“That’s the way it was in Detroit and now here in Atlanta,” Kozlov said with a laugh.
He was overshadowed in Hockeytown by such greats as Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan and he remains somewhat overlooked in Atlanta thanks to fellow Thrashers wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.
Did anyone take into account that the 34-year-old Kozlov sat fourth in NHL scoring heading into Thursday’s games with 22 points (8-14) in 18 games?
With seven points (4-3) in his last two games, people are indeed finally giving notice.
“In the past four days I’ve done more interviews than in the past four years,” Kozlov said Thursday from Atlanta.
The lack of attention over the course of a career that’s produced 652 points (285-367) in 900 NHL games is somewhat self-inflicted. He’s a quiet guy who doesn’t look for the spotlight. But make no mistake, he’s a leader on a team trying to make the playoffs for the time in franchise history.
“I try to lead by example by what I do on the ice,” said Kozlov. “Our coach (Bob Hartley) won a Stanley Cup and he talks to the young players. He does a very good job, which makes my life easy. I don’t have any special speeches but I just tell a few stories once in a while about how nice it is to be in the playoffs.”
Kozlov, chosen 45th overall by the Wings in the 1990 NHL entry draft, won back-to-back Cup rings with the Wings in ’97 and ’98 and pines for a return to playoff hockey. He hasn’t played in a playoff game since 2001.
“The atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit was unbelievable,” he said. “I miss those times. I miss being in the playoffs. I think it’s the greatest thing in hockey.”
The Thrashers are certainly on their way, leading the Eastern Conference with 27 points thanks to a 12-3-3 record.
“It’s a good group of guys,” said Kozlov. “We made some trades and signed some free agents. Kari (Lehtonen) is playing really well, so has Johan (Hedberg), and I think that’s why we’re winning because our goaltending has been very strong.”
Kozlov is in the last year of a contract that pays him US$2.014 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 but by the sounds of it there’s nowwhere else he’d rather play.
“I’ve very much enjoyed my time in Atlanta ever since I got traded from Buffalo,” said Kozlov. “It’s a good organization here, they’ve treated me really well.”
His one-year stop in Buffalo, on the other hand, was not so good. Traded by the Wings to the Sabres in July 2001 along with a first-round pick for star goalie Dominik Hasek, Kozlov never fit in with his new team.
“When I got traded to Buffalo I made a quote in the paper that I would go to Buffalo for two years (the rest of his contract) and then I would leave as a free agent,” recalled Kozlov. “Maybe they didn’t like that.”
What Kozlov didn’t like was Buffalo’s defensive style of play at the time.
“Detroit was a completely different team – offence and great skill,” said Kozlov.
His 2001-02 season with the Sabres was cut short at 38 games by a torn Achilles tendon, adding to a year from hell.
“It wasn’t a very enjoyable time. It was a miserable time for me,” said Kozlov. “I didn’t want to go to the locker-room. I was the first player to leave the rink every day. My family helped me a lot through that time. The trade to Atlanta was the best for both sides, for myself and for Buffalo. It wasn’t working.
“And I think I became a better player for going through that tough time. It made me stronger. I’m enjoying it in Atlanta now.”
He’s currently on a line with Niko Kapanen at centre and Hossa on the other wing. Kapanen has struggled with only four points (1-3) in 18 games.
“Niko is getting better every game,” said Kozlov. “I understand what he’s going through, he got traded from Dallas and it’s different, a different coach, a different organization. It’s going to take time to adapt to new system.
“I had the same thing when I got traded to Buffalo. But he’s played well the past few games. He’s very tricky with the puck, he’s a good passer and strong on faceoffs.”
Hossa is a treat.
“Hossa is one of the best skaters in the NHL,” said Kozlov. “He’s so fast. I think he gets a breakaway every game. We give him the puck and he’s flying with it. He can put the puck in the net. We also talk to each other a lot before games and design plays for the power play. We also kill penalties together. He’s a very talented player.”