Thrashers start over again

Updated: July 29, 2004, 11:52 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Don Waddell
Waddell
All discussions of the Atlanta Thrashers' 2003-04 season begins and ends with the tragic car accident that cost Dan Snyder his life and star forward Dany Heatley most of last season. Indeed, the personal and professional cost to Heatley may never be known.

Heatley was recently indicted on six charges by a Georgia grand jury, including first degree vehicular homicide. If convicted on all six charges he could face 20 years in prison, although it's believed a plea agreement is the most likely outcome.

Still, the accident will continue to overshadow training camp this fall, as it will mark the first anniversary of the car crash and the team's gutsy performance that followed Snyder's death.

A year ago, Heatley was being feted as the face of a new generation of NHL star. His face graced magazines and video game boxes. Along with super-pal Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers had two of the most exciting forwards in the game. And with Byron Dafoe in superior shape competing with Finn Pasi Nurminen, the Thrashers looked to be ready to vault into the playoffs for the first time.

The accident changed all of that.

A pall hung over the team throughout the season. Under coach Bob Hartley, starting his first full season in Atlanta, the Thrashers were the surprise of the first half of the season. They played a fiery, up-tempo style that saw them come from behind a number of times to earn victories or salvage ties with Slava Kozlov, a resurgent if injury-prone Marc Savard and Kovalchuk, who finished tied for the league-lead in goals with 41 and tied for second in points with 87, shouldering much of the offensive burden.

Nurminen quickly evolved into the team's No. 1 goaltender, and even though defensive lapses were many, the team found itself with an eight-point bulge over defending Southeast Division champion Tampa Bay a third of the way through the season. But the wheels came off in a hurry in late-December as the Thrashers won just twice in a 21-game span that saw them plummet out of playoff contention.

Plagued by injury and perhaps an emotional drop-off, the Thrashers played better once Heatley returned but it was not enough to push them into the playoffs and they finished second in the division with 78 points, a four-point improvement on their franchise best total of the previous season.

This offseason has seen a renewal of that hope. Dafoe is gone and in his place is one of the game's most promising young netminders Kari Lehtonen, who was sensational in the AHL playoffs this spring. Heatley turned in an MVP performance at the World Championships and is set to play with Canada's World Cup of Hockey entry next month.

General manager Don Waddell, hamstrung in his ability to make a deal last season due to an impending change of ownership, has made bold moves to shore up his defense, signing Jaroslav Modry away from Los Angeles and acquiring offensive talent Niclas Havelid from Anaheim. There will also be room for the team's top defensive prospect and junior standout, 6-foot-5 Braydon Coburn.

Waddell spoke with ESPN.com about the most difficult of seasons and the renewed optimism for the future.


ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Waddell:
Our expectation going into camp was certainly that we were a playoff team. When we got to the end and didn't make it there was a disappointment, but I was still proud of guys because they'd gone through so much adversity and not just with the accident.

We were disappointed not to make the playoffs, but I was very proud of how the guys hung together because they could have easily jumped off. The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit because everyone bonded together and stuck together. When it came time to drop the puck they were prepared to play. They were able to channel their emotions and Bob (Hartley) was the leader of that and did a good job.

We knew at some point we were going to hit the wall, we didn't know how hard we'd hit it. We got some injuries in January, but for the first half we did a good job of keeping things in perspective. It didn't surprise me because we've talked all along here about having character guys and that's what this showed.

We were missing our leading scorer in Dany and we didn't have his presence around the team on a regular basis. In crunch time, when you're trying twin those games that are tough, that's the time you need a player like that. Any time a player comes back like that, three-quarters of the way through the season, he's only going to be about 80 percent conditioned. I think by the end, for us, he was 80-85 percent, and at the World Championships he was probably 90. If he puts in a good summer there's no reason coming out of training camp he can't be just where he was before.


ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides, in your estimation, and had the biggest impact on your team?
Waddell:
There's no doubt Kovy. He took his game to another level. He was determined to try and be the best player, but always hoped the team would win and when we lost he was always very disappointed. He's a very emotional player. He certainly cared about helping his team and wants to win. That was very pleasing. It would have been easy to take the other role. He and Dany are so close. No one would have said anything if he'd come out and scored 25 goals. I'm very proud of the way he handled things.


ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Waddell:
There's no doubt we missed Dany Heatley for the whole season, but we need our other key players to stay healthy for the whole season. You can't lose your key players for long times and have success. Savard missed 37 games, Heatley missed 51, That's a lot of games for two of your big players. We need those guys just to be healthy.

We knew what we were getting when we made the trade for Savvy. He was a guy with a high skill level but he also had some history with him. On the day I traded for him, I called him into my office and told him we all know your history but that history is behind you. This is a fresh start. He's a guy that's got to be challenged every day and Bob's done a good job of handling him.


ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Waddell:
I think Lehtonen is going to challenge Nurminen a lot this year. We're not looking for Lehtonen to push Nurminen out. But we'll let the goaltenders' dictate who plays the games. Pasi's a very competitive person. It's going to be very interesting. I think Pasi wants the best for Kari, but that doesn't mean he wants to lose his job to him. Lehtonen was unbelievable (in the AHL playoffs). I witnessed a lot of those games firsthand and I think he was better than even the numbers showed.

Braydon Coburn is another. He's bigger and stronger which means he did all that we asked him to do this season. He's ready for the next challenge now. I talked to him today and I told him this is an opportunity for you. We're looking for him to come in here and make our team. It's not like it's a reach for him as a player or as a person.


ESPN.com: What's the top priority in improving the organization?
Waddell:
Our defense needs to get better, and we've addressed that with Havelid and Modry. We know we're going to score enough goals. Andy Sutton went through a few injuries last year. Garnet Exelby had a good first year. I think those guys you've got to demand more from them. If you can take the 17-18 scoring chances and cut them down to five or six, the goaltending's going to be there. They definitely go hand in hand.


ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Waddell:
I don't know if I'd call it a favorite moment, but something that was emotional was winning opening night here after all that happened. I think was an important moment for me, personally.

ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Waddell:
Staying away from obviously the tragedy that happened, probably sitting in Finland getting ready to watch the World Junior championship and getting a call from Montreal that we'd lost three players to injury in one game and having to get on a plane and come back because all hell was breaking loose.


ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Waddell:
I'll spend a few weekends away at my summer place in Michigan. I'm a boat person. We have many, mostly speedboats. We do a lot of skiing and now we've got the jet skis. We're right on the water. I also build projects there. I just built a screened in porch there. And I have a 60-by-30 foot pole barn where I keep all my tools and boats and stuff. I also have a '52 Chevy. I'm into old cars. And we have street hockey games in there. It's great. It's all cement floors and it's cool in there. My nephews all come up. Everyone gets to choose from Kovalchuk and Heatley sticks. I like to play goal.

Scott Burn side is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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