Ben Wright sat down conducted a lengthy interview with GM Rick Dudley (click here for part one and part two) which produced many interesting comments. I think Ben's questions were great and Dudley's answers were pleasantly specific. Reading through the whole interview a second and third time here are a couple of items that jump out at me.
Item #1. Playing the Kids.
As a scouting guy, Dudley believes in giving the prospects a chance. For me this was the key quote in the entire interview:
One thing for sure is that we can't paint ourselves into a corner where somebody like Cormier or Klingberg or Kulda or one of these guys can't move up. That's where we're going to make our biggest gains is with these kids that we know are players. We have to allow them to be players. A lot of teams paint themselves into a corner and put pieces in the holes who can only go to a certain level and can't get past that. These kids can. Cormier can be a very important piece of the puzzle. So can Klingberg. So can Morin eventually. Kulda can play in the National Hockey League now, as will Postma and Vishnevskiy. We have to give Kulda a chance to do that because he can. Why would we sign a 30-year-old player who is the same as a player we've got in Chicago? For me personally that doesn't make a lot of sense.
As I wrote last summer, contending on a budget requires using inexpensive talent to fill particular roles. A smart GM doesn't overpay 4th liners who are replaceable and cheap on the UFA market. As a group, NHL GMs tend to be rather risk averse, it is safer to pay that 30 year-old veteran than play the kid with upside who might/will make some rookie mistakes. But in the long run contending on a budget demands taking some qualified risks. Giving NHL ice time to a mature prospect is a necessary step to getting that kid ready to be a regular on a contending NHL team. For example, the Thrashers would have been better off using Kulda on their 3rd pairing in the NHL instead of keeping Mark Popovic on the NHL roster.
Perhaps, I'm reading too much into this particular quote, but I do wonder if GM Dudley would consider buying out the final year of Todd White's contract to open up a roster spot for someone else? The upside would be more ice time for a young forward, but the downside would be paying White 2/3rds of his salary (spread across 2 cap years) and then paying another player's roster. In reality, buying out Todd White wouldn't save the Thrashers a dime, but it would open up ice time for another player who might play a key role on a contending Atlanta squad.
Item #2 Why did the Thrashers choose not to renew Coach Anderson's contract?
To his credit Dudley never says anything disparaging about the outgoing Thrashers coach. However, if you look carefully at the list of qualities Dudley is targeting for the next head coach, I think the reader might infer that Dudley thinks Anderson lacked some of these qualities.
Coaching over the last few years has become as important as goaltending perhaps. You look at Phoenix and see what has happened with Dave Tippett who I have always been a huge fan of. That's an illustration of what can happen. Coaching played a huge role with their young team.
If you can bring everyone back that you want to, what would the biggest change to the team be that you'd want to make?
Coaching. The coach has to come in and establish a defensive philosophy. A couple of other things have to happen as well. Pavelec has to be very consistent and Hedberg has to stay young, and I don't doubt that he will. Other than that I think Zach Bogosian has to continue to mature. I think that Enstrom has to continue to grow. I think Boris Valabik can be a big part of all of it if he can get himself to where he's comfortable. You can go down the list. Bryan Little for half the year had an off year. He has to come in and really take off, because he's capable. Evander Kane will continue to grow. Bergfors, there's no reason to think he won't continue to play well. Jimmy Slater found himself this year and I think he can continue to grow even though he's a little bit older.
Perhaps I'm trying to infer too much, but it seems to me that Dudley thinks coaching can make a big difference and that certain young players (Bogosian, Valabik, Little) didn't show enough progress last year. As a quantitative guy, I think the long term effect of coaching is over-stated. Most studies suggest that changing coaches produces a short term performance bump, but that effect tends to be short lived. If you don't have quality players no coach is going to be able to work miracles.
On the other hand, I would certainly agree that coaching can have an enormous effect on special teams and defensive zone strategy. I am happy to see him address the "defensive philosophy" above (my emphasis with the bold). I've argued before that a defensive team can be cheaper than an offensive team because it is hard for agents to credibly claim that their player should be paid more because of his defense. Defense is harder to measure and frequently great defenders end up being underpaid.
Last year the Thrashers had the best group of defenseman in team history and yet they still managed to finish 24th out of 30 teams in Goals Allowed. There are three possible explanations 1) the defensemen were terrible; 2) the goalies were terrible; 3) the system was too porous. My own view is that the defensemen and goaltending were probably not far from league average and the system was the main culprit.
Item #3 Which system or style?
What does the coaches role demand according to Dudley? Teaching and an ability to adjust to changing circumstances.
Actually, on the technical side I would say I'm looking for somebody who can adjust. Before the rule changes there was a steady diet of the trap. It was almost all trap in the forecheck and there wasn't a lot of pressure to attack. They just waited for you to make a mistake. Now, one night you might see a very passive trap on the forecheck in the offensive zone and neutral zone and the next night you'll see something very different like a 2-2-1 forecheck that's very aggressive. It's an absolute key to not be a one-trick pony. The coach has to be able to say "We're playing that team tonight and they're coming at us and we cannot take the time we did the night before against the passive forecheck to regroup and come with speed so we're going to have to come with the quick hit up the ice." The combination of that ability to adjust to what you see and the ability to teach fundamentals, and I mean everything from 2-on-1's to 1-on-1's to wall play to entering the offensive zone, that's what I'm looking for.
The funny thing about the quote above is that Coach Anderson also talked about the need for flexibility when he was introduced to Thrashers bloggers two summers ago. Someone asked him about systems and he said that he liked to switch systems mid-game depending upon the score and the situation. He had done this in the AHL and expected to repeat it in the NHL.
So what happened to that emphasis on flexible systems? Did the players fail to follow instructions (as was alleged in Anderson's first season)? Or was it case of teaching the wrong systems? Or was it a case of picking the wrong scheme for that moment of the game? It is impossible for me to guess Dudley's take on this, but because he mentions the need for flexibility I'm assuming that he was unsatisfied with the Thrashers on-ice moves last season.
Item #4 Size isn't the only thing.
Fans of the Lightning and the Panthers have complained that Dudley has something of a size fetish in terms of acquiring players. So I was pleased to hear him say that size was not as important in today's NHL as it was in the past. Just as players can change and improve so too can managers. Certainly Scotty Bowman didn't stand still but adapted as the NHL changed. Dudley has made some errors in previous GM roles--recognizing and learning from those errors is a crucial part of his development.
Has your approach to being a GM changed a lot over the years?
It does change. You have to evolve. The game has changed. I used to be a guy who liked big people. If you can have an ideal player he's big, smart, skilled and has a whole lot of character. Obviously there aren't a whole lot of 6' 5" players who have all of those things, but over the course of the new rules coming in I'd say I've changed in what I think it takes to be effective as a player. The character and hockey sense- their game understanding- is very important, as is the speed of a player. I think the need for the size component has diminished somewhat. It used to be that size was the first thing you looked at. at one point you wouldn't' even draft a player under 6' 2"... Will we be trying to get all of those components in a big man at the draft? Yes. But is it a prerequisite? No. It's not necessarily the biggest players that win the war for you now.
Conclusion: In general, I've been rather pleased with the things that Rick Dudley has said about the Thrashers team and his role as GM. Of course, talk is easy and performance is hard. We will learn more about Dudley as GM as he begins to make tough decisions such as hiring the head coach, signing free agents and drafting prospects.