ATLANTA (AP) Dustin Byfuglien looks to his left and sees Ben Eager. Just across the room, there’s Brent Sopel and Andrew Ladd.
At the end of last season, all four were hoisting the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks.
They’re still teammates. Only now, it’s with a franchise that has never won a playoff game.
The Atlanta Thrashers hope their four newcomers – call them Blackhawks South – will bring along a winning attitude that has been in desperately short supply since the franchise entered the league in 1999.
“When we face adversity, when we face tough situations, they’ve been there, done that,” said Craig Ramsay, the Thrashers’ new coach. “They’ve gone through the grind of actually winning a Stanley Cup. They know what it’s like to fight to be a top team in the league.”
Byfuglien is the most prominent of the ex-Blackhawks, a behemoth of a player who scored 11 playoff goals and ruled the crease during Chicago’s run to the championship. Despite his dominance as a power forward, the Thrashers decided to shift him back to defense, his original position.
That’s just fine with Byfuglien, who figures he’ll still get plenty of scoring chances with Ramsay urging everyone to get involved in the offense.
Byfuglien sees a plenty of similarities between the state of the Atlanta team – years of losing, a dwindling fan base – and what was going on just a few years ago with the Blackhawks.
Chicago began stockpiling talented young players, making the occasional trade to fill in the gaps, and built up a championship team that is now the toast of sellout crowds in the Windy City.
“When I first got there, it was just like this,” Byfuglien said. “In fact, I think we might be a little ahead of the game here. It’s just a matter of time before everything clicks together.”
Excuse the city of Atlanta if it’s a little skeptical of that rosy assessment.
The Thrashers are nothing more than an afterthought in a city that, even in the best of times, is going to devote more attention to football, baseball and basketball. More troubling is having the loyal base of hockey fans turn their backs on the franchise, but they can’t be blamed given a track record that includes one playoff appearance in 10 seasons (and a quick four-game sweep).
There’s been plenty of griping about a penny-pinching ownership that has allowed stars such as Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk to slip away, and persistent rumors that the franchise if being shopped around and could wind up in another city.
But for now, there’s a glimmer of hope as the Thrashers prepare to open the season Friday night against the Washington Capitals.
Rick Dudley has taken over as general manager. Ramsay has gotten his long-awaited chance as an NHL coach. And there’s a new group of promising players to build around, led by 20-year-old Zach Bogosian and teenage forwards Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov.
With Chicago forced to dump players to stay within the salary cap, Dudley swooped in to land Byfuglien, Eager and Sopel in one deal, then pulled off another to bring in Ladd.
“It’s a business,” Sopel said. “With the salary cap issues, it’s pretty tough. That’s what we all fell victim to. It’s part of the job. But I’m excited to be in Atlanta. It reminds me of the Chicago team three years ago when I got there. Some young kids, great talent, great kids looking to learn, looking to get better, looking to win.”
The Thrashers do look better on defense with Byfuglien and Sopel joining Bogosian, Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom and Johnny Oduya. Chris Mason was signed as a free agent but the team hopes 23-year-old Ondrej Pavelec will become the sort of dominant No. 1 goaltender they’ve never had in Atlanta.
The biggest question is up front.
Atlanta has only three players – Nik Antropov (24), Rich Peverley (22) and Niclas Bergfors (21) – who scored as many as 20 goals in the NHL last season. An 0-5-1 preseason in which the Thrashers managed just 10 goals did little to raise hopes.
Maybe the Ex-Hawks will help turn things around.
“It’s great to have added players who have won the Stanley Cup before,” Kane said. “They bring a winning attitude that we can build on. With so many new faces, it takes a while to come together. But everyone is excited about what this team can do.”
By Paul Newberry, AP Sports Writer
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