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Ladd finding his niche in first season as captain

by John Manasso
DULUTH, Ga. -- When Craig Ramsay took over as Thrashers coach to start this season, he did not name a captain right away. He wanted to get to know his personnel first.

After the team muddled through the first five weeks, coinciding with one particularly disappointing loss, Ramsay named 25-year-old Andrew Ladd as captain.

He could not have made a better choice. The Thrashers immediately took off and at one point in late December occupied first place in the Southeast Division.

Since then, all has not gone so well. Entering Wednesday's key game at Carolina, the Thrashers remain a bit of a long shot to make the playoffs, trailing eighth-place Buffalo by seven points with 16 games to play. But the fact that they have any chance at all would seem, to a large degree, because of Ladd, their leading goal-scorer whom they acquired over the summer via trade for a second-round pick and a prospect.

In the last 11 games, Ladd has 9 goals for a total of 25 this season -- eight more than his previous career high. During those 11 games, the Thrashers have scored only 26 goals, meaning Ladd has accounted for roughly 35 percent of their output.

"I think he wants to be a top player, and he pushes himself to be that top player," Ramsay said. "As the team goes through a bad stretch he wants to push, he's willing to push, and that's why he ends up as a captain because he has that willingness -- that drive to be the best player he can be.

"He does do that, maybe not in the flashiest ways but certainly in a very business-like way, he goes out and gets the job done. That's a good lesson for all of us."

Ladd said he has never had a run of scoring like his current one.

"I'm getting some good bounces and some good looks," he said. "Sometimes when you're confident, you're shooting more and you're confident about where you want to put it, and I think the biggest thing is I've been a little bit more patient when I've been around the net and that's helped out a lot."

When a player is drafted with the No. 4 pick, as Ladd was in 2004 (Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went first and second), he will face high expectations. In his seventh NHL season, Ladd has mostly been a third-liner -- although not in the conventional sense one might think.

As a rookie on the Carolina Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup champion team, Ladd played with Matt Cullen (25 goals) and Ray Whitney (55 points in 63 games). On Chicago's Cup team last season, he bounced from line to line with an incredibly talented corps of forwards, finishing with 17 goals despite averaging only 36 seconds of ice time on the power play out of 13:41 per game.

Peter Laviolette was Ladd's coach in Carolina in 2005-06 and then coached against him in the Stanley Cup Final last season with Philadelphia.

"I thought he came in and had an impact in the series when he came back in the lineup for Chicago against us," Laviolette said back in January. "I'm happy for him. He's a good kid. Good to see him land on his feet here. A good player, get some responsibility and Atlanta's playing well and he's a good year so far."

Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford drafted Ladd, then traded the left wing to Chicago for Tuomo Ruutu, saying the team needed more depth at center.

But he said he always recognized Ladd's character and leadership abilities and thought he would have a good career.

"The stars have to be stars to win Stanley Cups, but if you don't have guys like Andrew Ladd -- the nuts-and-bolts guys that are willing to do the tough parts in games when games are tough -- you're not going to win them," Rutherford said. "That's what he did for Carolina and Chicago."

In Atlanta, Ladd has had the chance to go from a "nuts-and-bolts" player to a leading role. He is playing 20:09 per game, tops among Atlanta forwards and 21st in the League among forwards -- an increase of almost 50 percent over last season. His goals tie him for 22nd in the NHL with, of all people, Ovechkin.

"I think I saw an opportunity to do that (play a leading role) and that's what I wanted," said Ladd, who not only plays on the first line and first power-play unit but also is killing penalties for the first time in his career. "So if that's your goal, you've got to … think that way and plan on playing that much and want to be that guy and be in all those situations."

Until Saturday's 4-3 overtime win over Florida, Atlanta had won only once in its previous eight games. In some ways, it's a miracle the Thrashers still have a chance, tenuous as it is. It's a credit to their captain.

"We play Carolina again Wednesday (and once more on April 8) and we play Buffalo twice and New York (Rangers on April 7)," Ladd said of being able to make up ground on the teams in front of his. "Seeing that you have an opportunity to play those teams, those are games that we need to be excited about and you have to expect to win. We won one game. It's something to build on, but it's not something we can sit back and say, 'Hey, we're back to winning again.'

"You've got to keep working every day to keep that pace up."

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