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Rambler's Top100

1 2008 . 
Ilya Kovalchuk says he's not trying to get out of Atlanta // Sporting News 

ATLANTA--He looks skinnier -- that much is different about Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Atlanta Thrashers franchise forward smiles when someone notices he's lost some weight--seriously, who doesn't like to have that pointed out?

"I'm 225, like usual," the Russian said, but he can't help adding that there's "a little bit more muscle."

For Kovalchuk, that's really all that's different about this training camp in Atlanta.

Yes, there's been roster turnover from the team that finished 28th in the NHL last season. There's even a new head coach in John Anderson.

But that's nothing new for Kovalchuk. Anderson is his fourth NHL head coach, following Curt Fraser, Bob Hartley and Don Waddell. Kovalchuk is 25 years old.

He's also played with more centers than we can count. Change. Roster turnover. It's a yearly ritual for Kovalchuk.

And so the perception grows that Kovalchuk wants out of Atlanta, that he's counting the days until he's a free agent in July 2010.

Could you blame him? Put the flashy Russian in New York or Toronto and he's a household name. He was one of only three players to reach 50 goals last season. The other two: Jarome Iginla and Alex Ovechkin. It was his fourth consecutive season of 40 or more goals.

When the Thrashers battled back to .500 last season after a horrible start, it was Kovalchuk who carried them on his back. There was even talk of a Hart Trophy. But then Marian Hossa was traded. A new coach was never hired to replace the fired Hartley and Kovalchuk's heroics faded.

You could understand why he'd want out.

But he doesn't. He's made it clear he'd rather try to build a winner in Atlanta during the final two seasons of his current contract. Thrashers G.M. Don Waddell, who drafted Kovalchuk No. 1 overall in 2001, knows that if Kovalchuk really wanted out of Atlanta as desperately as some believe, he'd be the first to know.

That hasn't happened.

"I've had lots of talks with his agent this summer. They could have made my life miserable this summer. They didn't do that. They were very positive," Waddell told Sporting News. "They could have requested a trade or something like that, but they never did that. Again, Kovy's matured, I think at the end of the day, when you're with a franchise, he knows he can be the difference-maker here unlike if he goes to an established team."

But surely he has considered demanding a trade. This team hasn't won a playoff game in its history and, contrary to his reputation as a selfish player, Kovalchuk desperately wants to win.

He insists a trade request has never creeped into his head.

"No, not really. I like everything here," Kovalchuk said. "It's a great city, my family loves it here. I feel very comfortable in the locker room and with management, trainers, everybody. I don't have any problems. If we're going to play well, I want to stay here. I want to win the Cup and bring it here because I was drafted by this team."

It's a different situation, he explains, than that of former teammate Hossa, who made headlines when he passed on huge money to join the Detroit Red Wings for one season so he can try to win the Stanley Cup.

Before trading him to Pittsburgh, the Thrashers tried desperately to sign Hossa but the forward was determined to test the free-agent market. After being drafted by Ottawa, shipped to Atlanta and shipped to Pittsburgh, Hossa finally had a chance to control his destiny.

Kovalchuk understands why his former teammate did what he did. He's just not ready to do the same. He has no envy that Hossa escaped Atlanta and is in Hockeytown, where he's playing for the odds-on favorite to win it all.

For one thing, he knows there's no guarantee in hockey.

"You never know who is going to win the Stanley Cup. I'm never going to pick the one team before the season starts. (Detroit) has a good team, but the NHL is a different world. You can't predict who is going to win and who is going to lose," Kovalchuk said. "I think it's more fun when you go through everything and finally you get on top of the mountain. That's tough to do; it's not easy."

His ambitions are commendable, but when you read between the lines, he leaves himself an out.

If we're going to play well, he said, I want to stay.

The Thrashers did well to add veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider and forward Jason Williams could be in for a nice season skating with Kovalchuk.

But there's nothing on the roster that suggests this team can make a dramatic leap over other Southeast Division teams to get in the playoffs.

That rests on Anderson, the new coach. Kovalchuk said he's excited to play for the former Chicago Wolves coach. Kovalchuk pointed out he's playing for an offensive-minded coach for the first time in his career, something that suits his game perfectly.

How Anderson co-exists with Kovalchuk could ultimately decide who is still in Atlanta when Kovalchuk's contract runs out after next season.

Anderson said last week that he hasn't sat down for an extended meeting with Kovalchuk because he's afraid the forward will just tell him what he wants to hear.

They haven't built that trust yet.

But Anderson is confident it'll come. Until then, Anderson wants to see Kovalchuk open up more with teammates. He wants him to share his desire to win with this team a little bit more.

"I don't want to see gruffness from him, but I want to see, 'OK boys, here's my back. Jump on.' I think he wants that and tries to do it. But sometimes less is more, meaning he goes out on the ice and tries to do everything himself," Anderson said. "He has to show he wants it and allow the team to develop around him."

Anderson knows Kovalchuk is prone to long shifts that aren't necessarily productive as they drag on. He doesn't see that as selfish, just a guy trying to make a play. But he understands that not everybody sees it that way. Not even teammates.

"We want him to buy into the team thing, without hurting his individual abilities," Anderson said.

And that, says former Islanders G.M. and coach Mike Milbury, is the key to the Thrashers and Kovalchuk finding success under Anderson.

During a conference call Wednesday, Milbury agreed that Kovlachuk trusting Anderson as a head coach is crucial in Atlanta.

"You have a wild and crazy guy with tons of talent who hasn't always bought into the system," said Milbury, who calls games for NBC. "By Christmastime, you'll know if that's a happy marriage or not. With Kovalchuk, now is the time to find out"

And if it doesn't work out by Christmas

"It might be an ideal time to take that chip and turn that chip into something else," Milbury said.

That would mean another franchise forward, like Hossa last season, shipped out of Atlanta near the trade deadline. Right now, that's not what Kovalchuk wants.

He doesn't have any desire to follow Hossa's path.

"(Hossa) is a great player who is going to play with great players," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully we're going play him in the finals."

And with that, he smiled.

Craig Custance is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at ccustance@sportingnews.com. 

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