Puck Daddy - NHL

By Jan. 9 of this year, Maxim Afinogenov(notes) had more points in his first season with the Atlanta Thrashers than he had scored in his last two seasons combined with the Buffalo Sabres.

Entering Saturday's action, Afinogenov had 23 goals and 37 assists in what's been a comeback season for a player whose NHL future was in question last summer.

It's been an odd season for the Atlanta Thrashers: Trading away superstar Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) to the New Jersey Devils and then challenging for a playoff spot after that trade. It's also been an odd season for Afinogenov: Besides his turnaround on the ice, he played for the Russian Olympic team that disappointed in Vancouver.

We spoke with Afinogenov about his season, his history with the Buffalo Sabres, the Thrashers' future in Atlanta, the Russian Olympic team, his relationship with tennis star Elena Dementieva ... as well the usual questions about cars, music and beverages.

Q. Max, what would you say about your season?

AFINOGENOV: If we make the playoffs, I would be able to call the season a success. My own statistics have improved comparing to the last two years. I have gone through the season without injuries. I have been given a lot of ice time. Overall, it is all good. But making the playoffs would be a good end to the season.

The last couple of years before the Thrashers were like a nightmare for you?

It just so happened that I had injuries and I wasn't given a chance to play much. And here I was given this opportunity to play, to show what I can do.

What are you memories of Buffalo?

I spent 10 years there, and it's not like it left nothing [behind]. There was a lot of good. For example, we twice made it to the Conference Finals. I still have a lot of friends there. I have a lot of good memories. But the last two years marred those memories a little bit. But I don't regret that I was there. I just had to continue my career somewhere else. I made that decision last summer. And I think I didn't make a mistake.

And why do you think it was Atlanta where you started showing what you can do again?

First of all, the coaching staff sees hockey a little different here, comparing to Buffalo. It is a more attack oriented hockey here, there are a lot of Russian guys playing here. It also helps.

Don Waddell has talked about the leadership players like you and Nik Antropov(notes) have given the Thrashers this season. Do you feel like you've been more of a leader?  Do you feel being under pressure because of it?

I always feel it. When you're out on the ice playing you have to do your job responsibly. I think every player as the same philosophy. On the ice everyone has to do what is required of them, and to show what he can do. That's why that player is there.

Do you see yourself as a leader of the Thrashers?

Why not? Every player has to be a leader. You have to go out and prove that you can help your team.

There's been talk that Kovalchuk wasn't popular in the locker room, and that his leaving wasn't exactly something the players were all that upset about?

Why? Everyone was upset, including our fans and our management. But this is pure business. My understanding is that Ilya's contract was expiring and the contract talks stalled. Something had to be done not to loose him in the summer for nothing. A trade had to be done, and it was done.

When the news broke that the talks between Kovalchuk and the Thrashers hit an impasse back in December, Atlanta lost something like 11 games in a row. Could there be a connection?

Of course there was some kind of pressure on him. It is difficult to play hockey when you are negotiating about your future. But Ilya is a professional. He understands that every player is faced with the same situation at least once in his career. Kovalchuk tried his best and was helping the team the best way he could.

And what about the team? How did the situation with Kovalchuk's contract affect the team? He was the team captain.

Contract business is a behind-the-scenes matter. We don't sit down and discuss these things with our teammates. Every player must make a decision for himself. Of course, Kovalchuk's departure is a huge loss for Atlanta. Ilya and I had a pretty good chemistry playing together. We were on the same page very quickly. It is easy to play with a player like Ilya.

Is it difficult to play when there are so many empty seats in Atlanta?

When our team wins two-three games in a row, then there are more people at the next home game. And when we're losing, of course, a fan doesn't want to go to games. But right now we're fighting for a playoff spot, we're winning. And right now, even though we don't have sell-outs, there are a lot of people coming to our games.

Will Atlanta be in Atlanta in five years?

It is difficult to answer this question. There are a lot of rumors about this topic. I hope that the team stays. Atlanta is a good city for hockey, and our fans love it when we win. Why should the Thrashers move?  I don't see the point. Only if it is once again a business decision.

It goes back to fans showing up for games.

Before, obviously, fans came to see Kovy. Right now we're in the hunt for a playoff spot. Our fans believe in us, they come to games, they support us. I don't see a problem here.

You're a public person, an athlete. How have you handled the publicity of a high-profile relationship with Elena Dementieva?

I don't discuss this topic with anyone. [Very firmly]

I cannot avoid asking you about the Olympics in Vancouver. Some time has passed, everyone calmed down. But what exactly happened to Team Russia against Canada?

I think we simply didn't approach the game the right way. The start of that game was very bad. When you're losing by four goals in such games against such teams, it is practically impossible to come back. But still, the guys battled till the end. But once again I will repeat myself that we didn't approach the game the right way. From the start, we didn't play right against them.

What do you mean "didn't approach the right way?" Do you mean tactically?

And tactically as well. The Canadians put us under a lot of pressure. We started making mistakes and that's why we lost. We just had to withstand the pressure a little bit. But we started playing attacking-style hockey, opened up. But maybe we just had to tighten it up and close it up. But this is for the coaches to see. I think they have discussed this game and understood our mistakes. And this type of thing won't happen again.

The game against Slovakia exposed all of the mistakes. And Canada used those same mistakes to the full.

After the game against Slovakia we had a team meeting. We talked with the coaching staff, with other guys. We came out against the Czech Republic and played good hockey. We won the game and played well. But another disaster struck against Canada.

Maybe the Russians need a true General Manager to travel and scout players, to pick the team?  Just like Steve Yzerman was for the Canadians?

My job, as a player, is to play hockey. That's why I won't comment on this topic. If I am called up to play for the national team, I will play my best to help the team.

And a few regular Puck Daddy questions. What is your favorite drink?

I would have to say apple juice. No beer.

What are you driving these days? A dream car?

"A car! [laughing] A Mercedes. A car is not a dream. I have never had these sort of dreams. A car is just a means of getting somewhere. Of course you want to have a nice, beautiful car.

What's in your iPod?

A ton of different stuff. Mostly Russian songs. But there is no way I remember any of the bands. I have a lot of compilations.

You have a young team in Atlanta with a few young promising players. Who is the future star of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise?

It is difficult to say. Right now we have Kane, who is a good guy. And we also have a promising defenseman Bogosian. They are both very promising players. They are the youngest, they are only starting their journey in the NHL. Let's see what happens next season.

And Maxim Afinogenov?

I don't yet have a contract for the next season. That's why I don't know what is going to happen to me.

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