Category archive: Atlanta Thrashers

LAS VEGAS -- Kudos to Stan Bowman.

Three NHL executives I spoke to Tuesday said they didn't think the Chicago Blackhawks GM could fetch a first-round pick for Dustin Byfuglien, but he did just that Wednesday in a blockbuster deal with the Atlanta Thrashers that spelled major cap relief for the Stanley Cup champions.

OK, so the first-round pick is 24th overall -- New Jersey's pick from the Ilya Kovalchuk trade -- but it's a first-round selection nonetheless.

Under immense pressure to make a move to ease their salary-cap crunch, the Blackhawks moved Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and prospect Akum Aliu to the Thrashers for a first-round pick, a second-round pick (also New Jersey's), prospect Jeremy Morin and veteran forward Marty Reasoner. The trade is still pending league approval.

The Hawks won't be as good a team without Byfuglien, a playoff goal-scoring machine; but it was understood months ago that Chicago would come out of its cap crisis as a thinner squad. Thing is, the Hawks here have been able to recoup some value in future assets, and that's huge.

The cap savings from the deal is just over $5 million since Reasoner ($1.15 million) is the only NHL salary the Hawks take in return. If you assume goalie Cristobal Huet ($5.625 million) will either play in Europe next season or get buried in the minors, then the Hawks have found about $10.5 million in cap savings right there.

On the Atlanta side of things, what's not to like? A first-round pick is a big price to pay, but the Thrashers retained their own pick (eighth overall). Byfuglien, meanwhile, is a top-six power forward with star potential. He has frustrated the Hawks' coaching staff with his work effort over the past few seasons, but showed what he is capable of this spring.

And, by the way, the Kovalchuk trade is the gift that keeps on giving. The Thrashers initially got forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya and prospect Patrice Cormier in return back in February and used the picks they also received from New Jersey to add Byfuglien, Eager, Sopel and Aliu. Not bad for an asset in Kovalchuk that was walking away July 1.

Don Waddell has taken a lot of abuse from fans in Atlanta, but keep in mind the former GM (and current team president) made that deal with the Devils and it's looking like a great one. New GM Rick Dudley added the finishing touches Wednesday by scooping up Byfuglien against heavy competition. Of course, Dudley had the inside track given his relationship with Bowman during their days in Chicago together.

OK, everyone ... take a deep breath now. More moves to come over the next few days!

Rick Dudley's keen eye for talent has never quite been enough to earn him the respect he deserves around the NHL.

He's a quirky guy, doesn't suck up to owners or people in power like many of his colleagues, and doesn't play politics all too well. He's just a great hockey man; but, unfortunately, that's not always good enough in this business.

Well, he's got another shot now at showing people what many of us already believe: He's one of the game's great talent evaluators and now takes over as Thrashers GM to mold a young team.

Five years ago, he arrived in Chicago to help GM Dale Tallon rebuild the Blackhawks. Dudley's imprints are now all over a Hawks team contending for the Stanley Cup.

"It was a pleasure working with him," Tallon, now a senior advisor in the Hawks' front office, told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I learned a lot from him. Having him at my side was immense. We made a good team."

It's hard to argue with that. Now Dudley is the man in charge in Atlanta.

"I think he'll do great," said Tallon. "Because nobody works harder and nobody has more knowledge about players. He'll take it to another level, no doubt."

No one should be surprised he's been made GM in Atlanta; the telltale sign was when he joined the Thrashers as associate GM last June. Don Waddell, as planned, had hired his successor, someone he trusted and liked in Dudley. The question was one of timing; would it be one, two or three years down the road before Waddell passed the baton?

Another season out of the playoffs, the ninth time in 10 seasons that's happened, made it the right time. The local fans and media have soured greatly on Waddell.

Personally, I think Waddell has taken too much abuse when you consider the franchise's lamentable state of ownership over the years, not to mention the small payrolls he's had to work with. Nevertheless, facts are facts; after 10 seasons and one playoff berth, it was time. Now, it's a smooth transition, with Waddell moving into the president's role and Dudley being handed the GM keys.

