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Monday, July 28, 2003
A postseason in the playoffs? Possibly

By Rob Parent
Special to ESPN.com

Right around the time that Atlanta's beloved Braves will be making their annual playoff pratfall, a less-embraceable Atlanta team will commence what used to be an annual comedic exercise -- the NHL's regular season.

2002-03 BY THE NUMBERS
Record: 31-39-7-5 74 pts. (T24th overall, 11th East, 3rd Southeast); Home: 15-19-4-3; Road: 16-20-3-2
Goals for/Avg.:
226/2.75 (10th overall)
Goals against/Avg.:
284/3.46 (30th overall)
Differential:
Minus-58 (27th overall)
Power play:
17.3 percent (64-371, T12th overall)
Penalty kill:
81.7 percent (290-355, T23rd overall)
20-goal scorers: Dany Heatley (41), Ilya Kovalchuk (38), Slava Kozlov (21)
50-point scorers: Heatley (89), Kozlov (70), Kovalchuk (67), Marc Savard (50, 47 with Thrashers).
No fooling, you hardy (if few) Thrashers fans. This time there might be something to smile about. For the Thrashers are not only aiming to turn their fifth NHL season into their first playoff appearance, they've got a lot of people believing they can do just that -- most of all, themselves.

That leap of faith came in January, after GM Don Waddell hired Bob Hartley, the coaching doctor who was foolishly fired by the Colorado Avalanche. With an eye on sophomore wunderkinds Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, Hartley shrugged and took this first offer to revive his career, and instantly began working his magic.

He took over the Thrashers on Jan. 14 with the club 12 games below .500 and having given up as many goals as good teams do in a full season. But the Thrashers, who had improved slightly in the prior 10 games with Waddell acting as interim coach after dismissing Curt Fraser, rose to another level under Hartley. For the first time, they not not only scored goals, but began preventing ones by the opposition. Although free agent goalie savior Byron Dafoe had been shelved with an injury, young backup Pasi Nurminen was starting to impress, largely because he had teammates starting to press defensively.

This startling change produced a rush of confidence for the young Thrashers, and resulted in a 19-14-5-1 record under Hartley. The team finished with 74 points, nine short of a playoff spot in the East but a 20-point improvement on its 2001-02 campaign.

More significantly, Hartley had something to build upon.

Looking ahead
Waddell also has given the Thrashers reason to believe in themselves -- and it extends far beyond his 4-5-1 stint has interim head coach. Although he's joined most of his fellow GMs in holding the budget lines this offseason, Waddell did re-sign unrestricted free agent Slava Kozlov. This former Red Wings star given up for dead after one bad year in Buffalo had a season of resurrection in Atlanta with 21 goals and a team-leading 49 assists.

Also re-signed were restricted free-agent defensemen Andy Sutton and Ivan Majesky, who was acquired from Florida at the June draft for a second-round pick. That should help stiffen what has been the league's most culpable defense since 1999-2000, the Thrashers' inaugural season.

Another welcome returner is Dafoe, who exercised an option in his contract to come back to Atlanta for what will be his 12th NHL season. Dafoe didn't have the chance to find his feet after being signed by the Thrashers in November as an unrestricted free agent that nobody else wanted. For a team that was badly in need of consistency in goal, Dafoe went 5-11-1 with a horrid 4.36 goals-against average before hobbling gratefully to the injury ward.

Even if Dafoe can't make a dramatic return to his former top-shelf status, the Thrashers seem to be set in goal -- and for a long time.

Nurminen developed by leaps and bounds under Hartley down the stretch, and ended his season playing for Team Finland at the World Championships. One of his backups on that team will be by his side at training camp in September -- top organizational prospect Kari Lehtonen. The No. 2 overall pick in 2002, Lehtonen is coming off a season in the Finnish Elite League where he registered 23 wins with a 1.98 GAA and .928 saves percentage. Just 19, he signed a huge incentive-laced deal this summer and according to Waddell will be given every chance to make the Thrashers' roster out of camp.

More realistically, the 6-foot-3 netminder will be a stopper for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League next season. But he's still a huge part of the Thrashers' future, one that's a brilliant and multifaceted puzzle.

Kovalchuk just turned 20. And while his defensive lapses still earn him the occasional shift on the bench, his scoring abilities are mind-boggling. He registered 38 goals in 81 games last year after scoring 29 in 65 games during his injury-shortened rookie season.

The progress of classmate Heatley is even more remarkable. Initially considered the player who would set the table for Kovalchuk, Heatley came off a Calder Trophy rookie campaign and promptly scored 41 goals and 89 points -- in 77 games. He added the MVP nod at the All-Star game and a gold medal at the World Championships, where he tied for the tournament lead with seven goals.

There seems to be no slowing the rocketing success of Atlanta's twin prodigies, but avoiding injuries would make the Thrashers' ride a little easier this season.

Dafoe's injury hurt the team, but perhaps not as much as the groin that ruined veteran Shawn McEachern's first season in Atlanta. If he returns healthy, the Thrashers have a deep offensive team with their two young scoring wizards, Kozlov, McEachern and last season's acquisition Marc Savard (16 goals, 47 points in 57 games in Atlanta).

Of course, as the Braves have shown for so many years, just making the playoffs is only a preliminary step. But it's one the Thrashers seem ready to take.

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.