It's not easy to replace the left wing who for eight seasons starred as the face of the franchise. But if the first five games are any indication, then the Thrashers are off to the right start.
After trading Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils along with defenseman Anssi Salmela and a second-round pick for defenseman Johnny Oduya, winger Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and the Devils' 2010 first- and second-round picks, the Thrashers earned six points (2-1-2) while playing four games on the road, pulling within two points of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot at the Olympic break. They hold three games in hand on eighth-place Montreal and play 14 of their remaining 22 games at Philips Arena.
The keys in that short interim were that two lines produced and that the goaltending held strong enough to earn points. After trading Kovalchuk, Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell might have done well to hand out mirrors for the remaining Thrashers to get a better look at whom they will need to rely upon.
"I think when we had Kovy, I don't want to say we relied on him, but when he was going, we were going," said forward Jim Slater, the second-longest tenured Thrasher who is in his fifth season with the team. "Maybe we relied too much. We have to pick it up -- all of us, not one player.
Veteran Johan Hedberg, who somewhat by surprise is turning into the Thrashers' de facto No. 1 goalie, agreed with the sentiment that the team relied too much on its former superstar.
"Yeah, Kovy takes up a lot of minutes and he plays key situations," said Hedberg whose .916 save percentage ranks 15th in the NHL on a team that allows the second-most shots per game. "The team would pretty much go where he was going. He's such a great player, but more guys get a chance to play bigger minutes and elevate their game."
Asked what his team learned from its first few games without Kovalchuk, coach John Anderson paused and took a breath.
"Well, I think first of all we grew as a team," he said. "We had to pull together a little bit harder. I think our power play suffered a bit at the start, but I think it's getting better. I just think that what we learned is that hockey is more than a one-man game. I think you need 20 guys all going in the right direction and as much as we miss his talent I think it might be better for us overall as a team as everyone's got to pull a little bit harder.
"When you have that type of player you tend to think, 'Oh, Kovy's going to do it tonight.' And guess what? He's not going to do it tonight because he's not here anymore. But, again, it makes you stronger as a team. More -- I don't like to use the word -- more responsible as an individual for the team."
Among those who have assumed more responsibility are two rookies: Bergfors, 22, and Evander Kane, the fourth pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. Bergfors had gone scoreless in his final 17 games with the Devils, but since joining Atlanta has netted 3 goals, including two game-winners, and an assist to give him 16 goals on the season.
Bergfors has shown instant chemistry playing on Atlanta's top line with Nik Antropov and Bryan Little, as the trio has combined for 16 points in five games. Bergfors led the Devils with 8 power-play goals, but the Thrashers only had two practices with him before the break.
"We went to do it in practice one day and he struggled with the things we want to do as a team and understanding it," Anderson said. "So I want to incorporate him more, but I want to make sure I don't set him up for failure. So he knows exactly what he's supposed to do."
The other line that's clicking is the team's third, composed of Colby Armstrong, Kane and Slater, a former first-round pick who was a healthy scratch 21 times through Dec. 28 but appears at last to be playing to his potential. They have 4 goals and 3 assists in the last five games.
Anderson said he thought Kane hit a wall in December, but has rebounded as of late. Kane's 14 goals rank fifth among rookies (two spots behind Bergfors) and he has accomplished that, again, without the benefit of much power play time. He has only 14:17 on the season (an average of 14 seconds per game).
But someone will have to fill the enormous void left by Kovalchuk, whose 5:42 per game on the power play leads the NHL by nearly 30 seconds more than any other player.
"Obviously, you can't replace a guy with his talent, but we're carrying on and still pushing for a playoff spot," Kane said of Kovalchuk. "We're a hard-working team that still plays for each other. I think we have enough skill to put the puck in the net, so I'm really excited about the last bit of the season here and making a push for the playoffs."