Since their inception seven years ago, the Atlanta Thrashers have flown under the radar of most NHL fans. This season, though, they've earned respect and attention while stampeding over opponents on a nightly basis.
Thrashers left winger Slava Kozlov can relate to both scenarios.
Over the course of his 15-year NHL career, Kozlov hasn't garnered anywhere close to the amount of press or prestige as some of his fellow Russian-born NHLers. Nevertheless, he has been an integral part of Atlanta's ascendancy in the standings this year and was among the league's top scorers (15 goals and 43 points in 39 games) as of mid-November.
The 34-year-old is on pace to obliterate personal career bests of 36 goals and 73 points in a single season, two totals he set more than a decade ago as a Red Wing. But ask Kozlov what he's doing differently this year and you'll see that he is well-versed in the Â“Aw shucks, I can't take all the creditÂ” routine.
Â“I think I'm playing at the same level as before,Â” Kozlov said. Â“We're just playing better team hockey. And I'm playing on the first power play (unit), around 20 minutes a game. That helps a lot. I think I played eight or 12 minutes in Detroit.Â”
Ah, Detroit. The place where Kozlov began his North American hockey journey after leaving his hometown of Voskresensk at age 19. The place where he won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and '98. The last team with which he played an NHL post-season game, five long years ago.
Thinking back on his Motown memories makes Kozlov not only wistful, but fiercely focused on returning to the post-season Â– this time, with a franchise that's never played a single playoff game.
Â“I miss the playoffs,Â” he said. Â“That was a great time in Detroit. I really want to have those unbelievable feelings again.Â”
Kozlov thinks this Thrashers team has the ability to deliver such a feeling.
Â“We have a good start so far and the team is playing better than we have since I've been here,Â” he said. Â“If we make the playoffs, I think every team can win the Stanley Cup. Look at Carolina Â– their goalie played unbelievable, and that's why they won. Hopefully we can put ourselves in that (position) this year.Â”
Legendary ex-coach Scotty Bowman said Kozlov was an understated piece of the championship puzzles he helped put together in Detroit.
Â“He was a solid player for us,Â” Bowman said. Â“He played mostly with (Sergei) Fedorov and Doug Brown and they were a very good line for us in the playoffs.
Â“He's a clutch player, always had a good scoring touch around the net. Now he's getting power play minutes, and he's making the most of his chances.Â”
Kozlov wasn't always as valued as he is today. The Wings sent him to Buffalo in 2001 as part of the trade that landed Dominik Hasek in Detroit; Kozlov toughed it out through one miserable season with the Sabres before Atlanta acquired him in 2002.
Right winger Marian Hossa Â–the biggest beneficiary of Kozlov's playmaking skills this season Â– knows how fortunate he is to have the veteran as his linemate.
Â“The Professor, he's one of the smartest players I ever played with,Â” said Hossa, referring to Kozlov by the nickname coach Bob Hartley bestowed upon him after he became a Thrasher. Â“(Kozlov) sees plays really well and doesn't have to use speed or quickness as much because he's smart and he can make the play and hit you when you get open. That's what makes the other players around him better.Â”
Kozlov isn't certain how much longer he'll be in the NHL, but is looking forward to controlling his own destiny as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Â“I don't know how many years I'm going to play,Â” he said.
Â“I don't think I want to come back north and play in Buffalo, or Calgary or Edmonton. I could also play in Russia, or I could retire. But I'm going to do what's best for my family. I'm going to finish this season and we'll see what happens.Â”
Until then, Kozlov wants to ensure Atlanta's solid start continues. And he's confident it will.
Â“Good teams start to play better after Christmas,Â” he said. Â“But I think we're going to improve, too. I think we're ready to shock the league.Â”
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