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Forgetting last year's finish, young Thrashers hope to race back to playoffs

On Friday, as the Thrashers opened training camp, while preparing to defend their Southeast Division title, goalie Kari Lehtonen was hardly relishing memories of that first post-season.

Asked what he gained from the playoff experience, Lehtonen said "Not much. I just want to forget them."

Lehtonen and the Thrashers were outscored 17-6 and swept in four games by the New York Rangers in the playoffs.

"Our players that were here last year know what was left on the table," said general manager Don Waddell on Friday.

Some of the most experienced players from that Atlanta team are not back. Coach Bob Hartley must replace forwards Scott Mellanby, Keith Tkachuk, Eric Belanger and Jon Sim and defencemen Greg de Vries, Andy Sutton and Shane Hnidy.

Mellanby, the team captain, retired.

Meanwhile, forward Steve Rucchin, still suffering post-concussion symptoms following an injury on Feb. 8, failed his training camp physical.

"I can tell you we're not counting on him the first half of the year," Waddell said. "It's already seven months. We expected things would be much better."

Waddell said Rucchin, 36, has no problems when going through normal routines, but suffers headaches when he tries to play. Rucchin plans to see a specialist in Colorado.

The average age of last year's team was about 31. At the end of training camp, Hartley expects to have a younger team that places a greater emphasis on speed.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we are a faster team," Hartley said. "A faster team equates to pressure. Those faster guys are here to skate ... and we'll make sure we use their speed to our advantage, from penalty killing to board-checking to just five-on-five hockey. I think speed will definitely be a big factor in our team success."

Among the candidates to join forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa on the Thrashers' first line are veteran centres Todd White and Eric Perrin. Each signed as free agents.

White, an eight-year veteran, had 13 goals and 44 points with the Minnesota Wild last season. Perrin had 13 goals and 23 assists with Tampa Bay.

Waddell said White signed on the first day of free agency following a recommendation from Hossa, who played with the centre in Ottawa. Waddell said White was targeted as a player who should complement Kovalchuk's style.

"We know he's a good person and a good teammate, and Marian said of all the guys he's played with, he's a guy who passes the puck and sees the ice as well as any centre," Waddell said. "He's not going to get 100 points, he's not that type of centre, but he's a set-up guy and he's a guy who can play on the other end of the ice."

Two notable prospects competing for roster spots are forwards Bryan Little, 19, and Brett Sterling, 23. Little was the team's first-round draft pick in 2006.

Sterling (five-seven, 185) led the AHL with 55 goals for Chicago last season.

"He's got that natural ability of scoring goals at every level he has played at, junior hockey, college hockey and last year at the pro level," Waddell said. "He's going to get a good opportunity."

Sterling, White (5-10, 195) and Perrin (5-9, 176) are part of the new wave of smaller players in camp.

"It's a little smaller team up front, but I don't think it's any less physical," Sterling said of the Thrashers' forwards in camp. "Hopefully it will be a little quicker and that will lead to more goals."

Leading possibilities to succeed Mellanby as captain include Hossa, Bobby Holik, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Niclas Havelid and Garnet Exelby.

"One thing I hope and I know, everyone who played with Scott Mellanby learned from him," Hartley said.

"We have so many great leaders. ... Whoever we name captain, we have plenty of good options. It's going to be a tough decision."

The Thrashers play at St. Louis Sunday in their pre-season opener. They open the regular season at Philips Arena on Oct. 5 against Washington. The team plays 10 of its first 14 games away from Atlanta.



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