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Dudley excited to add Byfuglien

by John Manasso
Rick Dudley knew the Chicago Blackhawks' assets and salary cap predicament perhaps as well as anyone.

Having served in the Hawks' organization for five years -- he departed in 2009 after rising to assistant general manager -- Dudley helped scout and draft the players who helped the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup. It also didn't hurt that his inside track had the added side benefit of a good working relationship with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.

Those factors enabled Dudley, elevated in April to GM of the Atlanta Thrashers, to pull off a blockbuster trade in the early hours of Thursday morning with Bowman for left wing Dustin Byfuglien, defenseman Brent Sopel, forward Ben Eager and minor-leaguer Akim Aliu. Heading to Chicago are checking center Marty Reasoner, well-regarded prospect Jeremy Morin, minor-leaguer Joey Crabb and the 24th and 54th  overall picks in Friday's draft.

Being in the Eastern Conference no doubt also helped Dudley's cause.

"We understood a long time ago -- [Thrashers assistant general manager Larry Simmons] was on top of it -- that Chicago was going to have make some moves, especially after the playoffs," Dudley said. "They had some bonuses kick in and Stan was honest about it. I don't know how many times we talked, but it was a lot. …

"We got to make our team significantly better immediately. They had to do this and we were very glad to be the recipient. Stan and I talked more than we did when we worked together…. I think it's easy for Stan and I to talk. We spent years together. It was like two guys who work together talk together and, yeah, I did understand. He understands our assets. Stan has a pretty good grasp. He drove a hard bargain."

In all, Dudley said the two spoke at least 50 times in recent weeks to hammer out the deal, which could not become official until Atlanta shed some contracts first. The Thrashers were bumping up the League-mandated 50-contract limit (including minor leaguers and junior players) and first had to trade minor-leaguers Mike Vernace and Brett Sterling along with a seventh-round pick to San Jose for future considerations.

Dudley believes the 25-year-old Byfuglien, listed at 6-foot-4 and 257 pounds, is one of the game's elite power forwards. He showed it in the playoffs, scoring goals in five consecutive games at one point and finishing with 11 goals and 5 assists, tying him for the third-most goals in the postseason.

But next year's salary cap will be $59.4 million, the League announced earlier this week, and with a new contract set to kick next season for Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith, amid other factors, Chicago was in desperate need to cut salary.

"This is exactly what we set out to accomplish, get some draft choices as well as a top prospect," Bowman was quoted as telling the Daily Herald. "The reason we traded Buff wasn't because we didn't like him; it's because of the salary cap.

"These are not easy decisions to make."

Atlanta missed the playoffs by five points this past season and its pool of players under contract, combined with restricted free agents, looks promising. The Thrashers' top six forwards now include Byfuglien, Nik Antropov, coming off a career 67-point season; former 31-goal scorer Bryan Little who is 22; Niclas Bergfors, named Thursday to the NHL's All-Rookie team; impressive 18-year-old Evander Kane, picked No. 4 in '09; and 20-goal man Rich Peverley. Dudley called the gritty Eager one of the league's best forecheckers.

On defense, in addition to Sopel, 33, Atlanta has Swedish Olympian Tobias Enstrom, veterans Ron Hainsey and Johnny Oduya and talented youngster Zach Bogosian, selected No. 3 in '08.

Chicago now has three picks in the top 54 in this year's draft as well as Morin, a former U.S. National Team Development Program player who was selected 45 th  overall last year and totaled 47 goals and 36 assists with Kitchener in 58 games in the Ontario Hockey League.

Atlanta might have given up some youth, but Dudley said he had received a mandate from the Thrashers' Atlanta Spirit ownership group.

"We have an edict in Atlanta that we want to win now," he said. "We wanted to get some people who were young and who will be with us for a while."

"We have an edict in Atlanta that we want to win now. We wanted to get some people who were young and who will be with us for a while"
-- Thrashers GM Rick Dudley

The Thrashers have only made the playoffs once since joining the League in 1999 (the 2006-07 season) and have come close on two other occasions. For a franchise that has had to trade stars Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk because of an inability to convince those players to sign contract extensions, the trade is some welcome good news. It's the biggest trade -- in an affirmative sense -- since Atlanta traded Dany Heatley to Ottawa in 2005 for Hossa and Greg de Vries.

While negotiations with No. 1 defenseman Pavel Kubina, a pending unrestricted free agent, and 24-goal scorer Maxim Afinogenov do not appear to be close, Dudley said he believes Thursday's trade will help to make Atlanta an attractive free-agent destination again as it was in 2004 and 2005 when Scott Mellanby, Jaroslav Modry, Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra opted to sign there.

Plus, Dudley still has a coach to hire and reports are saying that respected Boston assistant Craig Ramsay will be the Thrashers' next bench boss, along with Chicago assistant John Torchetti as an associate.

"Oh, for sure," Dudley said. "We were considered an up-and-coming team last year. We played well down the stretch at times and showed good things. Goaltending was good and will get better because it's very young [rookie Ondrej Pavelec], at least one. We think we're very attractive to any kind of free agent player. For an old player to turn something around Atlanta would be very attractive."

Dudley -- who still owns the No. 8 overall pick on Friday but now has no second-rounders -- said he is not done. He wants to add a 20-goal scorer.

"We didn't mind our team before this," he said of the trade. "We ended up five points from the playoffs. We like our team better. Some time in the near future we'll like our team even more. You keep saying that a little more, pretty soon you have a likable team."

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