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29 ATLANTA Thrashers
Brian Cazeneuve
October 14, 2002
Last year's worst team has a pair of young cornerstones to build upon
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October 14, 2002

29 Atlanta Thrashers

Last year's worst team has a pair of young cornerstones to build upon

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Heatley, Kovalchuk are studs, the rest duds



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Hnilicka not up to high number of shots he'll face



PP needs top quarterback; PK must be more aggressive



The heat's on G.M. Waddell, Fraser to deliver

The best way to judge a fourth-year team that had the league's worst record is to look at the development of its young players. By that standard Atlanta found two diamonds in a very rough year. Dany Heatley, 21, and Ilya Kovalchuk, 19, were the first NHL teammates to finish one-two in rookie scoring since 1989. Heatley, the league's No. 2 pick in 2000, led all first-year players with 67 points and won the Calder Trophy. Kovalchuk, the first pick in '01, led all rookies with 29 goals, despite missing 16 games with a dislocated right shoulder, and finished second to Heatley in the Calder voting.

They're complementary cornerstones. Right wing Kovalchuk is a speedy sniper who's most dangerous on the rush but solid enough to score goals from the slot, so long as he doesn't overhandle the puck. Heatley, a left wing, is a steady, polished playmaker whom many see as Atlanta's future captain.

"Pretty early on we had a feel for each other," says Heatley. "He's the guy I look for all the time." On the ice they've drawn comparisons with the Colorado tandem of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Off the ice they share a room on the road and have become fast friends.

Even with those two, however, the Thrashers were abysmal last year. They gave up the most goals (288) in the league and finished with the second-worst power play (12.1%), while allowing a league-high 12 short-handed goals. The team won just one of the 33 games in which it trailed after one period and none of the 45 games in which it was behind after two.

General manger Don Waddell added scoring and savvy in the off-season, trading for veteran forwards Slava Kozlov of Buffalo and Shawn McEachern of Ottawa and signing free-agent defenseman Richard Smehlik. He also took a flier on 37-year-old Uwe Krupp, who could toughen up the defense if his ailing back doesn't give out. Krupp played in a total of 30 games over the past four seasons with Detroit.

If the Thrashers need reminding of how raw their franchise players are, they need look no further than the October issue of GQ, in which Heatley posed with his mother, Karin, for a feature on athletes and their moms. She's just six years older than Krupp.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]