Kovalchuk sets hopeful tone at first practice

Ilya Kovalchuk is confident.

The Thrashers captain said Sunday that he is happy with the direction of the team and hopes he will soon sign a new contract.

“My agent and [Thrashers General Manager] Don [Waddell] talk,” Kovalchuk said after team’s first practice of training camp. “I just want to focus on hockey because this season is very important for me. This is my eighth season and I really want to be successful.”

Asked if he is confident he’ll re-sign with the Thrashers, Kovalchuk said, “Yeah, hopefully because I’ve been here all my [professional] life. My family is excited to be here and my daughter is starting [pre-] school. Hopefully, we get it figured out.”

Kovalchuk can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Re-signing the Thrashers’ franchise player was Waddell’s top offseason priority. After missing the playoffs two straight seasons following the franchise’s only postseason berth, Waddell had to convince Kovalchuk the Thrashers could be a winning franchise, and soon.

So far, so good.

“I think we are way better than last year,” Kovalchuk said.

The Thrashers’ top two offseason acquisitions -- forward Nik Antropov and defenseman Pavel Kubina -- have given Kovalchuk reason to believe better times are on the horizon.

“We sat and talked after the season and I shared my feelings,” Kovalchuk said of discussions he had with Waddell and ownership. “I think we need guys with good size and experience. [Antropov] and [Kubina], they both played like 10 or 11 years in the league and they know what’s going on. We really need those types of players because we have a lot of young kids that just come into the league and they need to see someone, and talk to them, about how to prepare.”

How important is Kovalchuk to the Thrashers? Just look at the team’s record book. Kovalchuk leads in the following categories: games, goals, goals per game average, game-winning goals, assists, shots, multiple-point games, multiple-goal games, power-play points, power-play goals, even-strength points, even-strength goals and even-strength assists.

The Thrashers -- from ownership to management to players -- point to a 12-6 run to finish last season as reason for optimism. Kovalchuk, named team captain in the middle of last season, is no different. It took the team much of the season to grasp the system of first-year coach John Anderson. That is no longer the case.

“It is a different feeling [going into training camp this year],” Kovalchuk said. “Last year Johnny explained everything to us and everyone knows what he wants from us. He showed us if we are going to play the way he wants us, we are going to win. We really believe in his system. ... I’m sure we are going to have a good season.”

Yes, Kovalchuk is confident.