Hang in there, Thrashers fans ... this was a good day for you.

Much of our focus will be on the playoffs during the next two months, but let's take a look at the teams that were eliminated from postseason play (as of Friday) and the work that lies ahead of them.

We'll catch up with them again at the NHL draft in June, when there could be fireworks involving these very teams. Here are the Eastern Conference nonplayoff teams. I'll be back with the West later today.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way so we can move on to more interesting matters. Yes, a 29th-place finish is a PR nightmare; this year's first-round pick was one of two shipped to the Boston Bruins for dynamic winger Phil Kessel this past September. The Bruins have a 67 percent chance of ending up with either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.

"I would do it [the trade] again tomorrow," Leafs general manager Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Thursday.

In the meantime, Burke's rebuilding squad took some strides this season despite its finish. The massive turnover, which is far from over, has revealed some promising young building blocks in the likes of center Tyler Bozak, forward Nikolai Kulemin, forward Christian Hanson, goalie Jonas Gustavsson, forward Viktor Stalberg and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Sophomore blueliner Luke Schenn recovered from a shaky first half with a solid ending, and highly touted junior forward Nazem Kadri is on the way next season.

The trade for Dion Phaneuf remains a coup for Burke, who solidified his blue line moving forward. But the offense remains a major issue. Kessel needs help, and that's the priority this offseason.

"Our draft is July 1. We're going to go after a free agent, we're going to try and land a top-six forward," Burke said. "We might also do it in advance of July 1 through a trade."

That trade would no doubt involve veteran blueliner Tomas Kaberle, who has one year left on his deal at $4.25 million, a cheap salary for a player of his caliber. Kaberle's no-trade clause will drop this summer, so although Burke says he's not shopping him, the fact that he'll once again have a window with the no-trade clause gone compels him to at least see what is out there.

"We're going to listen," Burke said. "He's a good guy, a good player, and he's at a good number. Those are three good reasons to keep him. But I have to listen [to offers]. We're not going to shop him, but we're going to listen."

The Leafs have about 16 players returning for next season, so there's not actually that much cap room to play with. But just like that, a guy like Jeff Finger (two more years at $3.5 million per) could be dumped in the minors to create cap space. Burke understandably is taking heat for the Kessel deal, but I don't think you can say his team isn't headed in the right direction. Leafs fans certainly hope so. This is Toronto's fifth straight season without a trip to the postseason.

Florida Panthers: Nine straight seasons out of the playoffs. Believe me when I say GM Randy Sexton is on a mission. There will be changes this summer.

Although Sexton would not comment when I asked him about goalie Tomas Vokoun, other league sources believe the Czech goalie will not be back in Florida next season. Vokoun has one year left on his deal at a $5.7 million cap hit. He also has a no-movement clause, but it's expected he will waive it for a chance to win elsewhere. His trade this summer will open up room for highly touted Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom, the 31st overall pick in the 2008 draft. If he's not ready for the NHL next season, my guess is the Panthers will have Scott Clemmensen share the net with a veteran stopgap like Manny Legace or someone of that nature while they await Markstrom's debut.

Although Sexton didn't want to speculate on his goaltending situation, he did address his problems up front; as of Friday, the team was ranked 28th overall in goals per game.

"We need more consistent scoring," Sexton told ESPN.com on Thursday. "[Stephen] Weiss could end up with 30 goals this year, [Nathan] Horton has scored 30 in the past and [David] Booth has scored 30, so we think all things being equal, those guys come back and give us a solid first line. But we need to add some scoring on our second line. We don't score goals easily."

Booth has been hit hard by two concussions this season, and that has to be a question mark moving forward. Let's hope he can fully recover.

My take? The goal in Florida is to get younger, bigger, more physical and faster. Easier said than done, but that's the goal.

Carolina Hurricanes: The season was lost in a hurry by a brutal start, but the second half of the season revealed what most of us suspected: This was a much better squad than what it showed in October and November.

All it did was make GM Jim Rutherford begin the youth movement a few months earlier, and that will remain the goal during the offseason.

