Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell has a lot to consider as team captain Ilya Kovalchuk has yet to sign a contract extension. Kovalchuk is scheduled to be a free agent on July 1st if he does not sign a new deal.
“We won't be talking about this at Christmas time.” That's what Waddell said of contract discussions with Ilya Kovalchuk in September of 2008. Now its nearly the end of January- well past Christmas time- and Ilya Kovalchuk still has not put his signature on the dotted line. We all know Waddell wants to get Kovalchuk signed to a new contract with the Thrashers, but as both the Olympics and trade-deadline loom in the not too distant future, Waddell is forced to consider all of the options…including less-than-ideal ones.
Option #1- Trade him. The trade-deadline is March 3rd, but if the Thrashers elect to trade their team captain, they will need to do it before the Olympics. If Kovalchuk gets injured during his two weeks with the Russian Olympic team, all hope of getting a good deal for Kovalchuk would be flushed down the toilet (a la Marian Gaborik with the Wild last year) and the team could possibly be forced to hold on to him until July 1st, when he may sign elsewhere.
Suppose the Thrashers do trade him prior to the Olympics. Where will he go? Who will the Thrashers get in return? So far, there are three suitors that seem to lead the pack in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.
Los Angeles Kings: From a Thrashers perspective, you would love to see forward Wayne Simmonds and/or defenseman Jack Johnson coming back in the deal. Simmonds, a mere 21 years old, has 30 points in 47 games and is a jaw-dropping +18 in a tough Western Conference. Johnson, 23, is an offensive defenseman who would fit very well in Thrashers coach John Anderson's offensive style. Johnson, however, has struggled in the plus-minus department as he has posted a -18 in 50 games. Since Kovalchuk is not signed to a contract extension, it will be hard to convince Los Angeles to give up Johnson or especially Simmonds for a 3 month rental player. However, Los Angeles may be the team that can sign Kovalchuk to a new contract, which makes this deal quite interesting.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have well over half of their salary cap space tied up in just 6 roster players: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Dunacan Keith, Brian Campbell, and Cristobal Huet. After that, there's not much left of the payroll pie to give to forwards Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp or defenseman Cam Barker. So, General Manager Stan Bowman, how about shedding Versteeg (Age 23, 13 goals, 18 assists, +12), Barker (Age 23, 4 goals, 10 assists, +5), and a 1st round pick for Ilya Kovachuk? Chicago dumps salary and gets an elite sniper for their push to the Stanley Cup finals, and the Thrashers get young firepower on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck, plus a great pick in the upcoming draft. If you ask me, this is the deal I'd like to see.
Boston Bruins: The folks in Boston would really love to see Kovalchuk re-united with Marc Savard, who both lit myriad lamps during their days together in Atlanta. A deal for Kovalchuk could see Blake Wheeler, Michel Ryder, and an early pick headed to Atlanta. That's a decent deal, as Wheeler, (age 23, 12 goals, 17 assists, -8) is on his way to an excellent NHL career, and Ryder (age 29, 12 goals, 8 assists, +1) could possibly fill the potential void left by Atlanta's Slava Kozlov, who may retire. However, Waddell should be hesitant to make deals with eastern conference teams who are battling with the Thrashers for a playoff spot.
Option #2- Waddell and the Thrashers elect to hold on to Kovalchuk at the deadline. If the Thrashers are still in contention for a playoff spot come March 3rd, Waddell may want to hold on to his team's captain and risk it all on making the playoffs. If the team makes the playoffs, Kovalchuk may be influenced to sign a contract extension with the Thrashers. But you have to ask, is one playoff appearance worth seeing Kovalchuk possibly sign elsewhere on July 1st? I tend not to think so. It is possible that the team could trade his rights prior to July 1st, but that would require letting another team negotiate with him prior to free agency, and the return would probably involve nothing more than picks and/or prospects.
Option #3- Sign him! Of course, this dance takes two. It is widely believed that the hold-up on the Kovalchuk contract extension involves dollar and term. Kovalchuk is reported to want somewhere in the ballpark of 10 million per season on a term of 10 or more years. That is a complicated deal for Atlanta to make, as the ownership is mired in financial and legal issues and the franchise may not be in position to commit so much time and money to one player. Rumors have it that Waddell's latest offer was for the dollar amount of about 8.3 million per season. Kovalchuk has frequently told the media that Atlanta is his first choice and that he wants to play for one team his entire career, but if that were truly the case, Kovalchuk would be willing to sign for Waddell's offer, which is favorable to the salary cap and the team's financial future. Any deal involving 10 million dollars are more could potentially be crippling to the franchise in an era that may see the salary cap shrink.
That's a lot to consider, huh? Well, the Kovalchuk contract is only part of the mess that's flooding Waddell's desk this year. Waddell also has to consider what to do with other upcoming unrestricted free agents Maxim Afinogenov, Pavel Kubina, and Colby Armstrong, and also how to approach slumping restricted free agent Bryan Little. Also, if the team is in playoff contention at the deadline, might Waddell try to trade for some playoff help?
One thing is for sure: The coming weeks will certainly define the next several years for the Atlanta Thrashers. Will they have their captain on a long-term deal? Or wIll they have some new, young names to work with over the next few years? Will they lose Kovalchuk for nothing on July 1st? Will Don Waddell even be the team's general manager next year? Atlanta may be a small hockey market, but big things are sure to happen in the coming weeks.
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Written by Kevin Thurston