NEW PLAYERS 9
NEW RULES HELP
BETTER THAN '03-04? YES
Peter Bondra huffed and puffed through his first practice as a Thrasher last month, sounding every bit of his 37 years. "It feels good," the left wing joked afterward, "once I sit down." Bondra's winded workout that day had dual significance: Not only was the two-time goal scoring champ bringing potency to a team that has never reached the postseason, but he was also so committed to being in Atlanta that he went on the ice before he had even signed a contract.
Bondra's desire to play for the six-year-old franchise bordered on the extreme. A free agent who had scored 477 goals in his 14-year NHL career, he reduced his salary demands to fit in under the Thrashers' cap. In September he signed for relative peanuts, agreeing to a one-year, $505,000 deal. (With incentives, he could earn $2.9 million.) "I saw something exciting here," says Bondra, a five-time All-Star. "I feel this team can win."
Bondra joins a club in transition. Only 15 of the 48 players invited to camp had suited up for Atlanta, and just eight of those had been there for more than one season. Four years ago the Thrashers had staked their future on prized young forwards Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. But in September 2003 Heatley crashed his car into a fence, killing Dan Snyder, his passenger and teammate. (Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide and received three years probation). Wanting a fresh start, Heatley asked for a trade; in August, Atlanta dealt him to Ottawa for right wing Marian Hossa and defenseman Greg deVries. At week's end Kovalchuk, 22, who tied for the league lead with 41 goals in 2003-04, was a holdout, saying that he'd play the season in Russia.
For Bondra, the prospect of playing with Hossa (80 points in each of the last two seasons) was just one of Atlanta's draws. Another was coach Bob Hartley, who led Colorado to the Stanley Cup in 2001. Seven members of the team have been to the finals. That mix should get Atlanta into the playoffs, and make Bondra's decision pay off. --B.C.
With a terrific young goaltender in Kari Lehtonen and a tough defense, Atlanta will be difficult to score against.