WASHINGTON -- The Thrashers began the post-Kovalchuk era on Friday.
To survive, much less remain a playoff contender, the team must replace its captain, its leading scorer and the face of the franchise.
Ilya Kovalchuk played his first game as a New Jersey Devil Friday night, 24 hours after the Thrashers gave up on months of fruitless negotiations and traded their star, having failed to secure a long-term contract for the pending unrestricted free agent.
“It’s very disappointing,” forward Slava Kozlov said Friday morning. “We traded a great player, but most importantly we traded our captain and a great guy. He was here eight ... years. He was a leader in this organization. He did a lot. But I guess it’s a hockey business. It’s tough. I wish him good luck in New Jersey. We have to move on and focus on our game and our job.”
At their first practice since saying good-bye to Kovalchuk in preparation for Friday’s night's game against Washington, players said there will be a void in the locker room as well as on the ice.
“He’s a great guy,” goaltender Johan Hedberg said. “You really don’t understand how much you like a guy until you sit down and say, ‘You’re actually moving.’ It’s emotional. ... He was such a big aura in the room. He’s going to be missed.”
Kovalchuk takes with him the captain’s "C" and the statistics that made him the franchise leader in games, points, goals, assists as a host of other categories.
“You see a lot of great teams. Some have superstars, some don’t,” center Jim Slater said. “They still manage to make the playoffs and go a long way. What we have to do here is all come together in this locker room and learn how to win together as a team and not just rely on one player. ... I think we can do it.”
Coach John Anderson said the team will not immediately name a captain to replace Kovalchuk.
“Hopefully, [leadership is] picked up by committee,” Anderson said. “As far as naming a captain, I don’t think it’s a pressing issue for us. More of a pressing issue is winning hockey games.”
The Thrashers entered Friday’s game three points out of a playoff spot.
“The focus is playoffs and we’re not too far [out],” said Kozlov, an assistant captain. “It’s a big loss for us but other guys have to step up and take a leadership role. We’ll see. Maybe it’s going to wake us up and we start winning.”
Foremost is finding a way to replace the 31 goals Kovalchuk scored this season. He is tied for fifth in the NHL.
Secondary scoring has been an issue for the Thrashers all season. What they do without their primary scoring will determine their playoff fate.
Combined, Colby Armstrong (9), Bryan Little (8), Kozlov (8) and Todd White (5) have one less goal than Kovalchuk.
“We appreciate what Kovy did for us,” Kozlov said. “That’s why we’re still in the playoff [race] right now. We need to play tighter defensively and take care of our own net first. Without Kovy, I’m pretty sure we are going to score less. It doesn’t mean we won’t win. There is lots of room for new opportunities for the young guys.”
General manager Don Waddell said those young players will have a chance to fill the void. There will be more ice time. There is opportunity on the power play. There will be a chance to step up.
“I’m not going to say we are as good of a goal-scoring team as we were with Ilya, but now we are going to provide opportunities for other players to come up with those goals,” Waddell said.
To re-write a popular sports cliché, there is no Ilya in team.
“It means we are all going to have to be a bit better,” Hedberg said. “It’s a great chance for some other guys to step their game up. I expect us to play a team game. Whoever gets an opportunity to play Kovy’s minutes, it’s going to be an interesting season.”
Defenseman Johnny Oduya and forward Niklas Bergfors, acquired from New Jersey for Kovalchuk, joined the team Friday afternoon, though a flight delay prevented them from taking part in the morning skate. They got a baptism by fire as Friday’s game was the first chance they had to skate with their new teammates.
While the Kovalchuk era in Atlanta is over, how the Thrashers respond will determine if they can survive the loss of their superstar.
“I’ve been in the business a long time, over 30 years,” Anderson said. “The reason I stay in it is because I think I’ve seen it all but I haven’t. It’s one of those things where you have to learn to adapt. There is no easy way around it. You are missing 20-25 minutes a game of a superstar. We’ve got to fill the void and move our lines around a little bit differently. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a lot of good can come from it. That’s what we are hoping.”