DULUTH, Ga. - On the opening day of his first training camp as the Atlanta Thrashers coach, Bob Hartley saw enough talent at goalie to anticipate an intense competition that could extend into the season.
Hartley's opening message to the leading contenders for the starting job - Byron Dafoe and Pasi Nurminen - Friday was that the players, not the coach, would determine if one goalie wins the competition or two share the playing time.
"If I have to split (the playing time), we'll split," Hartley said. "If one guy has to go 75 games, I'll play one guy 75 games."
Added Hartley: "I didn't come here to split goalies. I didn't come here to listen to goalies whining in my ear. I came here to win hockey games, and whoever is going to help us win, he'll be in there."
Hartley said that if the goalies hear that message through the media, "maybe I'll save a meeting."
Dafoe, 32, is a veteran who was expected to bring stability to the position when he signed as a free agent with Atlanta before last season. Due to Dafoe's nagging groin injuries and Milan Hnilicka's inconsistent play, Nurminen emerged as the starter.
Nurminen set a franchise record for wins, posting a 21-19-5 record with a 2.88 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
If not for Dafoe's reputation as one of the league's better goalies before his struggles last season, the 27-year-old Nurminen might be a lock to open this season as the starter.
Dafoe impressed Hartley and Atlanta general manager Don Waddell with his offseason commitment to conditioning. Dafoe said he has lost about 20 pounds, reporting to camp at about 185 pounds.
"I played 10 years in the NHL at (205 pounds)," Dafoe said. "At my position, more than at any other position, quickness is important. I feel I'm just as strong, if not stronger, as before. I just think having less weight will make you quicker."
Dafoe said that after fighting groin injuries all season, "You have to re-evaluate your situation. ... It's a big year for me."
Hartley posted a 19-15-5 record after he took over as head coach last year, boosting expectations for this fifth season for the franchise.
There is much anticipation that an Atlanta team led by high-scoring forwards Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk can advance to the playoffs for the first time.
The Thrashers, who gave up a league-high 284 goals last year, will have to have strong play from Nurminen and Dafoe to reach that goal.
Hartley says Dafoe already has proved his commitment to winning the starting job.
"I think I came early basically every morning of the summer and there was Byron at 8 in the morning working the weights and working on his conditioning," Hartley said.
"I know (Friday) morning he looked great and he feels great and we're pretty proud of him. I know he's proud of himself, too. I think his conditioning will really give him a chance to rebound from a tough year he had last year."
Nurminen also said he is in better health than at any time last season, when he fought a knee injury.
"For the first time I feel I am totally healthy," Nurminen said. "I know I have to fight for a job and earn it. It doesn't matter what you have done in the past."
The team expects to take only two goalies into the season but it opened camp with six players at the position, including 19-year-old Kari Lehtonen, who likely will begin the season with Chicago of the American Hockey League.
Lehtonen may be Thrashers' goalie of the future, but Dafoe and Nurminen could combine to make the position a strength for the team.
"We know what Byron has done in the past and what Pasi did last year," said center Marc Savard. "I think it's going to be a good situation. They're both competitive guys."
NOTES: Center Dan Snyder had surgery Tuesday after aggravating an ankle injury in the offseason. "We know he's not going to be ready opening night (Oct. 9)," Waddell said. "We don't think it's going to be long-term."
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