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Kovalchuk ready to lead Thrashers

DULUTH - Ilya Kovalchuk has gone from the youngest Atlanta Thrasher to the longest-tenured player with the NHL team.

There have been a lot of goals in between for the top overall pick in the 2001 draft, but even more losses.

Kovalchuk, still just 25, had 52 goals last season - the second-most in the NHL. The Thrashers, though, won just 34 games.

Although no one in hockey enjoys scoring more than Kovalchuk, the numbers he says he's most concerned about this season are in the standings.

"I'm ready for a big season, but it's not an individual sport," Kovalchuk said Saturday after the Thrashers went through their first practice. "It's a team sport."

Kovalchuk scored the winning goal in overtime as Russia won the World Championship over Canada, but even that couldn't take away the sting of an NHL season gone terribly bad.

Bob Hartley, who had coached the Thrashers to their first playoff berth the year before, was fired after an 0-6 start and Atlanta posted the third-worst record in the NHL as general manager Don Waddell finished up behind the bench on an interim basis.

John Anderson, a former NHL player, is the new coach after leading the Chicago Wolves to the AHL's Calder Cup champion last season.

"We're going to play a totally new system," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully with our speed and talent, we'll get way, way better results than last season."

The Thrashers have searched for two seasons for someone to play center on the top line with Kovalchuk. Again, there is not a clear-cut choice.

"I think he can score 50 goals playing with anybody," Anderson said of finding a linemate for Kovalchuk. "It is a concern of mine, but nothing I'm going to lose sleep over."

Could Kovalchuk score 70 goals with a top-flight center to get him the puck?

"That's very possible," Anderson said. "But that's a lot of goals."

Enough goals to make Kovalchuk, not Russian countryman Alex Ovechkin of Washington, the NHL scoring leader.

"You never know," said Kovalchuk of reaching 70 goals. "If you have a little luck and can shoot the puck, you can score a lot of goals in this league."

Kovalchuk has two seasons left on a five-year contract worth almost $32 million. Whether the Thrashers can re-sign him will like depend on a turnaround in the standings.

"It's two years [away]," said Kovalchuk, who has 254 goals in six NHL seasons. "I need to play those two years and then we'll see. ... But I'm comfortable here. ... I love it here."

Except for the part about losing, that is. The Thrashers, who began NHL play in 1999, still haven't won a playoff game.

"We have to believe in ourselves," said Kovalchuk, a candidate to become team captain after serving as an alternate last season. "We have to change our mentality. We're going to win only together."

Notes: Defenseman Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in the June draft, sat out the first day of practice because of a hip-flexor. He is expected to return to the ice on Monday. Bogosian, 18, is given a good chance to make the team. ... Veteran forward Slava Kozlov will take it easy early in camp after having shoulder and knee surgery in the offseason. Banged up, he fell off to 17 goals and 41 points last season. ... The Thrashers' first preseason game is Thursday at Nashville. They play at St. Louis on Friday and at Detroit next Sunday.

SideBar: Training camp

· Who: Atlanta Thrashers

· Where: Duluth Ice Forum

· Today's practice: 9 to 11:15 a.m.

· First exhibition game: Friday at Nashville

· Season opener: Oct. 10 vs. Washington at Philips Arena, 7:30 p.m.