"We'll continue our transition into a younger team," Rutherford told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We have a lot of good young players, and we had planned on doing it this fall regardless of how this season ended up. We started the transition a little earlier than we expected halfway through the year, but in some ways, it's been good for us because we've gotten a look at some of the young players, and they've done real well."

Rutherford moved out several veteran faces before the trade deadline but retained winger Ray Whitney, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"He's been a great player for us for a long time," Rutherford said. "We'll have to take a good look at that in the offseason and see what he wants to do. I still feel he's a good player, so we'll have that meeting sometime in the next few weeks."

In the meantime, the Hurricanes will hope for some luck in Tuesday's draft lottery.

"I'm pretty comfortable anywhere in the top eight," Rutherford said. "We'll get a good player whether we pick anywhere from one to eight."

This team is going young but with good players. Be excited if you're a Hurricanes fan.

Atlanta Thrashers: One playoff berth in 10 seasons is a tough sell on even the most loyal fan. But I truly believe the Thrashers are on the right track with the young players they are building this version of the team around, most notably Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec, Niclas Bergfors, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little.

"The one thing we really like is the direction we're going with the youth of our team, and we're going to continue that," Thrashers GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've got six guys under the age of 24 and another seven guys under the age of 29. We have other young guys who are close and who will compete for jobs next year. We're going to hang in there with those guys and let them grow together here."

Waddell did the best he could with a brutal situation: star winger Ilya Kovalchuk refusing to sign an extension that could have afforded him enough money to buy a small island. So, Waddell got the best possible deal out of New Jersey, and Atlanta actually rallied after Kovalchuk's departure to fall just short of a playoff spot.

Waddell also has four key UFAs to address: defenseman Pavel Kubina and forwards Maxim Afinogenov, Colby Armstrong and Jim Slater.

"The hope would be to sit down and talk with them over the next few weeks," Waddell said. "If there's something that makes some sense, we'd like to bring them back."

Tampa Bay Lightning: I didn't think it was wise to reach out to Bolts GM Brian Lawton because who knows whether he'll be back next season under new owner Jeff Vinik.

This team is enigmatic. Despite having big-time offensive contributors in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Downie, the Bolts ranked 23rd in NHL offense as of Friday. Bizarre. What's not surprising is where they ranked defensively: 28th in goals against per game. The blue line and goaltending aren't up to snuff, and no matter who is the GM, that's where you start.

But first, Lawton's future.

"Speculation has been rampant since new owner Jeff Vinik took over that general manager Brian Lawton will not be back next season," Tampa Tribune hockey writer Erik Erlendsson wrote to me via e-mail Friday. "Lawton's contract expires on June 1, and by virtue of the fact he has not been given a contract extension, at this point it's not a question of if, but when he will officially be let go. In his two years at the helm of the Lightning, Lawton has found some success with the likes of Downie, Antero Niittymaki and Kurtis Foster.

"But when he's missed, it's been a Reggie Jackson-esque spinning whiff with the acquisition of Andrej Meszaros for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and the first-round pick previously acquired from San Jose for Dan Boyle. And it's difficult not to point at the oustings of Jussi Jokinen (30 goals for Carolina this season), Radim Vrbata (20-goal scorer for Phoenix) and the buyout of Vinny Prospal, who will count against the Lightning salary cap for five more years following a season in which a lack of secondary scoring was a season-long issue."

Coach Rick Tocchet has one year left on his deal and would be in limbo if Lawton is gone. A new GM usually wants his own man.

Downie has had a breakout season and is the key restricted free agent who needs a new deal along with Foster. Niittymaki, who outplayed Mike Smith in net this season, will be a UFA. Meanwhile, my colleague Erlendsson believes that whoever is in charge of the Lightning needs to also look ahead to two players who are one year away from free agency.

"Tampa Bay would be wise to begin extension talks for both Marty St. Louis (unrestricted) and Steven Stamkos (restricted) and not let either of those players go through the season without a contract beyond next season," he said. "St. Louis, in particular, while still productive at age 34 with the third 90-point season of his career, continues to be the heart and soul of the team and a real driving force, not only on the ice but in the locker room."

