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Expect Kovalchuk to stay with Thrashers

by Larry Wigge
Forget the rumblings that were making there way around NHL rinks last week that Russian teams were preparing to make Atlanta Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk their big catch for next season.

There's no denying that the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder from Tver, Russia, would lend legitimacy to the Kontinental Hockey League following seasons in which he has scored 41, 52, 42, 52 and 43 goals. But the star winger is showing real signs of how committed he is to Atlanta. And sources have told me that Kovalchuk could have a new contract with the Thrashers no later than mid-November.

"I've never played for any other team and I feel at home in Atlanta," Kovalchuk told me after a recent game in St. Louis. "(Thrashers GM) Don Waddell and my agent are talking and I'm feeling good about myself and the team."

After a little prodding about how the Thrashers have always talked about him as the face of the franchise and how they tried to show how highly they regard him by naming him captain last season, Kovalchuk smiled when I said it seemed he and the Thrashers were on better terms than Marian Hossa was before the team wound up dealing him to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline in 2008.

"I don't feel the way Marian did. He didn't think management was doing enough to make us a winner," Kovalchuk added. "I think they did a lot of good things during the offseason. Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina were good free-agent signings. Rich Peverley was another good pickup late last season. And when I look around and see how Bryan Little, Todd White, Colby Armstrong and Toby Enstrom have developed and how good draft choices like Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane have played, I feel this is the best team we've ever had here."

Waddell certainly wants to avoid the situation he faced two seasons ago with Hossa.

"We've had good dialogue," Waddell said. "I feel very confident that at some point, we will get a contract done."

With his fast start this season, Kovalchuk is clearly showing others, like me, the commitment he is making back to the team on and off the ice.

No. 1 with a bullet -- New York Islanders coach Scott Gordon gushes over the maturity of No. 1 pick John Tavares, who had 7 points in his first six NHL games.

But after Tavares scored one of the Isles' shootout goals in a 4-3 triumph against Carolina on Oct. 21, Gordon couldn't help himself in fully explaining his pleasure with John's two-way play.

"There are no shortcuts to his assignments on defense at the expense of his points," Gordon said. "There's no hesitancy on my part to put him on the ice in any situation."

You may recall it took Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, last season's first pick, eight games to get his first point. Yes, Tavares is well ahead of the learning curve on Long Island.

A big Mac clone? -- Yes, it's been five years now that Dion Phaneuf has been dazzling folks around the NHL and threatening to put himself in the talk about a Norris Trophy as the game's best defenseman.

The Calgary Flames D-man broke into the NHL with 20 goals in 2005-06 and followed that with a pair of 17-goal seasons. But last year he slumped to 11 after getting a new, long-term contract.

When Phaneuf scored the game-winner against Columbus on Oct. 20, it was his fifth goal in just nine games this season -- making him the first Flames defenseman with 5 goals in October since Hall-of-Famer Al MacInnis accomplished the feat in 1993.

"Right now, Dion looks right back to his old self of two years ago," said teammate Craig Conroy. "He's playing great. I think he's trying to help our team win. But he's also thinking about the Olympic Team as well."

Activating the D -- Defensemen either scored or assisted on 23 of Chicago's first 27 goals this season.

"When you have defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell, it's easy to play with a puck presence all over the ice," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "That's always been a part of my coaching philosophy."

No 'C' but who cares -- Patrick Marleau had a career-high 38 goals last season and everything looked fine when the San Jose Sharks finished with the best record in the NHL. But after the Sharks lost to Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs last spring after second-round exits the previous three years, Marleau was stripped of his captaincy.

Patrick has responded positively with 7 goals in the first nine games this season.

"I'm well aware of what happened. But you have to be a team guy and carry on," Marleau said. "If you're worried about what's happened, then you're head's in the wrong place."

Power of the Pens -- An 8-1 start this season by the Pittsburgh Penguins comes as no surprise to Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet.

"There's not a team in the League that runs out a relentless five-man forecheck like the Penguins do shift after shift," Tocchet said. "They dictate the way the game is played with that kind of pressure and the skill they have to back up the forecheck."

An interesting word -- long-evity -- When 5-10, 180-pound Ray Whitney was preparing for his 1,000th NHL game on Oct. 21, it wouldn't come as a surprise how he'd remember his journeyman days with San Jose, Edmonton, Florida, Columbus and Detroit and a time when he thought about quitting the NHL and playing in Europe. That was before finally settling in the perfect spot for him in Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and is
arguably the straw that stirs all the energy for the Hurricanes today.

Coach Paul Maurice said. "So many times fit has a lot to do with it -- being on the right team at the right time that needs exactly what you have. And now you look at him and you say, 'How could any team not want what he has?' "

No poison Penner anymore
-- Dustin Penner drove former coach Craig MacTavish and most of the Edmonton Oilers fans crazy last season with his indifferent play. Big body. Big skill, but ...

After seeing his goal production slip from 29 for the Anaheim Ducks in their Stanley Cup championship season of 2007-08 to 23 and 17 the last two seasons in Edmonton, Penner was given a clean slate by new coach Pat Quinn. Dustin took the opportunity to get himself in the best shape of his career and 5 goals in his first seven games is just one result of a stronger, leaner and quicker Penner.

