Anytime a team tries to sell season tickets with radio ads
featuring sound bites from the draft, it's a safe bet it isn't
loaded with talent. Such is the case with the three-year-old
Thrashers. After Atlanta lost two of its top three scorers
because it refused to pay them what they wanted (Andrew Brunette
left as a free agent, and Donald Audette, then a
free-agent-to-be, was traded last March), the Thrashers will be
younger than in either of their first two seasons. "From that
first year everybody is slowly being pushed out," says coach
Curt Fraser. "Now it's the youngsters' turn."
The good news for Fraser is that among those youngsters is
perhaps the most impressive collection of left wingers this side
of the Berkeley chapter of Greenpeace. In June, the Thrashers
made 6'1", 220-pound left wing Ilya Kovalchuk the first Russian
taken with the top pick. He'll be joined by fellow rookie left
wing Dany Heatley, who was the second pick in 2000. General
manager Don Waddell says Heatley is a natural scorer. "Give some
guys five opportunities, they may score one goal," Waddell says.
"Give him five opportunities, and he'll score three." Early
reports were favorable: Both Kovalchuk, 18, and Heatley, 20, were
standouts in preseason.
Waddell and Fraser know that being a top pick guarantees little.
With the first selection in 1999 they took Patrik Stefan, a left
wing who has scored just 15 goals in 138 NHL games. But Fraser
feels that among the 21-year-old Stefan, Heatley, Kovalchuk and
24-year-old wing Tomi Kallio (14 goals in 56 games last year),
he'll get production by committee. "We're not going to turn one
of these kids into a 30-goal scorer right away," says Fraser,
"but maybe we can turn three of them into 15-goal scorers."
That would make them something of a novelty in Atlanta, because
the only current Thrasher who scored more than 15 goals last year
was 37-year-old center Ray Ferraro. Ferraro, who had 29, was at
his best last December, when he amassed 18 points and the
Thrashers went 10-5-0-0, giving their fans a taste of playoff
fever. When the calendar changed, so did Atlanta's fortunes, and
the question this year becomes whether those fans will be
patient--especially when their team's captain isn't. "I'm
extremely disappointed with what happened in the off-season,"
says Ferraro. "The kids on our team are good and I know they will
get better, but they'll be better when I'm not here."
The Thrashers' Damian Rhodes faced more shots per 60 minutes
(32.7) than any goaltender in the league.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 25 Time for promising Stefan to prove he belongs
DEFENSE 30 Lots of holes and inconsistent players
GOALTENDING 29 Hnilicka may unseat Rhodes for starting job
SPECIAL TEAMS 28 Penalty killing subpar; can Kovalchuk spark PP?
MANAGEMENT 26 G.M. Waddell, coach Fraser on the hot seat