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Thrashers enter season as more competitive team

Monday, 09.14.2009 / 3:00 AM / 2009-2010 Season Preview

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

It appears Atlanta Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk has received his wish.

Now, Thrashers management is hoping to get theirs by having Kovalchuk agree to a contract extension prior to the start of the season.

"He's back in Atlanta and we've had great conversations," Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell told NHL.com. "While Ilya was getting ready for Olympic camp in Russia, we decided to table things until he came back to North America. I'm optimistic because these negotiations are different than those we had with Marian Hossa (in 2008). We made an offer and Ilya's camp countered, so at least there's been discussion from both sides."

While negotiations continue to make certain their pending unrestricted free agent remains in Atlanta, few would argue the strides made by Waddell this offseason in an attempt to keep him there.

The addition of a top-six forward in Nik Antropov and top-six defenseman in Pavel Kubina will only help. Antropov actually played with Kovalchuk in Russia during the NHL work stoppage and the duo seemed to have good chemistry working the same line. There's no reason to believe the same scenario can't be duplicated in Atlanta in 2009-10.

"When I spoke with Ilya at the end of last season, he told me how pleased he was with the moves we made last year and the way we finished," Waddell said. "But we needed to add some size and skill to our team and to add a guy like Antropov, who will play with Ilya, and adding Pavel Kubina was big. The bottom line, we added two players that we feel will help us win. In the end, that helps us with Ilya."

There's no denying the fact that as Kovalchuk goes, so does the Atlanta offense. He finished fourth in the League with 43 goals and sixth with 91 points in 2008-09. In fact, only Washington's Alex Ovechkin scored more goals (25) than Kovalchuk (23) following the All-Star break.

While it's still too early to predict line combinations, it's possible Antropov could work the top line with Kovalchuk and center Todd White. If coach John Anderson prefers to spread the wealth, the 6-foot-6 Antropov could work the second line with wing Slava Kozlov and center Rich Peverley. Kovalchuk would then be reunited with his old buddies from last season in White and Bryan Little.

In all, the Thrashers produced five players that scored 20 or more goals last season in Kozlov (26), White (22), Colby Armstrong (22), Kovalchuk (43) and Little (31). The addition of Antropov and first-round draft pick Evander Kane will only help boost the numbers for the ninth-highest scoring offense in the League in 2008-09. White, Little and Peverley, who was claimed off waivers from Nashville last January, each established career highs in goals, assists and points last season.

In addition to Antropov, the Thrashers acquired forwards Anthony Stewart and Tim Stapleton. Stewart could be effective in a third or fourth-line role, offering additional size and strength along the boards.

Stapleton's rights were traded to Atlanta, along with Kubina, for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart in July. He played in just four games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season but appeared in 70 contests with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, leading the team in points, goals and assists.

Chris Thorburn, Marty Reasoner, Eric Boulton and Jim Slater, who each played in 60 or more games last season, also contributed on offense and will be looked upon for even more production in 2009-10. Angelo Esposito, who is a month ahead of schedule after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery last February, could earn some time with the big club this season. Additionally, the Thrashers have also invited forward Dan Fritsche to training camp.

Waddell was determined to make his team bigger and tougher in its own end and he did just that with the acquisition of Kubina. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound defenseman was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and has averaged at least 21:00 of ice time per game in each of his 10 full NHL seasons.

"Obviously, Kubina is a player we're very familiar with," Waddell said. "He's played in All-Star games and the Olympics. With Kubina here, we now feel we have a legitimate top four on defense with (Ron) Hainsey, Kubina, (Zach) Bogosian and (Tobias) Enstrom. We really felt defense was an area we wanted to upgrade and we believe we did that."

Enstrom led the club in ice time per game at 23:31. Hainsey, who finished with 6 goals and 39 points in 81 games and was second behind Enstrom in average ice time (22:22), was thrilled with the additions.

"We got a guy (Antropov) who scored 28 last year and Kubina has been a 40-point guy on defense for the last two years," he said. "We need good players down there and they fit the bill. They'll come right into our mix and hopefully do the same things for us that they had been doing with their previous teams. That would certainly benefit us."

Anssi Salmela, who recorded 6 points in 26 NHL games last season with New Jersey and Atlanta, will likely play a bigger role along the blue line this season. Prior to his North American career, the Nokia, Finland native spent four seasons in the Finnish Elite League, posting 36 goals and 77 points in 208 games with Tappara Tampere and Lahti. He was originally signed by the Devils as a free agent in May 2008.

Three other players to watch on the back end are Noah Welch, who was signed by Waddell in July; Boris Valabik, who appeared in 50 games with Atlanta last season, and Nathan Oystrick, who recorded 4 goals and 12 points in 53 games as a rookie in 2008-09. Veteran defenseman Mark Popovic was also invited to the team's training camp.

Kari Lehtonen is one of the League's finer goalies -- when healthy. And therein is the sticking point when it comes to the team's first draft pick (second overall) from 2002. Since 2005, Lehtonen has been sidelined with some form of injury during the regular season. In 2008-09, he missed 27 games with back and upper-body issues.

The news didn't get any better this offseason when Lehtonen needed back surgery in July. According to Waddell, his starter will likely miss the first few days of training camp, but is slated to return before the season opener.

The backups include Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec, who went 18-20-2 with a 2.58 GAA and .914 save percentage with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago. Waddell also signed free-agent goalie Drew MacIntyre in July and will give veteran Manny Legace a shot to make the team in training camp.

"Our goaltending situation, because of injuries, has been a concern of ours and we all know if you don't have goaltending, even with the best team in front of him, you can't win games," Waddell said. "We want to make this position the strongest position and wanted to add as many guys to compete for the job. That's why we're bringing Legace in for a tryout. We'll keep the guys that give us the best chance to win."

Still, Waddell realizes the importance of having Lehtonen between the pipes, which is why he re-signed the 25-year-old goalie July 15. The Finn posted a 19-22-3 mark with a 3.06 goals-against average and .911 save percentage with three shutouts in 46 games last season. He tied a team-record with a five-game winning streak from March 6-16, sporting a 1.18 GAA, .966 save percentage and two shutouts in that span.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com

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