You could say the south side of Chicago -- NHL style -- is located these days in Atlanta.
The Southeast side more accurately, in a division that always has been home to the Atlanta Thrashers and this season will be to four players and an assistant coach who raised the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks a couple of months ago. Even the new Thrashers general manager's road here went through Chicago, although he left a year before the championship.
|'I think there's a lot to look forward to. It's exciting to have a fresh look,' sophomore Evander Kane says. (Getty Images)|
"I think there's a lot to look forward to," said Evander Kane, who is coming off an impressive rookie season. "We've made a lot of great changes that put us in a better position to win games. It's exciting to have a fresh look."
And in Atlanta it was much needed. The Thrashers franchise never has seemed secure where it was despite being around since 1999-2000, and is still under an unsettled ownership situation. The fan base in the non-traditional market is small. After only three winning seasons and one playoff appearance that ended after four games, those fans are at best cynical. It hasn't helped matters that superstars have tended to force their way out of town over the years, most recently Ilya Kovalchuk.
But Kovalchuk's trade to New Jersey last season could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Thrashers. If nothing else, they landed defenseman Johnny Oduya and forward Niclas Bergfors, both good young players. And they saved the $10 million a season Atlanta was offering to pay Kovalchuk for use in other areas. Atlanta has done a better job producing NHL players through the draft the past few seasons. And with former Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel, and former St. Louis goalie Chris Mason added this summer, the Thrashers have an affordable lineup that easily could make up the five points that kept them from the playoffs last season.
"We will be quite a bit bigger, this team, but more important our overall talent level will be up throughout the lineup," general manager Rick Dudley said. "To my mind, we're at the same stage the Blackhawks were a couple of years ago."
That would mean Atlanta is two years from a Stanley Cup. Of course Dudley has been around too long to make that kind of promise, but his context speaks about how the Thrashers are being put together like the Blackhawks, looking for three scoring lines, quick, mobile defensemen and a reliable goaltending tandem.
Simple, right? But Dudley is a pretty good talent evaluator. He sowed the seeds of Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup. His moves as general manager there gave him a template to put together the nucleus of the Blackhawks team as Chicago's player development director from 2003 to 2008. Dudley joined Atlanta last summer as assistant to GM Don Waddell. Since taking over in April after Waddell moved upstairs, he has wasted little time putting his stamp on the team.
"We want to win now," Dudley said. "I look at this team and see a lot of pieces of the overall puzzle in place, in some cases they are at an age where they will be where we want them to be. We have some players that are a little young, but if you're going to get really good really quickly, those people have to be brought along expeditiously."
That job falls to coach Craig Ramsey, who Dudley has known since their playing days three decades ago. Ramsey is back behind the bench after -- aside from a brief stint in Philadelphia in 2000 -- a decade-long absence. He mostly has been an NHL assistant coach and spent the past few seasons in Boston. But Ramsey worked under John Tortorella in Tampa Bay and is the teaching type of coach the general manager figures his young team needs.
"You look at what he did with Danny Boyle in Tampa or Dennis Wideman or Johnny Boychuk in Boston and you see a guy who gets players to play at their optimum level," Dudley said. "We got a guy like Zach Bogosian who is an incredible talent, and all the guys we added, and those are pretty good optimum levels that will benefit Craig's tutelage."
And maybe a change of culture, a process Dudley hopes the new faces will speed along.
"One of the things about bringing the Ladds, the Eagers, the Sopels, the Byfugliens, these guys expect to win and it can rub off on other players," he said. "Everybody thinks it's a process, but it happens fairly quickly. Once you start winning, you start believing you can."