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Thrashers' Kovalchuk is ready for his close-up

Tuesday, 10.20.2009 / 10:14 AM / Player Profiles

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Ilya Kovalchuk is a huge fan of Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk and was glad to see Evgeni Malkin's success in Pittsburgh.

"I watched the seventh game (of the Stanley Cup Final) and it was nice (to see Malkin) win Conn Smythe," Kovalchuk told NHL.com. "He really deserved it. I knew him from a really young age and he always was the main player, but he's really grown with all those good players around him and he and (Sidney) Crosby just dominated the whole playoffs, especially against Carolina. It was fun to watch and I was really happy for him."

Kovalchuk's Russian comrades all have enjoyed recent playoff success, something that remains fleeting to the Atlanta Thrashers' captain. Kovalchuk wants to join the party and he has the talent to make some noise if the Thrashers can crash the postseason party.

Since joining the NHL in 2001-02, Kovalchuk is the only player to score at least 40 goals in each of the last five seasons. His total of 112 is the most of any player. That includes the 7 goals in five games this season.

"I always hated to play against him, to be honest, but he's one of the best forwards in the League, that's for sure," former Maple Leaf and current Thrashers defenseman Pavel Kubina told NHL.com.

"First off, Ovi and Malkin play with other great players and when Kovy came in, this was really a new team that was just starting, but he also produced good hockey by himself," longtime teammate Slava Kozlov said. "He could be quiet whole game and then score a hat trick in third period. He's so dynamic and I think, this year, with the addition of (Nik) Antropov, he has more help from other players and that'll put him in a very good position. He'll get lots of goals and lots of points, but the most important thing, he's helping the team win."

The fact is, Kovalchuk has played in just four playoff games over his seven seasons in the League. And while Ovechkin has dazzled with 15 goals and 30 points in 21 career postseason games and Malkin has connected for 24 goals and 62 points in 49 playoff contests, "Kovy" just hasn't had enough opportunities to flash his incredible skill set on the NHL's grandest stage.

"I don't think he's as physical as Ovi because Ilya's more dynamic around the front of the net where Ovi is more blast-it-from-a-little-ways-out," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "Kovy likes to get in tighter but, other than that, all the Russians are such tremendous players in their own right.

"The one thing I think the Russians are teaching are skills and since ice time is so expensive over here, it's easier for the coaches to teach systems as opposed to skills, and I think the Russians got it right," Anderson continued. "They're teaching skills and letting them play and I think we need to get back to some of that old school stuff."

"If you watch him in practice, he's very selective with his shots," Kozlov said. "His wrist shot is very quick, so the goalie doesn't have a chance. When he's on a breakaway, he uses that wrist shot so effectively -- between the legs or high glove; it's so powerful."

Kovalchuk doesn't like comparisons, but admits he never wants to be considered one dimensional.

"Everybody is different and some guys read the play differently and if I get a great chance to shoot, I'll always try to shoot. But if my partner is in better position, sometimes you have to slide it to him," Kovalchuk said. "Ovi's not just a great shooter, he's a great overall player, and the same goes for Malkin and Datsyuk. They all can score, they all can make great plays and they can play great defensively when it's needed. That's where we all want to be. We don't want to call ourselves a sniper or strictly a defensive player, we all want to be known as good overall players."

Kovalchuk has certainly lived up to the organization's expectations after being named captain last Jan. 11, producing 29 goals and 47 points over his final 36 games of 2008-09.

"It's experience and not just the fact I got the 'C,'" Kovalchuk said. "The older you get, you know how much harder you have to work. But the 'C' was a big honor, first of all, but with it comes responsibility. We have a lot of young guys, great guys, who probably look up to you so you have to show them how you prepare before, during and after games. You can't do anything stupid because they may say if he's doing that, why can't we?"

While it may seem that being captain suddenly transformed Kovalchuk into an even greater player, Anderson doesn't believe so. He's witnessed Kovalchuk's high-level of intensity since taking over as head coach from the start of last season.

"Ilya was a slow starter in year's past and didn't pick it up until December," Anderson said. "I think the Olympic training camp he had before he came over here really gave him a boost. He was flying right from Day 1 of training camp and his whole attitude was really a bright spot for us so maybe that was the reason for his tremendous start this year. If it was the captaincy, well, he's still the captain and he can take it from here."

Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell continues to work the phones with Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk's agent, to get his best player signed to a long-term deal. It has been reported by numerous outlets that Kovalchuk is weighing his options between staying in Atlanta or playing in Russia.

"You really can't control it," Waddell told Sporting News Today. "If you're competing against other NHL teams, it's one thing. If you're competing against another country paying whatever -- you can't. If his decision is to go play in Russia, I don't think we can do anything. There's only so much money you can pay."

Said Kovalchuk: "I got one year left and my agent and Don talk a lot. I just want to focus on hockey right now so when a decision is going to be done, it'll be done."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com



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