"When I get a head of steam now, I feel like an 18-wheeler," Penner joked.

One year later -- When Tyler Myers was being scouted for a potential spot in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, talent seekers loved his compete level and 6-foot-7 height, but 204 pounds.

The Buffalo Sabres used the 12th pick to select Myers. They could have used him on defense last season, but felt another year of junior and a strict training program would help him more.

Now, here we are, Myers looks closer to 220 pounds now.

"I was too skinny to make the jump," Myers admitted. "Now, I've got more muscles."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is more than thrilled at the play of Myers.

"Would I call Tyler a pleasant surprise?" Ruff shrugged. "I would say pleasant, but definitely not a surprise."

No Twin-killing -- Even though the Vancouver Canucks were off to a ragged start this season, Henrik Sedin is still showing the lead -- even without twin brother Daniel, who is out with a broken foot.

"I'm not doing anything differently, except maybe going to the net a little more," Henrik said after producing five points in the first three games without Daniel. "I can't change a lot just because he isn't there."

Things that make you go hmmmm -- Remember when Jonathan Cheechoo won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals in the NHL in 2006 and Vinny Lecavalier accomplished the feat one year later? Strange as it might seem, 21 days into the 2009-10 season, neither Cheechoo nor Lecavalier had a goal. ... Bet you didn't know that Alex Ovechkin's four multi-goal games are the most ever by a Capitals player in the month of October and the most by any NHL player in October since 1992, when Mario Lemieux had four multi-goal games for the Penguins. ... Ryan
Smyth continues to provide the Los Angeles Kings plenty of veteran leadership and production. Getting 13 points in his first nine games for the Kings matched the most points in nine games in L.A. since Jozef Stumpel did it in 1997. The team record is 21 points in the first nine games of the 1988-89 season. The record holder: Wayne Gretzky. ... Good timing by the Minnesota Wild in naming Mikko Koivu permanent captain just before a game against Colorado. Koivu's goal and assist and his shootout winner in a 3-2 win over the Avs Oct. 21, increased Mikko's career production to 11 goals in 29 games. That's more than he has against any team. ... That fast 5-1-1 start by the upstart Buffalo Sabres proves you can stay at home and rebuild a team. With 13 home-grown Sabres draft choices on the roster, there's an identity forming in Buffalo. The Sabres may have caught the rest of the NHL by surprise by their League-leading 38.2 shots per game. But when you also get the kind of goaltending Ryan Miller has given them, you have a pretty difficult combination to beat, eh? ... Defenseman Kyle Quincey, who always showed promise but never got the opportunity to play regularly in Detroit, was a pleasant surprise in Los Angeles last season after the Kings picked him off the waiver wire. Now look at him in Colorado. Part of the big trade for Ryan Smyth, all Quincey has done is skate into the Avs lineup and product points like no one saw coming. His early-season numbers, in fact, are being compared former Colorado rover Sandis Ozolinsh. ... Another D-man who came out of nowhere and has put up some impressive stats is Columbus's Jan Hejda. Coach Ken Hitchcock has a right to wonder how his absence with an injury might affect the Blue Jackets when you consider that he missed only one game prior and the plus-51 he has had over the last three seasons has been beaten by only three players -- Detroit's Nick Lidstrom plus-74 and Pavel Datsyuk's plus-73 and Chicago's Duncan Keith at plus-64. ... Now that Sergei Zubov is gone from the Dallas defense, the Matt Niskanen's and Nicklas Grossman's and Trevor Daley's are taking a lot of pride in the kind of defense they are playing -- and it shows in the fact that the Stars have allowed an average of just 6.5 shots in the third period of games this season. ... Mason Raymond has always taken our breath away with his speed. Now, he's added an element of grit to his game and is showing Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault it was right to stick with him. ... That depth the Calgary Flames have built is filled with the kind of hard-working, two-way players -- starting with Rene Bourque, who leads the team in points, and continues with Curtis Glencross, Dustin Boyd, Fredrik Sjostrom, Eric Nystrom, Nigel Dawes, Daymond Langkow, Brandon Prust and Craig Conroy -- that it's no wonder they are ready to play every night, which is underscored by the fact that Calgary lead the NHL with 17 first-period goals. ... It's nice to say that the Boston Bruins have Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci as depth behind No. 1 center Marc Savard in Boston. But now that Savard is out four to six weeks with a broken left foot, it's time for Bergeron and Krejci to produce. ... Another slow start for Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews? You could say that, since 14 Chicago players scored goals before captain Toews did. Last season, Toews didn't get a goal until the 13th game. This time he needed only eight. ... For those who thought it would be like old home week for Jacques Lemaire behind the bench back in New Jersey after spending the last eight seasons in Minnesota, well, defense is still first with the Devils, but the established lines that were successful under Brent Sutter there last season have been swapped regularly by Lemaire. And a coach's worst nightmare -- too many men on the ice -- was called four times in a recent five-game stretch. Ouch!

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