Atlanta Thrashers trying to find first-half magic

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Panic? Rick Dudley laughed at the other end of the phone line Friday morning. The general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers turned 62 on Monday. He has spent a lifetime in hockey – from player to coach to GM, with a lot in between.

“I’m too old to panic,” Dudley said.

But make no mistake: While Dudley is keeping his head cool and the long term in mind, he would like to make a move now to bolster the Thrashers, whose season, once such a pleasant surprise, is in danger of slipping away.

Suddenly, Dustin Byfuglien(notes) has stopped scoring – no points and minus-6 in his past 12 games. Suddenly, defense partner Tobias Enstrom(notes) is out with a broken finger – four games and counting. Suddenly, the Thrashers aren’t winning the way they were – 2-5-3 in their past nine games, 5-9-4 in their past 18.

And suddenly, the Thrashers are clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by one lonely point over the Carolina Hurricanes. They could have slipped out of playoff position Thursday night when they lost to the Calgary Flames 4-2, but meanwhile, the ’Canes lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0.

The Thrashers and Hurricanes face off Saturday night in Raleigh, N.C. In Thursday night’s postgame news conference, one reporter suggested the Carolina game would be the biggest of the season.

“You have to be careful using that term,” Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay corrected. “Every game is the biggest game. But it certainly is a big one.”

They’re only going to get bigger and bigger down the stretch for a franchise whose owners recently revealed they have been trying to sell the team, a franchise that has been trying to drum up interest with marketing stunts and draw fans with improvement on the ice, a franchise that has a chance to make the playoffs for only the second time in its 11 NHL seasons – if only it can regain its footing down the stretch.

The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 28, but Dudley already has been working the phones.

“We’re actively looking, but we’ll see,” he said.

The problem is that the standings are tight, especially in the Western Conference, where an Eastern team is more likely to find a trade partner, and no one else is panicking either at this point. Players are available, but right now, teams want a ransom in return for them. Dudley has to decide whether to pay a ransom, and as much as he wants to win now, he doesn’t want to jeopardize the future.

Dudley put the Thrashers in position to compete for a playoff spot with the deals he made over the summer. He hired coach Craig Ramsay, a highly regarded teacher, and swung two deals with the Chicago Blackhawks, his former team, which needed to clear salary cap space after winning the Stanley Cup. He scooped up the likes of Byfuglien, who would blossom after moving back to defense, and Andrew Ladd(notes), who would become the Thrashers’ captain.

No one knew what to expect from the Thrashers early in the season. People still thought of Byfuglien as the power forward who parked in front of the net during the Blackhawks’ Cup run. But Byfuglien kept scoring like a forward while playing defense, leading all NHL defensemen in points for a while, racking up 41 points in his first 42 games. Enstrom put up big numbers alongside him.

In November, the Thrashers put together a six-game winning streak that included a 5-0 victory over the Washington Capitals, a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens and a 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins. They kept winning. By late December, they were 19-11-5.

The players were executing Ramsay’s up-tempo style. They were disciplined.

And then they weren’t.

The tempo has slowed. The discipline has suffered. So has the confidence.

Teams started paying more attention to Byfuglien, not allowing him to beat them. That has helped expose the Thrashers’ lack of offensive depth.

Byfuglien and Enstrom are tied for the Thrashers’ scoring lead with 41 points each. Only three other teams have a defenseman as a leading scorer. Keith Yandle(notes) leads the Phoenix Coyotes – and now all NHL defensemen – with 45 points. Shea Weber(notes) leads the Nashville Predators with 31 points. Erik Karlsson(notes) is tied with Daniel Alfredsson(notes) for the Ottawa Senators’ scoring lead with 30 points. No other team has two defensemen in its top four in scoring.

With Byfuglien neutralized and Enstrom hurt, the Thrashers don’t have the offensive firepower up front to make up for it. After scoring as many as five, six and seven goals in games earlier this season, they haven’t scored more than three in regulation in their past 18 games. That has helped expose defensive issues.

“If you’re not scoring, it just puts so much pressure on every other error you make,” Ramsay said. “Guys do start to have a little panic in their own zone instead of understanding that they’re good players. …

“We keep allowing everybody just to play close. Early in the year, we were winning those close games or finding the way to get that done. And now we’re finding a way to make that really key turnover.”

It’s not too late for the Thrashers to understand they are good players again. This is the same group that started the season so well, and as they saw Thursday night against the Flames, a team once left for dead, now red-hot and back in the race, things can change quickly. Dudley could spark something by making a move before the deadline. There is no need to panic. Yet.

But that time is coming, and they need Byfuglien, someone, anyone, to make a statement, starting Saturday night at Carolina. Asked what, in his experience, gets a team out of a slump, Ramsay said: “A couple of goals.”

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