No shortage of work this offseason in Tampa.

New York Islanders: For the fourth time in five postlockout seasons, the Islanders failed to reach the postseason. It wasn't a surprise this season, as the team focused on a youth movement that has showed signs of promise.

Star rookie John Tavares had a solid first campaign, and his supporting cast is building in strength, led by Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, Josh Bailey, Jack Hillen, Trevor Gillies and more to come up from the farm system. This on top of a possible good draft pick in June depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.

The key question for the Isles is in goal. Martin Biron will be an unrestricted free agent, Dwayne Roloson has another year left but will be 41 in October and Rick DiPietro played just eight games this season, once again felled by injury (knee). This is GM Garth Snow's biggest offseason decision: who plays goal for him next season and beyond. (Snow did not immediately return a call from ESPN.com.)

Otherwise, believe it or not, Isles fans, the future looks bright (wherever the team ends up playing).

Martin Brodeur's cell phone was on overload Thursday night.

It seemed the whole world wanted him to know his New Jersey Devils had just acquired the most talented offensive player on this season's NHL trade market. And he was pumped about the news.

Turns out the NHL's all-time winningest goalie won't have to pitch shutouts for the Devils to win playoff games in the spring. Two-time 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk has been parachuted in from the Atlanta Thrashers thanks to one of Lou Lamoriello's most aggressive moves in his storied history as Devils GM.

"We just got ourselves a top scorer," Brodeur texted me. "I'm happy of the commitment from the organization toward our team. He will bring a different look to our team."

Uh, yeah.

When you consider the Devils have never produced a 50-goal scorer in their franchise history, I think you can say Kovalchuk brings a different look to this team. Even if it might be for just a few months.

If you're the 37-year-old Brodeur, it's about the here and now. So that's why he was ecstatic Thursday night. The Devils have a shot this season, so why not go for it?

Lamoriello saw his team dip to 21st in the NHL in goals per game, the lowest of the top 10 teams in the NHL standings. Of course, the Devils are first as usual in goals against, but I think the team's lack of a deep run in the postseason since the lockout convinced Lamoriello that defense isn't the only thing he needs.

What's more interesting to me is Lamoriello decided he needed this fix only recently after his Devils began to sputter. It's usually unlike him to act so fast on something of this magnitude, but that's exactly what happened.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell was in New Jersey on Sunday scouting the Los Angeles Kings for the potential Kovalchuk deal. The Devils had never called him at that point.

"The next day, I got a call from Lou just exploring where I was in the process and what I was looking for," Waddell said Thursday night. "So with New Jersey, it just started this week. Lou is a very determined person; he knows what he wants to do and he knows what he can afford to give up, so the process with them moved very quickly."

Imagine that. You've got Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, among others, dutifully working on this thing for weeks, and the Devils come in from the backstretch and win the race. Good ol' Lou.

Will the move be good enough? I like it even better if Paul Martin is the Paul Martin of old when he finally returns. An offense now led by Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner is pretty good. It still doesn't rank with Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, but then again, those teams don't have Brodeur in goal.

Kovalchuk has zero career playoff victories, so we really don't know how he'll react on this kind of stage or to the first time coach Jacques Lemaire tells him there is indeed something called the defensive zone. But if he embraces playoff hockey with the Devils the way he embraced winning gold medals for Russia at the past two world championships, Devils fans just might be in for a treat come April.

As for Atlanta, I doubt Waddell could have done better under the circumstances. Kovalchuk was going to walk as an unrestricted free agent on July 1; the Thrashers had to not only get something in return for their most important asset but also do it while not pulling the plug on their chase for a playoff spot. That's a balancing act, and acquiring a top-four blueliner in Johnny Oduya and a decent second-line winger in Niclas Bergfors to help the team right now was paramount.

"It was important for us to make sure we added two assets to our roster right now," Waddell said.

