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Thrashers just fine with lack of star power

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

DULUTH -- There's a severe shortage of NHL star power in Atlanta.

That's just fine with the two guys now running the Thrashers.

Rick Dudley took over as general manager and gave Craig Ramsay his long-awaited chance to coach at this level, albeit with a team that has made the playoffs only once in 10 seasons. They're hoping a deeper roster will produce more wins -- and make hockey relevant again in Atlanta.

The Thrashers opened training camp Friday and hold their first workouts Saturday.

As always at this time of year, there's plenty of optimism.

"Teams that rely solely on one of two players, at some point they find out that doesn't work," Ramsay said. "You don't win the big prize with one or two players. You win the big prize because your third and fourth lines add something to the team, because your fifth and sixth defensemen add quality to the team. That's what I see on this team."

Over the years, the Thrashers have featured top players such as Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk. But they never had enough talent around them, which resulted in just one winning record -- and no playoff wins -- since Atlanta entered the league in 1999.

Dudley looked at Stanley Cup champion Chicago as the model he wanted to emulate. The Blackhawks had just one player, Patrick Kane, in the top 30 on the scoring list. But they had five in the top 100.

"That's what we were thinking when we started making changes," said Dudley, who became just the second GM in team history when Don Waddell was kicked upstairs to president. "To me, that's better. If you've got a lot of players, you can't just stop one of two of them. We feel we have four lines who can actually play and contribute. There may not be a superstar. But they'll be hard to play against."

This is certainly a key year for the franchise, which has been the subject of constant speculation about a possible sale and move to another city.

The Thrashers averaged just 13,607 per game last season, the third-lowest figure in the league. Attendance has dropped steadily over the last three years, falling 16 percent from the 16,239 who turned out in 2006-07, when the team made its only playoff appearance (and was swept in four games by the New York Rangers).

"This is a very important season," Dudley said. "We obviously want to win. We also want people to be excited about the team."

Hardly anyone noticed the start of training camp. The Braves are locked in a tight race for the baseball playoffs. Georgia, Georgia Tech and the Falcons all have key football games this weekend. Heck, even the WNBA's Atlanta Dream have been generating more buzz than the Thrashers, though their season ended Thursday night with a loss in the league finals.

The Thrashers don't have a lot of big names on their roster. Nik Antropov (24 goals, 67 points) is the top returning scorer. Only two other players scored as many as 20 goals.

But Dudley and Ramsay will quickly point out that 10 players had double-figure goals, including those who should have plenty of upside such as 19-year-old Evander Kane and five others who are 25 and younger: Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little, Niclas Bergfors, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien.

The 255-pound Byfuglien was the team's biggest acquisition of the offseason, picked up from the salary purging Blackhawks after playing a major role in Chicago's run to the title. He scored 11 goals in the playoffs, three of them game-winners in the conference semifinals against San Jose.

The Thrashers touted Byfuglien as one of the top power forwards in the league when they made the deal, but they plan to use him on the back line with his new team. He'll join the 20-year-old Bogosian (10 goals, 13 assists), Tobias Enstrom (50 points) and Ron Hainsey in a defensive corps that should give Ramsay a chance to put his philosophy into motion.

The new coach wants everyone moving up to take a role in the offense -- and everyone getting back to help out in the defensive zone.

Most of all, he wants a team that's fun to watch, even if the fans don't recognize all the names.

"I don't want to try to win every game 2-1 and 1-0," Ramsay said. "We want to create a level of excitement with this hockey team. We want to bring the crowd into the game. When everyone gets involved, it's way more appealing."

NOTES: Rookie C Patrice Cormier, acquired last season in the deal that sent Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey, is out indefinitely after breaking his right foot blocking a shot in a rookie-camp scrimmage Thursday. Surgery will not be required. ... LW Andrew Kozek will need surgery to repair a sports hernia. ... C Jim Slater (wrist) and RW Ian McKenzie (groin) are both day to day.