Thrashers open camp with eye on ever-elusive playoff berth

DULUTH - The Atlanta Thrashers opened training camp on Friday with one thing crystal clear: they're tired of missing the playoffs and close just isn't good enough.

The Thrashers won a franchise record 41 games in 2005-06 but fell two points shy of a playoff berth. It was their best run so far - Atlanta has yet to make the playoffs in its six years here - but head coach Bob Hartley made no bones about his feelings regarding last season.

"I'm looking for a better result," Harley said. "Not that I want to go back to last year, but we know where we ended up last year, how close we were. But close is only good in curling and horseshoes.

"Obviously we want to make the next step. We are ready for this, our fans are ready for this. We had a great buzz last year from the mid-point of the season until our final home game. It was unbelievable. You could feel that we were building something and we want to start right where we left off."

The Thrashers will attempt that with a revamped lineup. Gone are Marc Savard, who had 28 goals and 69 assists last year, Peter Bondra and Patrik Stefan. Savard and Stefan were centers so Atlanta picked up veterans Steve Rucchin and Glen Metropolit at that position.

The Thrashers return their other two top scorers - winger Ilya Kovalchuk and winger Marian Hossa, who had 98 and 92 points, respectively.

''We present a different face," Hartley said. "We're going to play the same style, but with some different players who will bring their own style. I think in many ways we can be a better team. We can be a much more responsible team and I'm looking for better results.''

General manager Don Waddell said he doesn't expect any one player to make up Savard's 100 points.

"But we potentially could pick up two guys that pick up 60 points and be better defensively," Waddell said. "The makeup of our team, we could be better structured. We may score a couple less goals, but we might give up quite a few less, too."

The Thrashers also stocked up on goalies. Kari Lehtonen, who missed a huge portion of last season with injuries, is healthy and the 22-year-old star has been joined by Johan Hedberg and Fred Brathwaite, both 33. Hedberg was 12-4-1 for Dallas last season while Brathwaite spent 2005-06 playing in Russia.

"(Lehtonen) will benefit tremendously from the presence of Johan Hedberg and Fred Brathwaite," Hartley said. "Those guys are class guys, the ultimate pro. You look at those two guys work, it's unbelievable. They will challenge him, they will push him, they will motivate him.

"We feel that we've never been this rich in goalies."

The Thrashers had 50 players in camp, through three were injured. The roster included a few former Gwinnett Gladiators, forwards Guillaume Desbiens and Kevin Doell, defenseman Jimmy Sharrow and goaltender Michael Garnett. Sharrow, who played 23 games for the Gladiators last season, was among the early injured. Sharrow broke his hand while attending a prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., last week and will be out three to four weeks. Waddell said.

The Thrashers won't wait long before making the first round of cuts. Hartley wants those players who'll certainly start the season in the American Hockey League at the first day of Chicago's camp.

Atlanta's first exhibition game is Monday in Dallas and the Thrashers open the regular season at home on Oct. 5. It'll be the first of 82 steps toward the playoffs.

Hartley had a theme for this year's training camp and it reflected the organization's ambitions. The slogan, on T-shirts floating around the practice facility in Duluth on Friday, is "bring it on."

"There's always urgency to win and obviously, over the past four, five years, the story we learned from the playoffs is that the 82-game regular season has an ultimate value," Hartley said. "Because once you get into the playoffs, you can be (the) 16th (seed), but you have as many chances to be part of the finals as the No. 1 team.

"You need to be consistent, you need to stay healthy, play well for 82 games."