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Rambler's Top100

18 2008 . 
Is Kovalchuk ready to lead? // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By MIKE KNOBLER

You see Ilya Kovalchuks face on the schedule card, his talent on the ice, his No. 17 jerseys on the backs of Thrashers fans, his 52 goals in two of the past three seasons, and you ask: Why isnt this man captain?

Kovys a great candidate, coach John Anderson said, because hes been with the organization [since 2001, longer than any other player]. I think hes got another couple of years on his contract [through the 2009-10 season], hopefully many more. Thats what you want to identify the Atlanta Thrashers with, Kovalchuk, 17 with a C on his sweater. That would be a great thing.

"But I dont think were at that stage yet.

Kovalchuk is one of five alternate captains; the Thrashers have no captain.

Two things hold Kovalchuk back. On the ice, hes still learning when to make the safe play that will help the team rather than trying to do too much at the risk of a negative result. Instead of realizing hes cornered and chipping the puck into the zone, hell go for a great play that could result in a turnover and an odd-man rush the other way.

Off the ice, he doesnt embrace the role of being the face of the team. I never think about it. I just play, Kovalchuk said. Im not here to be the franchises face or anything. I just try to play and be the best for my team, try to win every night.

That modesty might keep him from being a commanding locker room presence. For example, when the doors open to reporters within five minutes after a game, Kovalchuk often is among those who are gone. The players who remain end up speaking for the team. (Kovalchuk will return if a reporter makes a request for him through a team publicist.)

Things reportedly arent different when only his teammates are around; Kovalchuk isnt the type to make speeches.

I dont want to push him over the edge with it, but as a team leader you have to have that ability to step out and say, OK, here we are, and what is it that I need to do, and what is it that I need to say and know how to say it, Anderson said.

To some extent, Kovalchuks game speaks for him.

Kovys the rare player, linemate Erik Christensen said. You dont see [many other] wingers who are leaders of a team, he added, putting Kovalchuk in the company of longtime Flames captain Jarome Iginla.

Kovalchuk isnt selfish. He ranks second on the team with 10 assists, including a backhanded pass Sunday night that set up Christensens first goal of the season.

But Anderson wants Kovalchuk to become more than an offensive machine. He wants to see a player who does the little things that help the team win but that many people dont notice.

Anderson sees him do those things sometimes, such as when Kovalchuk blocked a shot near the end of a one-goal victory, and when Kovalchuk decided against shooting at an empty net in the closing seconds and instead dumped the puck into a safe area short of the goal line to kill time without risking an icing call.

I want to see team leadership like that, Anderson said. Maybe thats turning into captain material. I dont know. Thats certainly a step in the right direction.

Once he does the right things all the time, youre going to see that Yzerman, the Gretzky-ish, whatever you want to call it, the Lemieux-type things, the complete player. Were still seeing a work in progress here. Im excited, because hes starting to do these things.

Hes doing some things I never thought hed do.

Anderson, 51, and Kovalchuk, 25, both say theyre building their relationship and becoming closer. Anderson says he wants two-way communication and, Were kind of getting to the stage that hes talking to me.

Kovalchuk resists any suggestion he merits or wants special treatment or a word in how things are done.

Im the player. Hes the coach. So whatever he asks me to do, I do, he said. It doesnt matter how I see the game. Nobody cares how I see the game. Its about how he sees the game and what he wants.

If every player is going to play like [the player] sees the game, were going to be in the WHL or night hockey league.

One thing neither Anderson nor Kovalchuk expresses concern about is Kovalchuks scoring. His six goals through 17 games project to a 29-goal season, the lowest total since his rookie season. But thats just a projection, and things change.

Its a long season, Kovalchuk said. Talk to me about it after the season.

Hell hit a hot streak, Anderson said. Its honestly not concerning me.

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