Before coming to South Florida, Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley spent his time across the state running the Tampa Bay Lightning. While with the ‘Lightning, Dudley was instrumental in solidifying their farm system with his penchant for scouting all ends of the earth.
Now at the helm of his third modern-era expansion team, Dudley has been aggressive in revamping a long time Panthers defensive soft-spot, by drafting Jay Bouwmeester, trading for Branislav Mezei and Dimitry Yushkevich, and recently picking up Mathieu Biron in the waiver draft. On offense, getting away from a player oriented approach to more of a team approach will have to be the key, as no significant changes were made.
So on the eve of the 2002-2003 season, against the backdrop of a Panthers squad that has 13 players at 23 years or younger practicing on the ice and on the opening night roster, Rick Dudley took some time out his busy schedule to sit down with Hockey’s Future to answer a few questions about leadership, new rule changes, and something I like to call, “The Luongo Effect”
Hockey’s Future: You have had now a couple of months to fully analyze the Panther’s farm system, what is your overall impression of the depth, and what do you feel are the weaknesses and strengths?
Rick Dudley: Well, we are getting deeper. Are we where we want to be? Not quite, but we will be. When you go through the juniors and the San Antonio roster, and you look at the youth on this team and you look at what you have to add, it is a pretty good situation. Simply because, the people at the NHL roster are going to be on the NHL roster for a long, long time.
So you are not looking at adding youth at every position, but we do have some special players. I just got back from watching San Antonio play. Novak appears to be a player that will make an impact eventually at the NHL level, and there are a couple of other guys down there who can.
I am going to see Taticek and Campbell play in the next couple of weeks, and also Lukas Krajicek who is back in junior. Those guys are going to be NHL players, and when you start plugging those in over a period of five years, plugging them into what we already have, it looks pretty good.
Hockey’s Future: Does it concern you and affect your drafting strategy when you have a goalie like Luongo, and than you look at our past goalie prospects like Alexander Auld and Billy Thompson, who for one reason or another, were moved on to other teams. I like to call it the “Luongo Effect” where sometimes a young goalie doesn’t want to be here since he won’t be a #1 goalie for awhile. With that problem, does this change your drafting strategy?
Rick Dudley: Well if we weren’t first this year in the draft, and we had the #2 pick and didn’t have Luongo? Than yes, it would have affected our drafting strategy, because then we would have taken a real hard look at drafting Lehtonen. We would have had to seriously consider that had we not had Luongo.
If we didn’t have Luongo, than you would say “Well, it is easy”. This was a very close draft in terms of what we perceived to be the #1, 2, and 3 picks. What we would have, at that point in time, we would have had to think about. Now we didn’t have to think about it, because we have a 23-year old goaltender who is already a better asset than anybody could be in the draft. So we didn’t need to look at a goaltender that high.
We will still look to keep our options, and now we have Jani Hurme who is 27, so it makes it even more deep at the top. But we still have to improve our depth in goal, and we did that. We drafted a goaltender (Mikko Vuorio, 196th overall) this year that we think eventually has a chance to play and we will continue to draft those guys, but we don’t have to do it with the first pick.
Hockey’s Future: So it seems to be more favoring towards the European players in the later rounds, and you can be more patient?
Rick Dudley: It favors the Europeans because of the way the CBA is structured. You don’t have to make a decision immediately, and you can wait to see how the development and when it comes to that particular position of goaltender, the development might not happen until he is 25 or 26, and than all of a sudden they blossom onto the scene.
A North American like Billy Thompson, we had to sign him for what he wanted or he can become a unrestricted free agent, so that is a difficult proposition especially when you are looking at goaltending not being a guaranteed thing by any stretch of the imagination. So yes, in the later rounds it definitely does favor the European goaltenders.
Hockey’s Future: Talking about young leadership, it usually is a little bit harder for a young player to step up leadership wise at the NHL level. But in the farm system or in training camp, have you seen any players that have been willing to step up to be a leader?
Rick Dudley: You see that. Vocally I don’t know if there is yet, but in the early stage of their career, I think some of the kids have shown a willingness to do it on the ice. Certainly Mezei has been a physical presence for us. Bouwmeester has certainly in a couple of games this year has taken charge of things and helped getting the puck out of the zone and plays like a veteran. I think eventually Lukas Krajicek, a very mature young man, can become a leader. I think he will eventually become a leader because he is the type of focused kid that will.
Hockey’s Future: In your opinion, can leadership be tought, or is it just something that someone has?
Rick Dudley: Well I think it can be acquired. I think there is a certain amount of it that is already there. Mark Messier, I played with him in his first year as a pro, and Mark Messier never said two words to the entire team. He just went along with the flow. I think he learned from the veterans on that team, and from subsequent teams on how to be a leader, but it was always inside him.
Hockey’s Future: Do you think having too many young players on a team can be a hindrance for their development in any way, maybe where in game situations they aren’t willing to take risks, can this be a hindrance for them to be in the NHL?
Rick Dudley: It can be difficult for them. The veterans that you have need to recognize situations that kids are losing some of the confidence they may have, and they have to take them aside and say, “8 years ago, I was in the situation you are going through. Trust me kid, you will come out of it. It is not an on-going process, but it is a short-term thing you are going through, and you will come out of it.”
That’s why the veterans are so very important. That is why when I brought Dave Andreychuk to Tampa last year, that is exactly why he was brought in, and Dave understands all of that. We have got that in Stephane Matteau and Dimitry Yushkevich.
Hockey’s Future: Looking at the defensive depth in Florida, there are a lot of young mobile defenseman. Are you going to be very adamant that the NHL sticks with the obstruction rules, since it can favor the Panthers over the long term?
Rick Dudley: Well, am I going to encourage it? Sure. I don’t think I will be adamant, because I don’t think I will tell Gary Bettman what to do. I believe Gary Bettman wants it to happen, I think he wants it to continue, I think he wants our game to improve, and that is why he is taking such an active interest in it.
I think all the people, Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about what is best for the game. I think this strategy is best for the game, I think it will open it up for the better players, I think speed will be more important than ever.
I think eventually here there will be a lot of contact, because you won’t be able to hold people off on the forecheck and it should be engaging for the fans. The fans will love it, there should be a lot more turnovers.
Hockey’s Future: There are a few teams that will be hurt by this rule, and so you definitely see the Panthers as being one of the teams that will benefit by this rule?
Rick Dudley: You would certainly hope so. One thing you have to think about is the people we have on defense. You look at a Bouwmeester, a Mezei, and those people that can really skate, and it is a benefit to them. You are a better defenseman now than a slower footed defenseman if you can skate.
I look down on the farm, and I see a guy like Novak and I look in junior, and I see a guy like Krajicek. They are the prototypical players for these rules.
Coming tommorow: A look at the Panther prospects who made the cut and the 2002-2003 Season Preview.