MONTREAL - The goals have not been going in for Ilya Kovalchuk this season.
The two-time 52-goal scorer is on pace for barely 30 this season after scoring only five times in November, while his team, the Atlanta Thrashers, jostled with Tampa Bay, Florida and Ottawa to stay out of last place in the NHL Eastern Conference.
"But I'm still getting a lot of chances every game," Kovalchuk said Tuesday as the Thrashers prepared to meet the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre before moving on to Ottawa to meet the Senators on Wednesday night.
"If you work hard, the goals are going to come. Right now it's good because we have a lot of guys scoring points. We won five in a row a couple of weeks ago, so we showed everyone we can do it. We just need to be more consistent."
The Thrashers have scored their share of goals as a team so far this season under first-year coach John Anderson, who likes attacking hockey, and Kovalchuk's troubles around the net have put him in a hot race for the team lead in scoring with Vyacheslav Kozlov, Bryan Little and former Senator Todd White.
Last season, Kovalchuk's 52 goals and 35 assists led the team by nearly 40 points, once a late-season trade to Pittsburgh removed flashy winger Marian Hossa from the list.
In a bid to get Kovalchuk scoring again, Anderson came up with an unlikely line combination this week, placing him with checkers Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn. Kovalchuk and Thorburn have played together before.
"We thought about getting (Thorburn) more time with him, getting pucks out of the corner and stuff like that," said Anderson. "I would be more concerned if he wasn't getting chances, but he's getting a lot of quality shots and once he finds his range, he'll put more points on the board for us."
Kovalchuk, who tends to be a one-man show whomever he plays with, didn't take it as a demotion.
"You can't be bad if you play in the NHL," he said. "We don't have any superstars, but we've got a lot of hard workers."
Well, perhaps they have one.
Kovalchuk, the first Russian to be drafted first overall in 2001 by Atlanta, was a scoring machine through his first six NHL seasons, averaging 42 goals. He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Rick Nash of Columbus with 41 goals in 2003-04, and after the 2004-05 lockout, came back with a 52-goal season.
The 25-year-old will earn US$7.5 million this season and next under the $32 million, five-year contract he signed in 2005 - after threatening to go back to Russia.
He can become an unrestricted free agent in July 2010, and some wonder if he'll still be in Atlanta by then.
The Thrashers have not been able to climb the hill to NHL respectability despite a run of high draft picks. A few years ago, they looked set with Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, but Heatley was traded to Ottawa for Hossa, then Hossa asked out and went to Pittsburgh for a pair of good support players, Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong, but no star.
It is suspected that Atlanta general manager Don Waddell will try to extend Kovalchuk's contract next summer, but if they don't reach an agreement, Kovalchuk may also be moved to a new team.
It would seem that the 25-year-old might welcome a change. The Thrashers have reached the playoffs only once in their 10-year existence, when they were bounced out in the first round in 2007. He may want to play for a proven winner, as Hossa did in signing with Detroit this season.
But Kovalchuk says no - he wants to keep playing for the Thrashers no matter where they finish.
"It's frustrating, for sure, but it's so easy to ask for a trade and go play somewhere else and play on a good team," he said. "I'm here from the first day of my career and I want to go all the way, so hopefully we'll do better.
"I've got two more years and I'm going to play here for sure. I love it. They treat me first class, the fans love me. I can't say anything (bad) about here."
And if he's traded?
"That's business - I never think about it, but if it happens, what are you going to do?"
Whether the Thrashers will get better is still up in the air.
They won only twice in their first 11 games, then won five in a row, then had one win in the next seven - a 6-3 thrashing of the Maple Leafs in Toronto in which Kovalchuk scored a goal and got into a rare fight with defenceman Ian White.
They have the NHL's worst penalty killing and are among the worst in overall goals allowed.
"If you saw the games we lost, it would break your heart," said Anderson. "It has hurt mine a couple of times.
"Little things have happened to us. We're not as bad as our record shows and there's no team we've seen that we don't think we can beat - maybe not on a consistent basis, but certainly, we're not so horrible that we can't compete with a team like Detroit. We lost a one-goal game there. We're right there. It's just a matter of going that little extra mile."