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By Eric Redner, Contributing NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Thrashers missed the playoffs last season by two points, which was much better than most experts predicted after the departure of Dany Heatley to Ottawa.

Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries came to the team from Ottawa in the trade that sent Heatley out of town. While Heatley enjoyed the best season of his career, Hossa and de Vries both had personal-best totals as well.

This season expect to see a new-look Atlanta team that will focus more on defense with the departure of setup-man Marc Savard and sniper Petr Bondra.

The team dropped these players to save on last season's inflated payroll, but the players the team brought in will fill an important defensive role on a club that finished 24th among NHL teams in goals-against average. Steve Rucchin will never put up the points like Savard, but he is much better at faceoffs and can help shut down opponents' top-scorers.

A big trade this off-season saw center Patrik Stefan and defenseman Jaroslav Modry shipped to the Dallas Stars in exchange for center Niko Kapanen and a seventh round pick in the 2006 draft.

Stefan, the first pick in Thrashers history, had suffered through injuries throughout his career and played only one complete season out of his six in the NHL. Modry is getting up there in years and is more of an offensive defenseman. Kapanen, though, should fit into the team's new philosophy of improved defense as he is typically matched up with the opposing team's top scoring line.

The big question mark in Atlanta's quest for its first postseason appearance will center on Kari Lehtonen. If the goaltender can stay injury free and appear in 60-plus games this season, look for fans in Atlanta to be lining up for playoff tickets come spring.

When all is said and done, though, the heart, soul, lungs, etc. of this team is Ilya Kovalchuk. The 23-year-old Russian is often overlooked in the league, but is one of the top forwards playing the game right now. He set career-highs in goals (52) and points (98) last season and while he lost a good setup man in Savard, look for this budding superstar to make the team his own and improve on those numbers.

This team's fortunes will revolve around Kovalchuk, Lehtonen and better play in the defensive end. If those three elements can click we will see some fresh blood in the chase for Lord Stanley's Cup.

FORWARDS - As mentioned before the heart and soul of this team is Kovalchuk. With the departure of Savard, Atlanta will rely even more on the Russian to get the offense going.

Kovalchuk, though, is not completely alone in the offensive zone. Hossa last season posted career-highs in assists (53) and points (92) and was especially dangerous on special teams. He notched 14 goals with the man advantage and was tops in the league with seven shorthanded goals.

The loss of Savard is no doubt a big blow to the teams center position, but look for the team to ask Bobby Holik to step it up and take over the faceoff responsibilities on the first line. He had his least productive season last year, but did miss almost two months with a broken foot. Playing on a line with a skilled playmaker like Kovalchuk should help him out.

The team definitely has a potent first line, but the second line which features Slava Kozlov, Steve Rucchin and Scott Mellanby can score goals and play defense.

A big question mark will be Glen Metropolit. He led the Swiss league with 63 points in 44 games last season so the club decided to take a risk and signed the 32-year-old in the offseason. If he can put up similar numbers, he could wind up moving up in the depth chart.

DEFENSE - Aside from the loss of Modry, the blueline squad will look much the same as it did last year.

The club inked Niclas Havelid to a three-year deal, the first player Atlanta signed in the offseason, and he will continue to be the No. 1 defenseman for the club.

With the departure of Modry, look for former first-rounder Braydon Coburn, who appeared in nine games last season, to be asked to become a full-time NHLer.

De Vries will now have a bigger role on the power play with the departure of Modry. The 33-year-old posted career-highs in assists (28) and points (35) last season and the club will definitely ask him to quarterback the second power play unit.

Steve McCarthy, who came to the team from Vancouver late in the season, will be asked to play a full season in the NHL. His career-high in games played came during the 2002-03 season when he appeared in 57 contests with the Chicago Blackhawks, who drafted him with their first pick in 1999.

GOALTENDING - If Lehtonen can stay healthy the team should be solid in net. He appeared in 38 games last season while struggling through a groin injury.

The team picked Lehtonen with the second overall draft choice of the 2002 Entry Draft and will expect him to live up to the choice and lead the team to the postseason.

If Lehtonen does fall the team has a good backup in Johan Hedberg. The team inked the free agent in the offseason from Dallas and he will be a good relief for Lehtonen when he needs some rest, or if he is unable to play.

Also, the team got Fred Brathwaite in the offseason in case something happens to both Lehtonen and Hedberg.
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