gate -- the Thrashers have only made the playoffs once in their history -- Dudley nonetheless said he appreciates the organization's hard-core fans and understands what winning them back entails.

"I do know one thing," he said, "People in this day and age, they want some hope. They're not going to jump on the bandwagon in just a month."

In that vein, he is trying to build a consistent winner. By trading Rich Peverley, 28, and minor-leaguer Boris Valabik to Boston last Friday, he got a 24-year-old in Wheeler and a 26-year-old in Stuart. At this time of the year, he said he's on the phone at least 10 times a day.

There are a group of general managers that he talks to often, some as often as four or five times per week. They include San Jose's Doug Wilson, Toronto's Burke, Chicago's Stan Bowman (with whom he worked for the Blackhawks) and Florida's Dale Tallon, with whom he also worked in Chicago.

"I'm probably a pain in the (butt) to some guys," he said. "You never know what they're going to say. A guy like Doug Wilson, I like the fact that Doug works. I might talk to Doug during the year four or five times a week. I talk to a few guys a lot ... Dale because we're very good friends. But I talk to most of them.

"Some of them aren't very talkative. After a couple of times of them saying nothing, you say forget it. But there's only a couple of those."

He explained how the Boston deal went down. Knowing that Stuart was likely to get moved -- he had been a healthy scratch for a number of games -- he had called Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli on previous occasions to make his interest explicit. As Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay had been an assistant with the Bruins for three seasons until this one, Dudley had included Ramsay in a review of the Bruins' personnel.

Three or four days before it was consummated, Dudley started getting wind that the Bruins were getting ready to make their move for Tomas Kaberle from Toronto.

He also sensed that Boston might have trouble fitting Wheeler, a restricted free agent at the end of the season, under their cap next season.

"We heard about the Kaberle deal," he said. "Peter and I talk on a semi, pretty regular basis, just to check in. When I heard about the Kaberle deal, I talked to him once and he said 'I'm doing something else.' Every resource I had said Kaberle. We had talked about Stuart before, for sure. And then it became apparent that they might have to move money. Then we began talking about this.

"Nowadays, first-round picks don't mean what they used to … I think it's the demand is for a more and more immediate impact. Even if you sense that there's a chance in the draft that there's somebody there that could be special -- if you can get a player who's special or very, very good in the next year or two -- a lot of people are going with that. I have a tough time doing it."
-- Rick Dudley

"I asked him about Wheeler. At one point, he wasn't going to move Wheeler. Then he thought he might have to because of the other deal he was doing. At that point in time he said, 'Would you do anything with Peverley?' I said, 'If you do both players for him.' He at first said no. It became that he was in the position where he was willing to do our deal if he could do the other deal and he had to get our deal in place first because of the, obviously, money situation."

With a reluctance to deal his first-round pick or a prized young player like Bogosian, the two most obvious candidates for Dudley to deal might seem like 2010 All-Rookie right wing Niclas Bergfors, who has fallen from the first line to the third and played only seven minutes last Saturday against Edmonton.

Defenseman Johnny Oduya, who practiced as a forward earlier this week, could be another. Dudley admitted getting calls for Bergfors, as he does for lots of players, he said.

"Bergie can score," Dudley said. "He's a scorer. Sometimes the coach will send him a message because he can be real good one night, not so good the next night. I think that's what happened. He can be really, really good but he also can be somewhat complacent because of that."

The poker face -- always an important quality come deadline time. Another tool at the manager's disposal is the disinformation campaign. Dudley thinks he might have fallen victim to that in regard to Bogosian.

"There are people in the League as general managers who like to cause you headaches and what I said is 'Make me an offer,'" Dudley said. "I was in the L.A. (Kings) organization when Wayne Gretzky got traded. There is no sacred cow in this League except for maybe Sidney (Crosby) and the fact that Zach was a little unhappy earlier because he wasn't on the No. 1 power play. Things have gone much better lately and that's the way we hope things turn out for him."

So, for the next few days, Dudley's going to be burning up the phones and, perhaps, not getting as much rest as he normally might.

"This stretch, you go to bed and you're thinking about things," he said. "Do I get as much sleep? Maybe not, but it's OK."
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