Rick Dudley officially became the Montreal Canadiens assistant general manager on Friday, but on his way out the door the now former director of player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs offered encouraging words to their fans: Life is about to get much better.
Dudley, 63, is one of the most respected judges of talent in the NHL who can now view the team with the detachment of an outsider. He said the Leafs only need “three moves and maybe two to become a really, really good hockey organization.”
The most important of those moves, one he believes GM Brian Burke is working on, is to get an established, elite goaltender. Dudley says that will make an enormous difference to a team with a lot of young players like the Leafs, since their confidence will no longer suffer when they see their mistakes wind up in the net.
“The whole team gets better,” Dudley said. “It took me a whole lifetime in hockey to realize that. But it puts confidence in your players and makes them all better.”
Leafs senior vice-president of hockey operations David Nonis indicated in an interview on Sportsnet Radio The Fan 590 the team's preference is to find a veteran goaltender with youngsters James Reimer and Ben Scrivens competing for the No. 2 job.
If Burke and Nonis find the right candidate, probably through a trade (with the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo as the top candidate), Dudley believes a 180-degree turn is likely. The other two important moves, he said, are finding a No. 1 centre and adding a good defenceman, although he said that may be the least critical move since the Leafs have several top prospects at that position.
“I know Leaf fans get down because it's been a long time and all that but the Leafs are so close to being good,” Dudley said. “But if they make those moves, and I believe they will, then I believe this team becomes a good team in a very short period of time.”
There is a belief among some GMs that it's easy to find a goaltender or that a good defence lessens the need for a great one. Dudley said it took him “a lifetime in hockey” to learn that was wrong.
The final twig came in March, 2001 when he was GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning and building much of the team that won the Stanley Cup three years later. He landed goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin at the trade deadline.
Dudley went after Khabibulin, who was an established No. 1 goaltender, after making similar mistakes as the Leafs did in gambling that young backups could step up to the No. 1 job. He still marvels at the difference Khabibulin made to the team.
“We knew we had a pretty good team but we knew until we got an elite goaltender we weren't going to be a threat,” Dudley said. “The first game [after the trade] I can remember like yesterday. It was in New Jersey, we were tied 1-1 after two periods and we had been completely outplayed.
“I went by the room and the looks on the guys' faces; they looked at me like, 'Thank you, we now have a chance.' It was amazing and the whole team changed.”
The reason Dudley can see such a big transformation is that the Leafs have a large group of young defencemen who are on the cusp of becoming impact players in the NHL. Jake Gardiner has already shown he can be an elite defenceman and Dudley believes others currently playing in the American Hockey League playoffs for the Toronto Marlies like Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer and Stuart Percy will turn into good NHLers. Their development will go better and faster in front of a top goaltender.
“I think people don't understand when you look at some of these kids like Gardiner, Blacker, Holzer, Percy,” Dudley said. “They are all going to play in the league and they're going to be good.”
Luke Schenn took his lumps last season, his fourth in the league after being the fifth overall pick in 2008 and coming in to great expectations as an 18-year-old. Dudley thinks Schenn can still be a solid NHL player although perhaps more as a No. 4 defenceman. He, too, will profit from a goaltender upgrade.
“He may be a guy who's much more on the defensive side but he can play,” Dudley said. “He's a guy who needs a comfort level. Early in the season last year it seemed when he made a mistake it [always]went wrong.”
Dudley did not have any suggestions where Burke might find the No. 1 centre he needs. But if the chase for a free agent like Zach Parise fails, there is a potential solution on the Marlies roster.
Joe Colborne has had his struggles adjusting to professional hockey but Dudley has high hopes for him if he works hard on his conditioning over the summer and on his skating with the Leafs' new skating coach, Barb Underhill.
“He is such a big horse, if his cardiovascular fitness is elite and he improves his quickness just a bit, he can become a top-two centre in the NHL for sure,” he said. “If Barb can give Joe Colborne a step, then I think he becomes a bona-fide top-two-line guy in the NHL.”
Trying to improve pure speed is hard, Dudley said, “but you can enhance your quickness,” which is more reaction time than foot speed.
Dudley also thinks two other Leaf prospects are poised for big things - forwards Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri. At the very least, he said, of Colborne, Frattin and Kadri, “two of them are going to end up being good NHL players and more importantly from a Toronto perspective, they're going to end up contributing a great deal offensively.”
Finally, Dudley said, Leaf fans should stop with the constant despair about the long Stanley Cup drought since 1967.
“Right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs fans are saying it's always the same,” he said. “Well, the people in Tampa said it's always the same and then they won a Stanley Cup. In Toronto it's no different. It's a bigger market and it's more focused than anywhere else.
“But it's no different if you stick to the plan - and they have a plan. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and take a sprint to respectability.”
Burke may get the fans riled from time to time when he impulsively says things like to hell with a five-year plan, as he did after the infamous Phil Kessel trade. But Dudley says Burke does have a sensible plan in place and he was absolutely right in saying there was no sense in trying to make moves just to get into the eighth and last playoff spot if all you were going to do was lose in the first round. That one cheesed off the fans, too, when the Los Angeles Kings went from eighth place to the Stanley Cup final this week.
“All you can say is the Kings played well below their capacity [in the regular season] which the average person doesn't understand,” he said. “I can guarantee you when the Vancouver Canucks drew the Kings [in the first playoff round]they weren't happy.”