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Atlanta Thrashers winger Maxim Afinogenov. (Gerry Broome)
Atlanta Thrashers winger Maxim Afinogenov. (Gerry Broome)

NHL Notebook

The Max (Afinogenov) Factor Add to ...

So here's a thought about the future of a franchise - the Atlanta Thrashers - that passed through Calgary this past week, which brought back memories of the earlier failed attempt by the NHL to put a team in the Deep South.

That was the Atlanta Flames, the New York Islanders' 1972 expansion cousins, who lasted only eight seasons in Georgia, before Nelson Skalbania and a consortium of Calgary oil men purchased the team from Tom Cousins and moved them to southern Alberta.

With only a few blips along the way, the Calgary Flames have been a major NHL success story - competitive almost as soon as they arrived in Canada, three times a Stanley Cup finalist, once a champion, and from a business standpoint, able to do what the Atlanta version never could do, which is sell a lot of seats for a lot of dollars over a 30-year span.

In short, they are a picture of financial health these days - and not a bad squad on the ice either. Internally, Flames ownership believes that a new facility to replace the aging Pengrowth Saddledome is a priority in the next five years, but even if they need to muddle along in their current digs for the foreseeable future, they are operating nicely in the black, even as the economy falters all around them.

Atlanta? To paraphrase John Fogerty, it's déjà vu all over again. The Thrashers desperately need this year's modest on-ice improvements to be real and to take root. Otherwise, they're facing a losing battle in a city with the usual small, but rabid base of hockey aficionados that develops in a non-traditional market - and a much larger group of indifferent sports fans that might turn up if they get a sexy, winning program going. Like Washington, in other words, where their northern neighbours were just as much of an afterthought until Alex Ovechkin came along to add spice; coach Bruce Boudreau introduced a winning system; and general manager George McPhee developed the necessary supporting cast.

Which is why, in a roundabout way, the key to success in Atlanta may be the Max Factor, or more specifically, the Max Afinogenov Factor.

Think of it this way: Whatever Atlanta may accomplish this year can be quickly unraveled if Ilya Kovalchuk says bye-bye at year's end. Kovalchuk is one of the NHL's most dynamic players, a performer almost at Ovechkin's level in terms of pure, raw scoring ability. But Kovalchuk has been with the Thrashers for eight not-so-great years and is starting to get itchy for success. A potential unrestricted free agent following the season, Kovalchuk is amendable to staying in Atlanta (where he has developed roots and a strong command of the English language), but only if he believes the Thrashers can mimic the Capitals' success and evolve - sooner rather than later - into Stanley Cup contenders.

Understanding that the future of his team is now, general manager signed both Afinogenov and Nikolai Antropov as unrestricted free agents last summer, in much the same way that the Capitals once brought in Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov to make Ovechkin more comfortable.

Kovalchuk actually had a hand in coaxing Afinogenov to Atlanta, after two dismal final seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, in which he had become a bit player for the team. Afinogenov's pure talent would always surface occasionally every year - and be good for a YouTube highlight or two. But more often than not, he was an invisible presence with the Sabres, someone who needed a change of scenery in order to get his game back on track.

Even as the Thrashers' high-powered attack hit a hiccup during its cross-Canada tour that began in Toronto last Monday and ended in Vancouver Thursday night, Afinogenov has resurrected his career. He's been flirting with the top 30 in scoring and - in a year when Bryan Little and Slava Kozlov have both had trouble finding the back of the net - has picked up the slack in an important way.

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