Despite the Thrashers’ latest season of woe, there is their player of wow, which means there are several reasons to hug Ilya Kovalchuk. For one, he can score. For another, he can inspire.
Then you have that honesty thing. That was shown when Kovalchuk suggested during a recent chat after practice that anybody who knows a puck from a Zamboni should consider the Thrashers’ wonderful play during the last month or so as somewhat of a fraud.
Said Kovalchuk, the team captain and three-time All-Star, “Yeah, it’s a little bit different, because we’ve been playing with no pressure.”
He’s right. Near the end of seasons, good teams take bad teams lightly, and bad teams play loose. Then again, none of that applied to Saturday night at Philips Arena. The Thrashers spent their season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning, so this was bad team against bad team. In fact, the Lightning was among just three NHL teams worse than the Thrashers.
The spirited evening featured a trio of fights, a 6-2 victory and a 35-41-6 final record for a Thrashers roster dominated by talented youth. Kovalchuk is the old-timer in that group, and he’s 25. In other words, you could make the case that the Thrashers’ sprint to goodness down the stretch with young faces bodes well for next year.
You also could do something wiser and proceed with caution. For instance: Are these the real Thrashers heading into next season, or are they just a tease along the way to ending next season out of the playoffs for what would be a ninth time in 10 tries as a franchise?
Don’t know. We do know that such late spurts by bad teams should be labeled suspicious until proved otherwise.
“We should have played the same way we’re playing now at the beginning of the year,” said Kovalchuk, whose team has evolved since then. Let’s start physically, with the subtractions of Erik Christensen and Jason Williams and the addition of Rich Peverley. You also had the Thrashers becoming more accustomed by the spring to the systems of John Anderson, a highly successful head coach in the minor leagues who nevertheless just finished his first season in charge of an NHL bunch.
Even so, Kovalchuk added more truth for a team that needs a defensive-minded defenseman and another superlative forward. Said Kovalchuk, “We need to make some changes, I think. We need to sign some good free agents and get our team really competitive for the playoffs. You see a team like Detroit. They’re competitive for the Stanley Cup. Two years ago, we made the playoffs, but we lost in the first round.”
The Thrashers were slaughtered back then in the first round. They were outscored a collective 17-6 by the New York Rangers during a sweep. But now, despite finishing 27th out 30 NHL teams, Kovalchuk claimed there is hope for those who still bother to show up to Blueland. “We have lots of young guys and lots of talent,” he said. “In a couple of years, maybe even next year, they’ll be better.”
Thus the problem with the Thrashers: It’s always “maybe” and “next year.”