Thrashers must improve to keep Kovalchuk

DULUTH - Ilya Kovalchuk wants to spend the next several seasons as captain of the Atlanta Thrashers.

For Kovalchuk to get his wish, however, the Thrashers first must upgrade the roster and then sign him to a new contract before he hits unrestricted free agency in July 2010.

'We'll see,' Kovalchuk said Monday. 'It's a business. Hopefully they're going to work and get some players and then we're going to talk about a new deal.'

Less than 48 hours after the Thrashers finished another disappointing season, Kovalchuk looked ahead with more hope than he had in mid-April last year, when the team was without a head coach and never came close to making the playoffs after trading away Marian Hossa.

Kovalchuk has reason for optimism, despite missing the playoffs six of his seven seasons with Atlanta. He can take some stock in the promising futures of center Bryan Little, the 12th overall draft pick of 2006, and rookie defenseman Zach Bogosian, selected third overall last June.

Considering that Kovalchuk's 296 goals are the most in the NHL since he was drafted first overall in 2001, the native Russian, who turns 26 on Friday, knows that he remains the most important piece in a winning future for Atlanta.

'I think that's really good for us that we have a lot of young guys who want to play and be the best players in this league,' said Kovalchuk, who made a base salary of $7.5 million this season. 'As the captain of this team, it's good for me to see that we can get better. If we add a couple of more players, then we can do some damage next year.'

Kovalchuk believes forward Colby Armstrong, whom Atlanta acquired in the deal that sent Hossa to Pittsburgh at the 2008 trade deadline, can build on a career-best 22 goals. Kovalchuk insists that 36-year-old Slava Kozlov again proved his value with 51 assists, the second-highest single season in his 17-year career, and 26 goals. Todd White's 72 points, including a team-best 52 assists, were another asset.

The Thrashers' captain, though, still gave little credibility to Atlanta's winning 12 of the last 18 games when the team had no chance of making the playoffs.

'There is a little better feeling, but it is kind of the same,' Kovalchuk said in comparing 2007-08 and 2008-09. 'We didn't really take steps forward, so we are in the exact same position (76 points both seasons). I don't think we take too many steps forward and hopefully we're going to change and get better this summer.'