Looking ahead, the Thrashers are real high on Patrice Cormier, the captain of Canada's world juniors team last month whose vicious elbow got him suspended for the rest of the season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Keep in mind Atlanta's associate GM is Rick Dudley, whose scouting acumen is right up there with that of anybody in the game. He helped build the Chicago Blackhawks you're seeing tear up the NHL these days. If Dudley says Cormier is a keeper, that's good enough for me.

"We had asked for Cormier, and they were really resilient about that; they wanted to talk about other prospects," Waddell said. "I said to Lou, 'This is an important piece for us, and it has to be in the deal.' Once we got past that point, we were able to get it done."

Listen, the Thrashers are not as good a team today without Kovalchuk. Not even close. But you can't blame Waddell for balking at giving a player the maximum allowed under the salary cap this year, $11.35 million a year. He confirmed Thursday night that amount is what Kovalchuk wanted in a long-term deal.

I don't blame Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman for asking. If Kovy hits the unrestricted free-agent market in July, he'll be the youngest superstar in that position. But I agree with Waddell: You can't build a championship team with a player accounting for 20 percent of your payroll. They're not paying anyone 20 percent of the cap in Pittsburgh or Detroit, the past two Stanley Cup-champion teams, so I'm not sure why any other team should, either.

With each passing day, the chances of Ilya Kovalchuk finishing the season in Atlanta grow smaller and smaller, and it will be a sad day for the Thrashers' franchise if and when the captain exits.

So let's freeze time for a second and recognize a beautiful moment for what it was. There hasn't been a bigger victory in the Atlanta Thrashers' season than Thursday night's comeback affair in Philadelphia.

"I'm proud of the guys," Atlanta GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com after the game.

Hey, let's face it, with everyone in hockey knowing Kovalchuk's days are probably numbered, give credit to the rest of the team. No one would criticize these guys for folding up the tent with the impending trade of their superstar.

Instead, they've rallied this week with wins over Anaheim and Philly, and they went to bed Thursday night in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, looking down at an eight-team logjam that's separated by only two points.

"It's only our second regulation win here in Philadelphia in 10 years, and the other time I was coaching the team," Waddell said with a laugh. "But it's a big win tonight. Especially these head-to-head games, these are the teams you're fighting with. We were one point behind Philly coming in; if you lose [in regulation], suddenly you're three behind. This vaults us into a spot now where we need to be. We just have to keep on picking up points and we'll be good."

The man under the microscope, Kovalchuk, started the comeback with a goal just 29 seconds into the third period, his team-leading 31st of the season. Rookie Evander Kane (Atlanta's future franchise player?) had a big night as well.

"Evander Kane used his speed on his two assists tonight, and he went to the net," Waddell said.

Don't forget the old goat in goal, Johan "The Moose" Hedberg, who stood tall again with 34 saves.

"I can't say enough good things about Hedberg," Waddell said. "His last three games, he gave up one goal in each of them, but we won only one of them. He didn't have much to show for it, so that was nice tonight."

But hovering above everything is the situation with Kovalchuk. It's what Waddell wanted to avoid, and that's why he began to court his captain last summer. But with no extension signed, it's become the NHL story this season.

Waddell said his players have been able to not let it affect them too much so far.

"I talked to some of the guys, and it's really not something that's in the room," Waddell said. "Kovy has done a good job of keeping it out of the room from his end. I have the pulse of the room. So, as long as it doesn't become a distraction in there ... and obviously a game like tonight proves that it's not a distraction. We'll just keep going along here. We've got 5-6 games before the Olympic break, and we'll see what happens."

Everyone by now knows the super-talented Russian is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Waddell can't let him walk away this summer and get nothing in return. So, despite the fact Atlanta is sitting in a playoff spot, if there's no contract extension soon, Kovalchuk is likely a goner.

"Nothing new; it's just ongoing," Waddell said when I asked for an update. "We have a [contract] offer on the table that's there. Obviously, more time that goes by, it doesn't bode well and it's not encouraging, but I'm still holding out hope that we can get him signed."

But at least for one night, hockey was a game again ... and the Thrashers had some fun.