October 23, 2019

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Byfuglien a great building block

Big defenceman key to team's future

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/5/2011 (3066 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/5/2011 (3066 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The former Atlanta Thrashers might just be the perfect fit for Winnipeg — a little light on star power and trying to make all the pieces fit on a budget.

When the relocated NHL team moves into the MTS Centre later this year, fans are going to find a team that made a promising move up the ladder early last season, only to falter badly in the season's second half.

Dustin Byfuglien

Dustin Byfuglien

The Thrashers eventually missed the Stanley Cup playoffs by four teams and 13 points with their 34-36-12 record, which was only good enough for 12th in the Eastern Conference.

Since the club's high-water mark of 97 points and its only playoff appearance in 2007 — the franchise began play in 1999 — it has been a repeating drill of trying to match that foothold in an ultra-competitive NHL.

It has compiled seasons of 76, 76, 83 and 80 points since.

Recent times have been nothing short of tumultuous with the Thrashers.

Since ditching star Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils just over a year ago, the team has revamped itself internally under GM Rick Dudley, who took over as the man in charge 13 months ago.

Dudley has moved pieces in and out, but his most important acquisition has surely been defenceman Dustin Byfuglien from the then-Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks. It likely didn't put Dudley in a bad spot that his previous job was with the Hawks organization.

Byfuglien, who hails from nearby Roseau, Minn., brought his Stanley Cup ring to the Thrashers' defence and gave the team 20 goals and 53 points in his first season with the team.

And he was a mere minus-2 on a club whose deficit in goals was substantial, 218-262. Atlanta was one of the NHL's worst goals-against teams in 2010-11, bettering only Colorado at the bottom of that red-light district.

Byfuglien, 26, has become one of the key members of a blue-line corps that Dudley has installed as a building block for the future. The team's top four, also including Zach Bogosian, 20, Toby Enstrom, 26, and Ron Hainsey, 30, eat up the quality minutes and the late-season addition of Mark Stuart from Boston installed extra character into the defensive mix.

The Thrashers also have veteran Johnny Oduya and having been eyeing prospects Andrew Zubarev, Zach Redmond, Arturs Kulda and possibly Paul Postma as another youth movement on the back end.

The team's goaltending was the tandem of 23-year-old Ondrej Pavelec and 35-year-old Chris Mason, both of whom are signed for the coming season.

Dudley is high on Pavelec and has suggested he'll be even more of an impact player should he ever buy into a better fitness regimen.

Up front, the Thrashers' leading scorer last season was newly acquired Andrew Ladd (also from Chicago). Ladd, 25, combined with centre Bryan Little, 23, who had a breakout season with 48 points, and deadline-acquisition Blake Wheeler, 24, to be the team's best line down the stretch.

With 2010 first-round pick Alexander Burmistrov, 19, and 19-year-old Evander Kane surely on the rise, Dudley had identified finding another scoring forward as a top priority before the franchise sale.

That would be an obvious need in light of the disappointment of centre Nik Antropov's 41-point campaign, though in fairness, the 31-year-old was coming off serious hip surgery from last summer.

Dudley, who played half an NHL season for the Winnipeg Jets, told the team's website at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season that pieces are in place for the franchise to move higher, to be "an elite team," as he put it.

The Thrashers were indeed creating buzz in the first half of last season, but that second-half swoon torpedoed a coveted playoff spot, and some of that optimism.

 

As for organizational continuity, it's unknown at this point whether Dudley and head coach Craig Ramsey, also just finished his first season, will be on board to continue guiding the team in Winnipeg. Those details of the franchise sale and relocation agreement have not yet been made public. It's even possible the decisions have yet to be made, all opening the door to speculation that True North may have other hockey-operations plans for the future.

 

Looking ahead to the business of the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg, the team already has 17 players under contract for the coming season and those account for $37.6 million, according to www.capgeek.com.

That will leave about $25 million worth of cap room under a projected $62 million cap for 2011-12, though there is no expectation that a Winnipeg team is going to spend to the maximum.

The NHL's cap number is expected to rise again slightly from last season's $59.4 million, but the increase won't be known until late June, when the league has a better handle on its revenue and accounting for the season just ended.

(The players league-wide will receive approximately 57 per cent of league revenue.)

The Thrashers, in low-revenue Atlanta, were one of the league's lowest-paid teams last season at about $46.6 million, gravitating strongly towards the CBA salary floor of $43.4 million.

If past suggestions from True North executives come true, that they expected a future Winnipeg team could be a "mid-cap" team, then that would mean somewhere in the range of a $52 to $55 million payroll. And that would leave plenty of room not only to sign key free agents Ladd, Wheeler and Bogosian, but to make selected upgrades as well through trades or the upcoming free-agent market.

Today, the Thrashers highest-paid player heading to the 2011-12 season is Byfuglien, whose five-year contract extension (negotiated during last season) kicks in at $5.2 million per season.

The team's second-highest paid player is Hainsey, who has two years left at $4.5 million per season. Rounding out the top three today is Antropov, the former Toronto Maple Leaf, who makes just a little more than $4 million per season.

Hainsey and Antropov are the only members of the team currently with no-trade clauses in their contracts.

The Thrashers are in fairly good shape in terms of numbers of players signed for the season ahead. Only five teams have more players locked up.

But the team has nine players about to hit the free-agent market.

The three heading for the unrestricted free-agent auction are forwards Eric Boulton, 34, Radek Dvorak, 34, and defenceman Freddy Meyer, 30.

Boulton produced six goals and 10 points in 69 games and pleased management with his performance, while Dvorak had seven goals and 22 points in 66 appearances.

Meyer played only 15 games in an injury-plagued year.

Six players are headed for restricted free agency, including Bogosian, who's coming off an inconsistent season and a team-worst minus-27, and Ladd, who made $2.35 million last season.

Forwards Wheeler, Ben Maxwell, 23, Rob Schremp, 24, and Anthony Stewart, 26, are the others in the restricted category this off-season.

Before free agency begins July 1 and based on the Thrashers' finish in the 2010-11 season, the team has the seventh overall pick at the upcoming draft, June 24.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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