Analyzing Rick Dudley’s Tenure as Thrashers General Manager
Rick Dudley has long been known around NHL circles as a shrewd talent evaluator. Dudley is respected by his peers for not only his ability to spot a talented player but his willingness to do so. Dudley is not about the spotlight. His tenures in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Chicago resulted in eventual organizational success, but much of that success was not attributed to Dudley within the mainstream media.
For whatever reason, Dudley has never really been universally accepted as your typical NHL GM. Maybe it is his aversion to fashion, or his dated comb-over; either way, he just never really seems to play the part. That is, of course, through no fault of his own. You get the impression that Dudley is who he is regardless of the managerial position he is employed in.
The problem was, if Dudley came to Winnipeg, he was bringing his own fraternity. When Dudley took over the reins in Atlanta with that came the hiring of Craig Ramsay and John Torchetti, amongst others. It is not that the hockey people in Atlanta are not qualified to make the transition north; it is that choices had to be made. An organization cannot have two people holding the same day-to-day responsibilities. Truth North wants Craig Heisinger to play a role in its management team and appears to want Claude Noel to coach its hockey team. With those qualified people already in place, the team could not retain the likes of Dudley and Ramsay.
With Dudley’s dismissal, now seems like the appropriate time to evaluate his tenure in Atlanta.
Dudley left the Blackhawks organization after the 2008/09 season, otherwise known as the season prior to the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup season. Dudley’s first season in Atlanta saw him work under the title of Associate General Manager. With Dudley working hand-in-hand with Don Waddell that season, for the purposes of this analysis, we are not going to analyze the 2009/10 season because it is difficult to properly classify trades and signings as either Dudley’s or Waddell’s.
As a result, we really only have one full year of Dudley’s work to analyze—April 2010 through April 2011.
Here are the significant moves made by Dudley, with analysis alongside:
June 25, 2010: Named Craig Ramsay Head Coach. The Ramsay hiring was not unpredictable, as Ramsay and Dudley dated back to their Sabres days together. It is very difficult to analyze a coach after merely one season at the helm. Especially a team that was coached the seasons prior by an offensive coach like John Anderson who was known more so for his offensive freedom than systematic teachings of the game. Ramsay had some good moments and poor moments as coach of the Thrashers, but his overall grade can be nothing but incomplete. Grade: Incomplete
July 1, 2010: Signed Chris Mason to a two-year contract worth $1.85 million per season. Mason struggled in his first season in Atlanta but the signing at the time looked quite reasonable. In fact, pairing Mason with Ondrej Pavelec was a shrewd move. Mason is experienced, a positive force in the locker room and carries career numbers that demonstrate his talent is far better than his one season in Georgia. The commitment was not too long and the money was not too large. Grade: B
July 22, 2010: Re-signed Ondrej Pavelec to a two-year contract worth $1.15 million per season. If you had the opportunity to read Illegal Curve’s roster analysis of the new Winnipeg franchise, you would know that I am a big fan of the Thrashers’ current goaltending tandem based both on talent and financial compensation. Pavelec is signed at a more than reasonable contract for next season, which will allow Kevin Cheveldayoff and company to decide whether he warrants a longer term, bigger money commitment. Of note, Cheveldayoff was GM of the Chicago Wolves while Pavelec was developing. Grade: B+
June 24, 2010: Acquired Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Akim Aliu for a 1st round pick, 2nd round pick, Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and Jeremy Morin. The trade consisted of a lot of names but really boiled down to Dustin Byfuglien for a 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick. The draft has a lottery element to it and Dudley was able to add Byfuglien to his roster without giving up his own team’s 1st round pick—remember the pick in this trade was New Jersey’s from the Kovalchuk deal (24th overall). A lower first round selection included in a package for an up and coming winger/defenseman with unpolished skills but a ton of potential is a risk, but a calculated one at that. Byfuglien ended up playing extremely well for Atlanta in season one. His offense from the back-end could serve a significant asset for Winnipeg moving forward. Grade: B+
