-- In his introductory conference call as general manger of the Atlanta Thrashers
Wednesday, Rick Dudley said he sees his team as not in such a different place as the Chicago Blackhawks
were when he arrived there in 2004.
"I'm lucky to be the GM of that situation," he said. "I've seen it several times. I think it will evolve into something special. Nobody will buy into what I say, but they'll see it."
Dudley landed as a consultant with a Blackhawks team that placed last in the Western Conference the year before he was hired to be on then-general manager Dale Tallon
's staff. Then Dudley became director of player personnel and finally assistant general manager for his final three seasons for a club that reached the conference finals last season, his last one in Chicago before joining Atlanta as associate general manager in 2009.
Dudley said that with a core of young players that includes goalie Ondrej Pavelec
, defensemen Zach Bogosian
, Tobias Enstrom
and Johnny Oduya
and forwards Evander Kane
, Bryan Little
and Niclas Bergfors
, the Thrashers might have the chance to be good for the long haul.
"We won't sell our soul to be a little bit better," he said. "We want to build this in a fashion that will make us good for a while."
For a franchise that had never changed general managers and had only fired two coaches in its 10 seasons until Wednesday, the day proved to be a whirlwind for the Thrashers.
Along with Dudley's promotion, former GM Don Waddell was named Atlanta's president and second-year coach John Anderson
and his entire staff were not renewed.
Dudley said that Anderson was not renewed primarily because management felt the team was good enough to get into the playoffs this past season -- Atlanta was eliminated in Game No. 80 -- and he also felt it would be good enough to make the playoffs next season.
Dudley's immediate task is to hire a coach, but in the big picture it is to revitalize a fan base that has faltered in recent seasons.
"The irony of that is I lived in the Buffalo area," Dudley said. "I saw a team drawing what was I'm guessing was about 8,000 people. And then they added [Chris] Drury and [Danny] Briere and a few years later the team added [Thomas] Vanek and [Ryan] Miller and all the sudden you couldn't get a ticket. People were talking about the future of the Buffalo Sabres
"Then I went to work for Chicago. When I got there the first year I think I could shake hands with everyone in the crowd by the end of the game. Now you can't get in. It's very simple: you can't sell tickets to a bad product. If we put the product we expect -- if you build it, they will come -- history would say [the fans] will be there."
Dudley said he expected the staff to remain largely intact and that in his former role he already relied a lot on assistant general manager Larry Simmons. He said his legendary travel schedule of 200 games per year might shrink a bit to between 100 and 150, but he did say he would not shy away from traveling as he did when he was on the trail of defenseman Dan Boyle
, who then played for the Florida Panthers
. Dudley said as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning
, he followed the Panthers for seven or eight games to get a look at Boyle, who has become one of the game's best at his position since moving to Tampa, before finally pulling the trigger on a deal.
In terms of a coach, Dudley said he wants someone who can work with the Thrashers' young players and who can coach defense -- always a trouble spot for Atlanta -- but is not one-dimensional. He said he wants the coach to be a good technician, but also someone who can delegate and assemble top assistants whose talents the head coach might not possess.
Dudley said he wants players who have high character off the ice and great speed on it. If the situation fit -- and players and Waddell alike said on Sunday the team needs a leader -- Dudley also said he would love to add a player in the mold of Dave Andreychuk
, the captain of the Lightning when they won the 2004 Stanley Cup (two years after Dudley was dismissed) and whom Dudley brought to Tampa.
He said he already has been in touch with the agents for pending unrestricted free agents Pavel Kubina
and Maxim Afinogenov
and that both players want to return.
Ideally, Dudley said he might want to add a top-six forward. While his three other incarnations as an NHL general manager all came before the advent of the salary cap, he said he always worked with a fixed budget and so was comfortable in the new era.
And on numerous occasions he said he thought Pavelec was good enough to be a top No. 1 goalie.
"I've always looked at goalies in particular and looked at their optimal level and their best game and then tried to decide if they can consistently give you that game," he said. "While [Pavelec] had some that weren't memorable he had some that were mind-boggling. I think the Ottawa people will tell you that. His optimal level is so high and he did it enough that it makes me believe with maturity he'll become consistent. I have very little doubt in Pavs."
Like Dudley in Pavelec, Thrashers fans are hoping that Dudley's optimal level remains equally as high.