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 shorthanded 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
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (LEFT) Dany Heatley
The Thrashers' Dany Heatley was the first rookie to lead his
team in scoring since Daniel Alfredsson topped Ottawa in 1995-96.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
Offense 29 Heatley, Kovalchuk are studs, the rest
Defense 29 Limited skill; will have hard time
moving the puck
Goaltending 28 Hnilicka not up to high number of shots
Special Teams 28 PP needs top quarterback; PK must be
Management 28 The heat's on G.M. Waddell, Fraser to