With Wheeler’s departure, the last of Rick Dudley’s gifts to Winnipeg are gone

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets celebrates with Andrew Ladd #16 and Blake Wheeler #26 after scoring in the third period against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on February 9, 2012 in Washington, DC. Winnipeg won the game 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets celebrates with Andrew Ladd #16 and Blake Wheeler #26 after scoring in the third period against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on February 9, 2012 in Washington, DC. Winnipeg won the game 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) /

There is a tale in a book called the Bible of three wisemen leaving three gifts for an exalted, newborn child. Hearing of this special child, the wisemen travel across the land to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Over two thousand years later, the one-time general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers, Rick Dudley, did just the same for future Jets fans. Although it’s suspected he walked a significantly shorter distance to do so.

It’s easy to overlook how barren the day one roster of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 could have been if not for Dudley’s unsung heroism. The Thrashers rarely drafted or developed anything beyond the first round, and trade deadline deals shipping out Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa were at the time underwhelming, and downright paltry in hindsight.

Fate always had the Jets in line to inherit a recent quartet of Thrashers high draft picks: Bryan Little in 2006, Zach Bogosian in 2008, Evander Kane in 2009, and Alex Burmistrov in 2010. Otherwise, the future Winnipeg team wasn’t poised to have many players projected long term to become top line or top six players.

That path all changed on April 14th, 2010.

Rick Dudley was hired that day, and the immediate fortunes of the future Winnipeg Jets 2.0 team no one knew about yet was destined to take a drastic turn. Three players who would become synonymous with the Jets 2.0 would be acquired under his watch. Two future captains, and an enigmatic defenseman who was as beloved as he was a unicorn.

Superstars swapped for spare parts

This story isn’t complete, however, without a brief overview of the type of return that the franchise’s two biggest superstars generated.

Under former Thrashers general manager Don Waddell’s watch, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa were both traded at the deadline. The deadline isn’t always where the best deals occur, but given their superstar nature, it was hard to like the returns as a fan at the time. There wasn’t a ton of upside in the trade packages, just quantity with, I guess, a bit of skill.

Hossa was traded alongside Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for their 2008 Cup run, where they eventually lost to the Detroit Red Wings. For Hossa’s talents, Atlanta acquired Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito, and a first rounder in 2008, which ended up being 29th overall.

Armstrong and Christensen were both middle six players, though the hope was Christensen’s skill could shine through and he could become a second line center. That didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Esposito’s stock had declined rapidly in his draft season, and it continued to plummet in his draft plus one year. He never played a game in the NHL.

The Thrashers selected Daultan Laveille 29th with that acquired first rounder, who primarily played in the ECHL over his 6 year pro career.

Kovalchuk, meanwhile, was traded two years later to the New Jersey Devils alongside a 2020 second rounder and Anssi Salmela. The return the franchise’s biggest star and former first overall pick generated was Johnny Oduya, Nicklas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, and first and second round picks in the 2010 draft.

This return had more staying power than the Hossa deal, as Oduya would go on be a solid player for a few years as both a Thrasher and Jet. Bergfors showed flashes of skill, and you could see why he was a former 23rd overall pick. But he couldn’t stick in the pros. Cormier, meanwhile, was a defensive forward who was in the Thrashers/Jets system until 2018, but only played 52 NHL games over those 8 years.

Both of the draft picks acquired were eventually traded. (More on that later.)

And little did the citizens of Winnipeg know that this diminishing Atlanta Thrashers roster was destined to become the foundation of their beloved Jets 2.0.

In comes the magician – Rick Dudley

Current Jets fans have no idea what a breath of fresh air it was to see this guy come in and make some intelligent trades. Trades for players who were already good, but maybe had more to give in a bigger role. Trades that were opportunistic in nature with upside for the future.

Dudley was only the Thrashers GM for just over a year, having been hired on April 14th, 2010 and being let go after it was confirmed that the Atlanta Thrashers were relocating to Winnipeg in May of 2011.

He immediately went to work in his first offseason, targeting the cap strapped Stanley Cup Champions – and his former team – the Chicago Blackhawks.

In June, Dudley acquired one of the truly unique players in the post-lockout NHL, completing a deal for Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and Akim Aliu in exchange for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin, and the 2010 first and second round picks acquired from the Devils for Kovalchuk at the deadline.

Morin was a well regarded prospect at the time and a former 2nd rounder, but he never played more than 100 games in the NHL.

Dudley didn’t know it at the time, given that Big Buff was a forward in Chicago, but he had acquired a future Winnipeg legend who combined a carefree, jovial attitude all packaged up as a physical, 6’5 specimen that had incredible hands and could skate the ice like few men of that size. His acquisition might be the best trade this franchise has ever made.

But he wasn’t quite done yet.

Roughly a week later, Dudley was on the hunt again. This time for the future captain of a city he didn’t know his team was relocating to. In a fairly innocent move, the Jets acquired former 4th overall pick Andrew Ladd from the Chicago Blackhawks, in exchange for a 2011 second round pick and defense prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy (who had been acquired for Kari Lehtonen).

Ladd was excellent in a third line role for Chicago en route to their 2010 Stanley Cup win, but given he was a former 4th overall pick, there was always a chance he could do more with a bigger opportunity.

In Winnipeg, that opportunity was there.

He became a solid top line winger, scoring over 20 goals five times for the franchise with his sneaky good wrist shot. Overall, he was an exemplary captain who took no short cuts for a franchise that was set on drafting and developing young players. His contributions to Winnipeg went well beyond the stat sheet.

Dudley’s final move that altered Winnipeg’s destiny came at the trade deadline in 2011.

Unheralded centerman Rich Peverley had meshed very well with Kovalchuk during the 2009-10 season, and was proving that after Kovalchuk was traded, he could still be a productive center in the NHL. Dudley converted the two-way playmaker into former 5th overall pick Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart.

Stuart was a solid penalty killing defender for the franchise for seven years, and provided great value considering he was very clearly the spare part alongside Wheeler.

Wheeler, meanwhile, was immediately captivating. A 6’5 horse who at top speed was unstoppable. After playing primarily on the third line on a very deep Bruins team (who won the Cup that year), the chance for him to play top line minutes was exactly what he needed.

And he delivered, no matter who he was playing with.

Wheeler was a quality top line right winger when the best the franchise had to offer as linemates were Ladd and Bryan Little. And he became a star right winger when the franchise developed its own elite talent, shining as the primary playmaker alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. And though his final years as a Jet never lived up to his $8.25 million salary cap hit, he was a quality top six winger, and a captain that gave his all and left nothing on the table.

And with his buyout and subsequent signing with the New York Rangers this past July, he is the last of the gifts Rick Dudley left the city and fanbase of Winnipeg.

Ladd, Byfuglien, and Wheeler.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.