Ilya Kovalchuk's ready to lead
Ilya Kovalchuk scored 52 goals last season, made the All-Star team and did just about everything a player can do to help his team win. But the Atlanta Thrashers didn't win enough, particularly down the stretch. They were tied for the Southeast Division lead on February 15 after a rousing win in an 11-round shootout at New Jersey, but only won five out of their final 22 games. In the end, it was a disappointing season of tumult marked by the firing of coach Bob Hartley in October and mucn second-guessing the rest of the way.
No one has scored more goals (254) in the NHL since Kovalchuk burst on the scene in 2001, and no one has played more games in a Thrashers' uniform (466). Yet Kovalchuk's efforts have only yielded one playoff appearance (a 2007 first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers). If those divergent numbers -- not to mention the start of an uncertain campaign with a new coach (John Anderson) and some fresh faces (Ron Hainsey, Jason Williams, Marty Reasoner, Junior Lessard) in the ranks -- are cause for unease, you won't detect it from Kovalchuk's demeanor. It's all smiles despite the fresh absence of two bottom-front teeth.
Against that backdrop, I had the chance to sit down with the Thrashers' superstar as training camp opened in Atlanta.
SI.com: I have to ask you, how'd you lose the teeth?
Kovalchuk: High stick from a kid in Russia. We were skating to get ready for camp right before I was flying here to Atlanta. It was tough to fly, but our dentist here took care of it before we had our physicals.
SI.com: One more before we get to hockey. How was your summer -- kind of the old school assignment "what did you do on your summer vacation?"
Kovalchuk: We spent the summer in France again. We like it there, but we still rent. Haven't bought a place yet. My daughter (Carolina) is getting big, talking now and keeping us busy -- especially at the beach.
SI.com: Prior to the R & R, you scored a pretty meaningful goal for Russia in the World Championships. What was that experience like?
Kovalchuk: It was a tremendous experience. Scoring the clinching-goal [in overtime against Canada, capping a 5-4 win after trailing 4-2] felt great, but winning was special. The fans went wild back home. When we got back to Russia it was one big celebration. They were so excited.
SI.com: Did that success take the sting out of the disappointing season in Atlanta?
Kovalchuk: In some ways, yes. But it is two different things. It is separate when you play for your country. And we hadn't won in a long time -- something like fifteen years at the World Championships -- so that's why the people back home were so happy.
SI.com: What has to improve this season for the Thrashers?
Kovalchuk: We can be better lots of ways. Mostly, we need to play for each other. Trust each other every game.
SI.com: To that end, what excites you about this season?
Kovalchuk: It's a new start. Lots of energy. New players. New coaches. I'm ready to see how it works. Last year was tough. The coach being fired. The trades. The way it ended. We need to come back.
SI.com: There are many who say this is your team -- yours to lead. How does that make you feel?
Kovalchuk: I'm ready. I want that pressure. We need to win. Everyone just has to do their jobs and not try to do too much.
SI.com: What was your first impression of coach Anderson?
Kovalchuk: Very positive. He wants to skate and have scoring from everywhere. It was a good meeting.
SI.com: I know he has coached you in pre-season games and been a part of training camp for the past five seasons. Is that going to help?
Kovalchuk: Yes, I think so. He knows everybody at least a little. He still wants to do some different things, but he knows what lots of the guys can do.
Anderson knows what Kovalchuk can do and that's score goals. Atlanta's new coach is understandably excited by the prospect of coaching a talent like Kovalchuk's. Now the two have to merge their goals with their gung-ho attitude and translate that into winning.