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Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk (L) lines up his shot as Ottawa Senators' Chris Phillips plays defense during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa October 10, 2009. REUTERS/Blair Gable (CANADA SPORT ICE HOCKEY)


The truism holds that athletes prefer to let their deeds rather than their words do the talking; the Atlanta Thrashers clearly hope the same applies to front offices as well.

Since the team first took to the ice a decade ago, they have only 273 wins in 738 starts, and have an overall winning percentage of .436. They have had two winning campaigns and a single playoff appearance (they were punted in the first round in 2007).

But in a year in which they face the terrifying prospect of losing superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk to free agency - the scars from Marian Hossa's departure are still raw - the Thrashers are taking flight, propelled by several new faces whose arrival is no coincidence for an organization eager to make an impression on its biggest star.

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Talks are ongoing between the Thrashers and Kovalchuk's representatives, and Atlanta GM Don Waddell has insisted for months that his priority remains to sign his franchise player.

"It's always been our intention to sign him," said Atlanta coach John Anderson, adding, "we're showing we're going to add talent … I think Ilya just wants to win."

And while no one is about to include Atlanta in the conversation over potential Stanley Cup champions this year, the Thrashers made some canny off-season moves to add both offensive punch and depth on the blueline.

Heading into tonight's game with the slumping Montreal Canadiens, they are off to a 4-1 start, and Kovalchuk has already potted seven goals, and sits two behind his countryman Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.

"This is the best team the franchise has ever had," said Kovalchuk, who was handed the captaincy last season. "It's fun to win, nobody wants to be losers … I've been waiting a long time for this."

As for his contract - he is in the last year of a deal that pays him $6.39-million - the 26-year-old Russian scoring machine is less voluble.

"We'll see," he said.

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But talk to him about the situation on the ice, and Kovalchuk is immediately more enthusiastic - the quick start has fuelled an unspoken belief within the team that they are a solid playoff contender.

Among the key free-agent acquisitions is former Toronto Maple Leaf and New York Ranger Nik Antropov, who has contributed four assists as Kovalchuk's centre.

"It's great to play with him … I think every player in the league would tell you they'd like to play with Kovy," he said.

And does the hulking Kazakh miss the hothouse atmosphere in Toronto?

"No," he said with a smirk, adding he appreciates playing in a non-traditional market: "less pressure, more freedom to just walk around outside without being recognized."

The Thrashers are also bolstered by secondary scoring from the likes of the unsung Rich Peverley and Bryan Little, to say nothing of ageless wonder Slava Kozlov and speedy winger Maxim Afinogenov, a Buffalo cast-off and hockey reclamation project of sorts.

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Throw in hot goaltending from 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec and the emergence of youngsters such as Evander Kane, the fourth pick in last June's draft, and there are encouraging signs everywhere.

Though Kane could theoretically be returned to the Vancouver Giants next week, Anderson said "he hasn't shown me any reason to get rid of him."

And the 18-year-old Kane, who displays a precocious self-assurance, seems anything but intimidated at finding himself in the NHL. "I'm not really surprised … it was goal to be here. I think I've played pretty well, I've learned a lot and I still have a lot to learn, and I want to learn it here."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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