Precocious 20-year-old center Patrik Stefan remembers when he was
a wide-eyed 10-year-old Czech lad and he first saw Jaromir Jagr
play for the national team in Stefan's hometown of Pribram.
After that magical day two of Stefan's most prized possessions
were a hockey stick and a helmet, both autographed by Jagr. A
decade later Stefan still admires Jagr, but from a different
perspective. For four months during the off-season, Stefan
returned to the Czech Republic and played in a charity event
organized by Jagr. "I would sit beside him on the bench and
think, Wow, 10 years have passed so fast. I can't afford to waste
any time becoming the best player I can be."
Similar to a young Jagr in size (6'3", 205 pounds), speed and
puckhandling ability, Stefan diligently studied the world's best
player, both his moves on the ice and his training habits off it.
Since the end of last season the top pick in the 1999 draft cut
his body fat from 11% to 6.5% and committed himself to becoming a
more aggressive scorer. As a rookie last season Stefan launched
just 117 shots in 72 games and had five goals and 20 assists. "I
am a playmaker first," says Stefan, who missed this season's
opening game with a groin injury. "It has taken me a year to
figure out that if you don't shoot, it's hard to score."
Coach Curt Fraser plans to boost Stefan's productivity by giving
him more ice time, especially on the power play. "We shouldn't
expect a miracle this year because guys don't become 100-point
scorers overnight, but I believe he could double his numbers,"
Fraser says. "He's got extraordinary tools; he only needs to
learn how to use them."
Atlanta's first season was typical for an expansion team,
including the league's fewest goals scored, most goals allowed
and worst record (14-61-7-4). "It's tough sometimes because
everybody wants to win yesterday, but I'm looking ahead to a
brighter future," Fraser says. "We're using the Atlanta Braves'
model of patiently building from within so that hopefully when we
get good, we'll stay good for 10 years."
Stefan and the Thrashers are still in their NHL honeymoon stage,
but the dreams of youth are beginning to be tempered by the harsh
reality of expansion. "Growing up in my country, every kid wanted
to be like Jagr," Stefan says. "I have made it to the same
league, but playing with him helped me realize that I still have
a very, very long way to go."
When Damian Rhodes beat the Islanders 2-0 last Oct. 14, the
Thrashers joined the Panthers and the Rangers as the only current
NHL teams to get a shutout in their first victory.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 30 Lack of firepower dooms team
DEFENSE 30 Buzek and Tremblay talented, but rest
GOALTENDING 30 Rhodes, the No. 1 guy, is an average
SPECIAL TEAMS 30 Power play and penalty killing need help
MANAGEMENT 29 G.M. Waddell must upgrade talent in all