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Ilya Kovalchuk ready to win with Thrashers // The Atlanta Journal-Consitution
NHL’s No. 2 goal scorer last season optimistic about this season’s team
By MIKE KNOBLER
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 you’d expect in a car that sells for close to $200,000. Other days he drives a Bentley.
Life is good when you’re the NHL’s No. 2 goal scorer.
But it still has its frustrations. Kovalchuk’s 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 doesn’t matter how many goals I score. It’s all about team,” Kovalchuk said. “I want to make the playoffs because for seven years I have played only four playoff games and I didn’t win any. We didn’t win any. It’s tough.”
Kovalchuk says he sees reason for optimism. He has a new coach and nine teammates who weren’t Thrashers when the final horn sounded on the 34-40-8 unpleasantness that was Atlanta hockey — and Kovalchuk’s 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 team’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t.
Changing that may be job one for new coach John Anderson, for Kovalchuk’s 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.
Anderson’s system makes room at the top for special players; Jason Krog and Brett Sterling were two of the AHL’s top three goal scorers last season. But Anderson’s 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 isn’t optional. Here’s 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. He’s 39, but his teammates and coach say he’s 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 aren’t the ones putting the puck in the net, the defensemen will be key to the team’s goal scoring.
“Every good offensive play,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said, “starts in your own zone with that first pass.”
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 hasn’t 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.
He’s 28, on a one-year contract and as eager to show what he can do as the Thrashers are to find another goal scorer.
“We’ve got very good chemistry already, and he is a great person,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s 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 Hoffman’s fists in the air, they’re 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. He’s looking for breakthrough seasons from Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong, who came from Pittsburgh in the Hossa deal. He’s 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. “It’s not a big deal who’s scoring. It’s about getting two points [in the standings] each night.”
Kovalchuk said he’s 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 don’t know this about Ilya. He’s 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 else’s stick.”
Kovalchuk has two seasons left on his contract. The Thrashers can’t 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 isn’t 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. “There’s 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. I’m here.”
Kovalchuk had a conversation with the referee Saturday after getting called for diving.
“I told him I never dive,” Kovalchuk said. “I’ve never done it before, and I never did it. I just lost my balance. But he’s the ref, and it’s 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, it’s not the best games, but the team is doing well,” he said. “We’re playing together. Everybody, we’re battling. We got three points out of four. It’s better than last year.”