July 1, 2010: Acquired Andrew Ladd for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a second round pick in 2011. Another positive move by Dudley. He was familiar with Ladd from his time in Chicago, where Ladd was a valuable asset who created mismatches every night for the opposing team’s bottom four defensemen. Ladd is now the team’s captain, led the team in goal scoring and points and is in the midst of his prime. Moreover, Dudley signed Ladd soon after the trade to a one-year deal for $2.35 million. Vishnevskiy has potential but the move was a clear win for an Atlanta team with lots of defensemen on the roster and a number in the system waiting to crack the top-six. Grade: B+
August 23, 2010: Re-signed Bryan Little to a three-year extension at $2.4 million per season. Little has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer; in fact, he scored 31 goals in 2008/09 for the Thrashers. The problem for Atlanta is that he totaled 31 goals over the next two seasons. Even so, at $2.4 million per season for two more seasons, at age 23 and with terrific stick skills, there are far, far worse investments for $2.4 million per season. Grade: B
February 15, 2011: Signed Dustin Byfuglien to a five-year contract extension at $5.2 million per season. The acquisition of Byfuglien was a deft one by Dudley. This contract, however, demonstrated that Dudley might have been a little bit to eager to reward his off-season acquisition. “Big Buff” was signed to this extension just after his impressive first-half numbers—or close to his peak value. His talents are there to possibly make good on this contract but signing a player in the midst of his first year full year on defense in the NHL, who doesn’t play significant minutes on the penalty kill and has room to improve defensively seemed unnecessary. Grade: C
February 18, 2011: Acquired Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. This was a very shrewd move by Dudley. Wheeler has the combination of size and talent to be a very good top-six forward for the next few years. In Boston, where Claude Julien is loathe to trust young players, Wheeler was getting regular ice-time but generally along the lines of a third line player. After his move to Atlanta, which albeit is a very small sample size, he was afforded more of an opportunity to create offense and play on the power play. Along with Wheeler came Mark Stuart, a rugged stay-at-home defenseman. Stuart provided a different element on the Thrashers’ back-end, although his contract extension will be mentioned later on. In terms of what he gave up, Valabik is a big defenseman who was long compared to Zdeno Chara—more so based on his size and nationality than his talents on the ice. Peverley provides nice offensive totals for his $1.3 million cap hit, but is a pending UFA after next season and has less upside than Wheeler. Grade: B+
February 24, 2011: Acquired Ben Maxwell and a 2011 4th round pick for Brent Sopel and Nigel Dawes. This was a nice move by Dudley. Sopel was a veteran on a team with too many defenseman; but more importantly, he was a pending UFA who was not about to re-sign in Atlanta/Winnipeg. Dawes was playing tag between Chicago of the AHL and Atlanta all season long and was deemed expendable. In return the Thrashers received Ben Maxwell a player with some offensive talent, who is 23 years old and could return some value for the franchise moving forward. Grade: B
February 28, 2011: Signed Mark Stuart to a three-year contract extension at $1.7 million per season. This contract was unnecessary. With Byfuglien, Hainsey and Enstrom all signed through 2012/13, the Thrashers have a significant amount of money tied up on the back-end. Too much, in fact. While Dudley may have liked how difficult Stuart is to play against, with his physical style, his slot on the team appears to be as a fifth or sixth defenseman. Grade: C-
Overall, Rick Dudley’s one year on the job was certainly encouraging in many respects. His talent acquisition was strong and some of his contracts were reasonable in terms of duration and dollars. Unfortunately he made some aggressive signings, which did not appear to be necessary at the time. That being said, many GMs have difficulty acquiring talent like Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien during one year on the job.
In the end, Truth North is of the belief that an organization is best to put its own people in charge–people True North has vast experience with. That is because with experience comes trust and with trust comes more certainty. While TNSE may not have felt entirely comfortable with Rick Dudley in charge of its organization, Dudley should feel comfortable with the organization he is leaving in their capable hands.