Rambler's Top100

9 2008 . 
Ilya Kovalchuk ready to win with Thrashers // The Atlanta Journal-Consitution

NHLs No. 2 goal scorer last season optimistic about this seasons team


Ilya Kovalchuk has a wife, a 3-year-old daughter and a job that pays him $7.5 million a year.

He summers in St. Tropez on the French Riviera.

Some days he drives to work in a Mercedes Benz S65 AMG, with a twin turbo 12-cylinder engine and the luxury youd expect in a car that sells for close to $200,000. Other days he drives a Bentley.

Life is good when youre the NHLs No. 2 goal scorer.

But it still has its frustrations. Kovalchuks biggest: a lack of winning.

The Thrashers longest-tenured player enters his seventh season tonight having never experienced the joy of winning a playoff game. Only twice have the Thrashers finished the season with a winning record, and the 2007-08 team wound up third-worst in the NHL.

For me, it doesnt matter how many goals I score. Its all about team, Kovalchuk said. I want to make the playoffs because for seven years I have played only four playoff games and I didnt win any. We didnt win any. Its tough.

Kovalchuk says he sees reason for optimism. He has a new coach and nine teammates who werent Thrashers when the final horn sounded on the 34-40-8 unpleasantness that was Atlanta hockey and Kovalchuks workplace last season.

There were a lot of things wrong with that team, a lot of problems that needed fixing. But one of the most serious was that the teams approach to scoring goals became, essentially, let Kovalchuk do it.

He scored 52. Only one of his teammates scored more than 20, and that player, Marian Hossa, was traded in February.

Kovalchuk got so little offensive help that when he didnt score the team was more than twice as likely to lose. The Thrashers were 23-11-4 when Kovalchuk scored at least one goal, 11-29-4 when he didnt.

Changing that may be job one for new coach John Anderson, for Kovalchuks teammates and even for Kovalchuk himself.

As the Thrashers open a new season tonight, there is one pressing question: Just who will score goals besides Kovalchuk?

Help from the defense

Anderson knows how to win and how to create offense. His Chicago Wolves led the AHL last season with 300 goals en route to the league championship, his fifth title in 13 seasons as a minor-league head coach.

Andersons system makes room at the top for special players; Jason Krog and Brett Sterling were two of the AHLs top three goal scorers last season. But Andersons system also gets everybody involved. Defensemen are not only encouraged but expected to join the rush. Three Chicago defensemen scored 14 or more goals last season. None of the Thrashers defensemen did.

Our D have the green light, Anderson said, and he made it clear that going forward isnt optional. Heres what he told top defensive pair Niclas Havelid and Tobias Enstrom before one exhibition game: I want to see one time that you take the puck from one end [of the ice] all the way to the other.

It helps to have defensemen who can take advantage of that style, and Anderson does. The four new defensemen all have an offensive outlook.

Mathieu Schneider scored a career-high 21 goals three years ago for Detroit and had a dozen in just 65 games last season for Anaheim. Hes 39, but his teammates and coach say hes still at the top of his game.

Free agent signee Ron Hainsey tied for sixth among NHL defensemen last season with eight power-play goals for Columbus.

First-round draft choice Zach Bogosian led his junior team in scoring in 2007-08.

Nathan Oystrick scored 15 goals playing for Anderson in Chicago.

Even when they arent the ones putting the puck in the net, the defensemen will be key to the teams goal scoring.

Every good offensive play, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said, starts in your own zone with that first pass.

New additions

The theory that you can revamp an offense by adding defensemen and setting them loose to join the rush could meet a stiff test. There is no obvious replacement for Hossa, who had 26 goals in 60 games before the trade to Pittsburgh. None of the newcomers scored more than 13 NHL goals last season.

The most notable new forward is Jason Williams, who will play the right wing opposite Kovalchuk on the No. 1 line. Williams scored 21 goals for Detroit three seasons ago but hasnt had a similarly productive season before or since. He was excellent last season when he was on the ice for Chicago but missed 39 NHL games due to injury, 35 of them after surgery for a sports hernia.

Hes 28, on a one-year contract and as eager to show what he can do as the Thrashers are to find another goal scorer.

Weve got very good chemistry already, and he is a great person, Kovalchuk said. Its good to play not just with good hockey players but with good people, too.

The other forward acquisitions are likely to have lesser impacts on the offense. Free-agent signee Marty Reasoner is a penalty-killing center who has never scored more than 11 goals in any of his nine NHL seasons. If you see free-agent signee Mike Hoffmans fists in the air, theyre less likely to be celebrating a goal than punching an opponent.

The next Hossa?

Anderson says the Thrashers can succeed without finding another Hossa, if multiple players chip in with 20- to 25-goal seasons and if the defensemen score. Hes looking for breakthrough seasons from Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong, who came from Pittsburgh in the Hossa deal. Hes also counting on more goals from veteran center Todd White, who had back-to-back 20-or-more-goal seasons for Ottawa in 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Kovalchuk welcomes scoring from anyone in a Thrashers sweater.

We need to play for each other, he said. Its not a big deal whos scoring. Its about getting two points [in the standings] each night.

Kovalchuk said hes willing to do whatever Anderson needs him to do to help the team win. One change will come on the power play, where Kovalchuk will now play down low at times.

He passes very well, Anderson said. People dont know this about Ilya. Hes a very good passer of the puck, with good eyesight. We can add more goals not just from his stick but certainly from his stick to somebody elses stick.

Kovalchuk has two seasons left on his contract. The Thrashers cant start negotiating an extension with him until July 1, 2009. The first overall pick of the 2001 draft has never played for another NHL organization, but if he chooses he can be a free agent in 2010.

Kovalchuk isnt ready to talk about what the Thrashers need to do to keep his Bentley or his Benz parked in the team lot.

Two years is a long time, he said. Theres a lot of work in front of me. I never think up front. I just want to think about the Thrashers. I love it here. I love the city. Im here.

Kovalchuk had a conversation with the referee Saturday after getting called for diving.

I told him I never dive, Kovalchuk said. Ive never done it before, and I never did it. I just lost my balance. But hes the ref, and its his call.

I know him. He seems like a good guy.

Kovalchuk has no goals through two games, but he has two assists and his team has three points in the standings.

For me, its not the best games, but the team is doing well, he said. Were playing together. Everybody, were battling. We got three points out of four. Its better than last year.

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