The Atlanta Thrashers took a major step in rebuilding as General Manager Rick Dudley pulled the trigger on what could be the biggest transaction of the 2010 offseason.
Just after the conclusion of the NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas, Dudley made the trade call and the deal was officially announced:
The Atlanta Thrashers acquire left-wing Dustin Byfuglien, enforcer Ben Eager, defenseman Brent Sopel, and AHL prospect Akim Aliu. In return, the Chicago Blackhawks acquire center Marty Reasoner, prospect Jeremy Morin, the 24th and 54th overall choices in this weekends NHL Entry Draft, and the expiring contract of AHL forward Joseph Crabb.
The deal took several hours to be approved by the National Hockey League, as the transaction gave Atlanta a total of 51 professional contracts. The league limit under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is 50. In order to complete the deal, Dudley phoned San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. The two executed a trade that sent the expiring contracts of AHL prospects Brett Sterling and Michael Vernace, along with a 7th round draft choice to San Jose. In return, Atlanta acquired “future considerations.”
That’s a lot to take in. Like I said, it is a major step taken in Rick Dudley’s first trade as full-time General Manger of the Atlanta ice-hockey club.
The direction of that step is obvious: Size, grit, intimidation, and desire to battle. All four of those attributes have been seemingly absent from the Thrashers franchise since they day it was conceived.
Allow me to break down the pieces of the trade acquired by the Thrashers.
DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN- Considered one of the leagues best utility players, Dustin Byfuglien deserves a large chunk of credit as the battery that powered the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup Championship in 41 years. Frequently referred to as “Big Buff,” Byfuglien stands tall and heavy at 6 foot 4, 257 lbs. In the 2009-10 regular season, Byfuglien did not miss a single game. He scored 17 goals and registered 17 assists, for a total of 34 points, while collecting 94 penalty minutes. Though those numbers are hardly worthy of the MVP trophy, it was in the post-season that Byfuglien proved his worth. In the Stanley Cup tournament, he once again played in all of the Blackhawks 22 contests, scoring 11 goals, adding 5 assists and sitting in the penalty box for 20 minutes.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Byfuglien’s game is that he is equally skilled on both defense and offense. Coming into the league as a defenseman, it was none other than Rick Dudley that saw him grow into a multi-positional player during his early days in Chicago.
“We had him at defense in Chicago and I thought he was quickly becoming a top two or three defenseman,” said Dudley. “We moved him to forward and he did really well there also. Byfuglien can do whatever he wants to do.”
When the Blackhawks lost two key defenseman to injury late in the 2010 campaign, Byfuglien was removed from his spot on the first offensive line and seamlessly transitioned into being a trustworthy defenseman on the 2nd pairing, allowing Chicago to take the injuries in stride and continue its path to the Stanley Cup.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Dudley told the media. “He’s a 250 lb player that’s got skill, skating, and all the things you need a player to have. He hits people hard and he has one of the hardest shots in the game.”
Byfuglien adds plenty to the Thrashers roster. From his ability to switch positions, to being an excellent front-of-net presence, to making big hits at the right time, Byfgulien is what a die-hard hockey fan calls a swiss army-knife of a player.
“He’s a young guy thats got nothing but upside, he’s a kid that’s incredibly versatile,” added Dudley.
BEN EAGER- The acquisition of Ben Eager follows suit with the size and grit theme. Best known as an enforcer for the 4th offensive line, Eager will provide Atlanta with an intimidating character to have on the ice. At 6 foot 2, 230 lbs, he will hit, he will protect his teammates, and he will pick a fight when the team needs it. In the 2009-10 regular season campaign, Eager played 60 games, scored 7 goals, added 9 assists, and amassed 120 minutes in the sin-bin. During the playoff tournament, he played in 18 of 22 games, scored a goal, added 2 assists, and spent another 10 in the box.
Despite modest numbers, Eager should add an extra element of on-ice warfare to aide the Thrashers in grinding out more victories.
“Ben Eager is one of the better forecheckers in the league today. He does a lot for a team,” explained Dudley.
Thrashers fans can only hope that Eager will provide a physical force greater than they’ve seen on the roster in year’s past. His low offensive numbers don’t particularly help a team that’s hungry for goal-scoring, but Eager does bring in a intimidating 4th line presence to make the Thrashers a tougher opponent no matter what building they play in.
BRENT SOPEL- Sopel’s inclusion in the deal was crucial in order for Chicago to have it’s salary cap conundrum simplified. Fortunately for the Thrashers, Sopel is a serviceable defenseman that will add extra size and experience on the back end. Standing at 6 foot 1 and weighing 205 pounds, Sopel combines size and mobility, an ever more popular combination in the new NHL. In the 2009-10 regular season, Sopel played in 73 games, scored 1 goal, added 7 assists, and registered 34 penalty minutes. In the playoffs he played in all 22 games, scoring a goal and 5 assists, along with 8 penalty minutes.
Sopel’s worth can be argued for by pointing to his average of 18 minutes on the ice per game in the playoffs. This shows that Chicago management and coach Joel Quenneville trusted Sopel with important minutes. This can bode well for the Thrashers, who seldom have had reliable defenseman to play in 2nd or 3rd pairing roles.
Dudley on Sopel: “He played a lot of minutes because he’ll do anything. He’ll block as many shots as he takes.”
Sopel’s arrival in Atlanta also makes it easier for the Thrashers to bear the loss of Pavel Kubina. Although there are rumors that Thrashers management and Kubina are not done talking about a deal, it seems unlikely that Dudley will have time to hammer out a deal with Kubina before July 1st.
Better still, Sopel has proven his effectiveness in penalty killing, which has been a historical weakness for Atlanta. Dudley told the media that Sopel “is one of the best penalty killing defenseman in the game.”
Discounting the expiring contract of Pavel Kubina, the Thrashers now have their most impressive defensive squadron to date, with the likes of Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey, Brent Sopel, Arturs Kulda and Boris Valabik.
AKIM ALIU- Still considered a prospect, Akim Aliu is known for being a fearless player with plenty of speed. Dudley describes him as being a bit of a project, as his hockey IQ is still a little ways from reaching the NHL level.
As for the future considerations received from San Jose, the deal was made solely for the purpose of freeing up Thrashers contracts so that the deal could be made official under the CBA. The Thrashers were essentially forced to pay San Jose a 7th round pick so that the Sharks would agree to take on what are expiring, and therefore pointless contracts. “Future considerations” is a term used to loosely describe a deal in which one GM does a favor for another, and seldom are any assets actually swapped in the future.
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Written by Kevin Thurston