Originally created 10/25/02

It's shaping up as another dismal season for Thrashers



ATLANTA -- Seven months. Seven long months since the Atlanta Thrashers won a hockey game that counted.

"What can I say?" coach Curt Fraser groaned after the latest setback, a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. "This is a tough stretch for everybody."

Granted, this winless streak extended through the offseason, when the Thrashers can take solace from knowing they didn't lose any games, either.

But that doesn't excuse finishing last season without a victory in their last nine games, or starting this season with seven straight losses. Atlanta hasn't won a regular-season game since a 3-2 overtime victory over the Ottawa Senators on March 23.

The Thrashers have managed only one point - for an overtime loss - dealing a swift blow to the team's fragile psyche following a league-low 54 points last season.

"We're just not finding a way to win games," Fraser said in a familiar refrain. "We better find a way - and quick."

If not, Fraser could be looking for a new job. If not, several Thrashers could be playing in different uniforms. If not, the crowds at Philips Arena could be reduced to family and friends.

The turnout for Wednesday's game was announced at 10,641 - second-lowest in franchise history - and the actual attendance appeared to be no more than 9,000. Whatever the case, everyone had plenty of room to stretch out in the 18,545-seat arena.

"It's tough on everybody, but we can't let it get us down," center Patrik Stefan said. "The season is long. We've been close in every game. Right now, we've lost seven games, but we easily could have won five of them."

The Thrashers point out how close they've been. Four times, they've squandered two-goal leads. Five of the losses have been by a mere goal. And they did manage to win three of seven preseason games.

"It's not like we've been blown out," general manager Don Waddell said Thursday after practice. "Our first few years, we had lots of losses and lots of blowouts also. No one is happy about this, but there's no reason to panic yet."

Of course, good teams find a way to win those close games. The Thrashers are left with nothing but what-ifs and the expectation that they'll eventually get some breaks.

"We're just a step away," said Dany Heatley, rookie of the year last season. "Once we get a win, I think the monkey will be off our back and we'll be rolling."

Not so fast. The Thrashers have been plagued by shaky goaltending, a defense that might as well put out a welcome mat in front of the net and a lack of scoring depth beyond the first two lines.

"We have to be tougher to play against," Fraser conceded. "When teams come in here now, they're comfortable."

Fraser is anything but comfortable. Already, he has defied NHL coaching odds by making it to his fourth year with a dismal team that has lost 171 games and won just 59 since entering the league in 1999.

Waddell insists that he's not about to bring in a new coach.

"It's too early to even talk about making a change," the GM said. "I still believe Curt is the guy to get us through this.

"Sure, we can't lose every game or no one is safe. But the thing I'm looking for in a coach: Have the players quit on him? The players have not quit on Curt. If anything, they're working extra hard because they know how hard he works."

The players agree, saying they don't want Fraser to take the fall for their shortcomings.

"It's not his fault," goaltender Milan Hnilicka said. "We're all responsible."

Atlanta's biggest problem is at the defensive end. Waddell brought in veterans Richard Smehlik and Uwe Krupp to steady the backline, but Krupp quickly found his way to the injured list because of recurring back problems - hardly a surprise considering he played only 10 games the last three seasons.

Hnilicka hasn't been able to cover for the defensive shortcomings, giving up soft goals and failing to make momentum-changing saves. The Thrashers have given up 31 goals - more than any team in the league.

The offense has been more encouraging, led by Heatley, Russian teenager Ilya Kovalchuk and newcomers Shawn McEachern and Slava Kozlov.

But Kovalchuk, who had 29 goals as a rookie, hasn't shown much interest in helping at the defensive end. In the latest loss, Kovalchuk and Stefan failed to get back when Jeff Friesen broke in alone to score New Jersey's first goal.

Hnilicka is tired of all the losing.

"I want to turn it around as soon as possible," he said. "We've got to start building a new tradition here."