Last season, the Winnipeg Jets were still the Atlanta Thrashers, being run by general manager Rick Dudley. Dudley got a four-year contract extension, than promptly lost his job when the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the Jets.
Even so, Dudley’s decisions – and one in particular – continue to impact the team.
Dudley is now an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I wrote a long piece profiling him here, and came to the following conclusion:
Dudley’s a solid hockey man. If a team’s looking for an old-school G.M., there really aren’t a lot of guys out there better qualified. I wouldn’t hire him, because I disagree with him philosophically [note: Dudley’s not a big believer in statistical analysis] but despite those differences I don’t for a moment doubt that he’s a solid judge of talent or a man capable of running an NHL team well. He’s a high-level candidate for any vacant G.M. position.
Travel back, for a moment, to February of 2011. The Thrashers and their long-suffering fan-base were in the midst of a disappointing season, but the playoffs were not out of sight. Atlanta sits four points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with 23 games left to play. There’s undoubtedly a temptation to add players at the deadline, to try and push for that playoff spot. This is especially true given Atlanta’s tenuous financial situation.
Dudley chooses not to do that. His team isn’t entirely out of it, but given their minus-22 goal differential on the season, the odds are good their record isn’t truly reflective of the team’s talent, and the club probably won’t be making up a lot of ground in the playoff race.
Instead, Dudley makes a deal with the primary focus on the future, sending away centre Rich Peverley (a two-way player on a team already incredibly shallow up the middle) and “prospect” Boris Valabik for Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. Wheeler undoubtedly has the best upside of the group, but Peverley is playing heavy minutes in all situations and the Thrashers can ill afford to lose him. Peverley goes on to play important minutes for the Bruins en route to a Stanley Cup victory; Wheeler explodes offensively but the Thrashers finish the season 9-12-2, well out of the playoffs.
Fast-forward one season. Peverley’s still playing well – and showing a surprising amount of offense in a depth role – for the Bruins. Boston undoubtedly has no regrets about that deal, even if Boris Valabik has already been flushed out of the system. Wheeler, however, has emerged as the Jets’ leading scorer, and one of the NHL’s most prolific players at even-strength. With 45 even-strength points, Wheeler finds himself ranked 27th overall among NHL forwards in 5-on-5 offense, ahead of guys like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Daniel Sedin and Eric Staal. Also on that list is former teammate Milan Lucic, a player Wheeler was stuck behind in Boston.
To be sure, there are caveats. Claude Noel has made a lot of Wheeler’s offensive success possible – starting him tons in the offensive zone, keeping him away from the best opponents and the like. But Wheeler has rewarded him with excellent production, and thanks to Rick Dudley the Jets have a player that nearly every team in the NHL is looking for: a big guy who can score.