Should the Atlanta Thrashers be transferred as expected, Winnipeg hockey fans will be getting in on the ground floor of a good thing, according to the club's general manager.
"This team is a lot closer to elite status than anybody might imagine," Rick Dudley said Monday, as Atlanta lawyers dealt with the final documents on the Memorial Day holiday in the United States, and rumours swirled that only the NHL rubber stamp remained in the way of franchise relocation.
Dudley's optimism might come as a surprise, as the Thrashers finished 12th in the NHL's Eastern Conference last season. However, Atlanta was one of the league's surprise teams in the first half of the season, staying in playoff contention until a disastrous free-fall in the second half.
"There are only a couple pieces [left to acquire]and I think they are available. ... This is an interesting team because it's capable of so much," said Dudley, whose off-season shopping list includes a scorer and an elite defenceman. "You don't play half the season as one of the better teams in the NHL; this was not a fluke.
"We hit a spell of 21 games where we won four and that obviously knocked us out of the playoffs. But that's something you learn from, too."
Most of the best players, like forward Andrew Ladd and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, in their mid-20s or younger. The oldest of their key players is 30-year-old forward Nik Antropov.
What remains to be seen is True North's appetite for spending money on the player payroll after laying out $110-million (all currency U.S.) for the team and an additional $60-million as a relocation fee.
By the way, that relocation fee does not include a change in conference, at least not for the coming season. The plan is for the team to remain in the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference so the NHL governors can use the time to decide which of the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators or Columbus Blue Jackets will move east, so the Winnipeg team can join the Western Conference.
If the new owners inflate the payroll to the salary cap, the GM will have a lot of money to spend, which is unusual in today's NHL. At present, the Thrashers have 15 players under contract for a payroll of $35.9-million. If the cap rises from $59.4-million to almost $64-million as expected, Dudley will have $28-million in cap space.
But before he chases the scorer and defenceman through free agency or a trade, Dudley has to sign several Thrashers who will become free agents on July 1. The most important ones will be restricted free agents Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Anthony Stewart, who are all forwards, and defenceman Zach Bogosian. The notable unrestricted free agents are forward Radek Dvorak and defencemen Freddy Meyer.
Dudley said he is "comfortable" about his chances of signing Ladd, Wheeler, Stewart and Bogosian after talking to them since the end of the season. He admitted he did not raise the possibility of a move to Winnipeg but thinks that may not change any of the players' minds.
"I can't speak for the players," Dudley said. "But I think all of them liked what was happening in Atlanta. All felt they could be part of a special team and I think they continue to feel that way."
Dudley thinks his top line of Ladd, Wheeler and Bryan Little is good enough to be a top line on any team. However, the Thrashers struggled to score goals last season, finishing 10th in goals for in the Eastern Conference with 223, so he is looking for a scorer to give the team two solid scoring lines.
Both head coach Craig Ramsay and Dudley are under contract, so both plan to be part of the move. This will bring Dudley back to the city where he finished his playing career in 1981, squeezing 30 games out of a surgically devastated knee with the Winnipeg Jets before calling it quits.
"I remember the passion of the fans," Dudley said. "I remember it was a heck of a hockey town."