The Thrashers' top line has developed into one of the league's best
Here's a riddle worthy of the Sphinx: What's short on the right side, aging in the middle and slow on the left? Hint: It has six legs and lives in Atlanta.
Don't fret if you didn't answer, This season's most valuable NHL line. Even Oedipus might have developed a complex trying to explain how the Thrashers' trio of right wing Donald Audette (who's 5'8" with his helmet on), center Ray Ferraro (who's 36 and weighing retirement) and left wing Andrew Brunette (who's slower than a mid-1990s download) has dominated larger, younger and swifter opponents.
Through Sunday that trio had combined to score 43% of Atlanta's total of goals and assists—a figure that dwarfs the production of any other line in the league. "The classic lines have a sniper, a playmaker and a grinder," says Ferraro, who had 15 goals and 27 assists. "We're three guys who see the game the same way."
Their M.O. is to get to the front of the net and keep the puck deep in the zone at whatever bodily cost. "They're a junkyard-dog type of line," says Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "They've got such passion and determination—it looks to me as if the whole line has taken on the persona of Ray Ferraro."
The Thrashers are lucky they still have the emotional Ferraro to lead them. Following surgery on his right knee in January 1999, Ferraro played 81 games for Atlanta last season but needed to train intensely just to stay in game shape. The expansion Thrashers' prodigious losing (they finished 14-61-7-4) made him wonder if the effort was worthwhile. "Coming to the rink got to be such drudgery that I didn't know if I wanted to come back," Ferraro says. "As the summer went on, I decided I wasn't ready to quit. Will I play next year? I don't know?'
The 31-year-old Audette (21 goals and 30 assists) might not be in Atlanta at the end of this season. The most gifted of the three, he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which makes him a prime candidate to be traded. Only the Thrashers' flirtation with a postseason berth—they were tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East—could give Atlanta reason to keep Audette. As G.M. Don Waddell says, "If we have a shot at the playoffs, how do we trade our best scorer?"
One player who hopes Audette remains is Brunette (nine goals and 29 assists), who says that when in doubt, he "gets the puck to Donald." The three linemates don't spend much time together away from the rink—"They have families, and I have a dog," says Brunette, a 27-year-old bachelor—but they're tight in the dressing room, where they needle one another about their individual shortcomings. "We give it to each other pretty good," says Audette, "but that's because we're having fun."
Phoenix Ownership Update
It's Getting Coyote Ugly
When NHL owners rubber-stamped the sale of the Coyotes to Steve Ellman and Wayne Gretzky on Dec. 11—the owners weren't about to reject a transfer that commissioner Gary Bettman desperately wants—they delivered the false impression of good news. Since then Ellman, who is to provide the vast majority of the financing for the purchase, has missed a Dec. 31 deadline that would have made him the Phoenix owner. That failure jeopardizes his chances of receiving the public funding he needs to build a new arena in suburban Scottsdale and reduces the Coyotes' hope for success on the ice this season. "It's hard to play with confidence, not knowing what's going to happen," says center Jeremy Roenick, one of several high-priced Phoenix players who could be traded if the new owners ever take over.