After a flurry of activity over the last six months that included a pair of blockbuster trades, general manager Rick Dudley is still not done with his overhaul of the Atlanta Thrashers. Depending on what position his coaching staff determines as the best fit for Dustin Byfuglien, Dudley would like to add a forward or defenseman to his talented lineup.
"If Dustin is going to primarily be a defenseman for us, then we're set at that position," Dudley told NHL FanHouse. "If he stays at forward, I would look at adding another defenseman."
Even without the 6-3, 250-pound Stanley Cup hero from the Chicago Blackhawks moving to the blueline full-time, Atlanta boasts an impressive top-four of Zach Bogosian, Ron Hainsey, 50-point man Tobias Enstrom and Johnny Oduya, who was acquired from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. Of the group, Hainsey is the oldest at 29. The team also has 34-year-old Brent Sopel, who was outstanding in Chicago's Cup run this spring, and 6-7, 245-pound Slovakian defenseman Boris Valabik. If Dudley adds a defenseman, the goal would be to replace the offense lost when Pavel Kubina signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent on July 1.
"I really like our defense, even if we don't make a move," said Dudley. "Ultimately, it starts with Zach Bogosian, who could be on the verge of becoming a great NHL player. We're not going to rush Zach, not put too much on his plate, but he has already demonstrated that he can handle a lot. If Zach can make that next leap this season, watch out. He'll make us a much, much better hockey club."
Part 2: Dudley Riffs on Scouting Process, Drafting Burmistrov
Up front, the Thrashers could use a 20-goal scorer to make up for the loss of Maxim Afinogenov, who had 24 goals and 61 points in his NHL career rejuvenation season with Atlanta before bolting last week for a lucrative five-year deal in the KHL. In talking with Dudley during the days before the Russian's departure, it appeared the Thrashers were prepared to Afinogenov go and had long given up negotiating with him.
As with the blueline, the core of Atlanta's forwards is young. The Thrashers' best forwards are Nik Antropov (30), Niclas Bergfors (23, from the Kovalchuk deal), 2009 first round pick Evander Kane (19), Andrew Ladd (24) and Rich Peverley (28). Byfuglien -- smart money is on him playing up front -- is 25. Bryan Little, of all 22 years old, scored 31 goals in 2008-09 before dipping to 13 last season. Dudley expects a bounce-back season from the skilled center who was Atlanta's first round pick in 2006. Among the GM's top prospects at forwards is 2010 eighth-overall draft pick Alex Burmistrov.
Atlanta's goaltending should be in good hands with the return of 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec and signing of steady 34-year-old Chris Mason after backup Johan Hedberg signed with the Devils as a free agent. "I'm very excited about the potential of that combination in goal," said Dudley. "Ondrej and Chris should really push each other. I like the potential of a tandem of an up-and-coming guy with great ability like Ondrej and an experienced, accomplished player like Chris."
Of all the moves Dudley has made, starting with the Kovalchuk trade, you get the feeling the one he may be proudest of is giving 59-year-old Craig Ramsay another shot at an NHL head coaching position.
"I was thrilled to give Craig the opportunity to have his own team again," said Dudley, who worked with his new head coach when he was the general manager in Tampa Bay. "When he was an assistant to John Tortorella all those years with the Lightning, I'd give Craig as much credit as anyone there for that team winning the Stanley Cup (in 2004).
"His track record as a teacher and as a strategist is impeccable. Everywhere he has gone, Craig has made his teams better and their younger players developed properly. We thought he earned another chance to put his imprint as a head coach on a young team. We also brought over John Torchetti from the Blackhawks to be Craig's associate coach and Mike Stothers as an assistant. If you match Craig and his staff with our top-end kids like Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Niclas Bergfors and the players we acquired from Chicago, I think we have good reason to be fired up about this season."
If Dudley can make that one more improvement, he would really improve the Thrashers' chances of making the playoffs for just the second time in their history.