It's a bittersweet ending to the Ilya Kovalchuk era in Atlanta. After months of failed contract negotiations, Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils thursday night.
In Atlanta, we are now living in the post-Kovalchuk era. We owe Ilya a big thanks for his 8 years of service in Atlanta. I feel lucky to have witnessed the talent and passion he brought to Atlanta Thrashers hockey. When I first became interested in hockey, Ilya had just been selected 1st overall by the Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He was the face of everything I knew about the sport. It has truly been an honor to watch him play in Atlanta. I will always remember him as the icon of athleticism in my adolescent years. If the Thrashers do not make the playoffs, I will be pulling for Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils to make a strong push for the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.
So, what now for Atlanta?
In exchange for Ilya Kovalchuk and Anssi Salmela, The Thrashers received defenseman Johnny Oduya, forwards Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier, and a 1st round draft choice in 2010. The teams also swapped 2nd round choices. Many Thrashers fans do not believe this is a fair deal. After all, the face of the franchise is gone and the names in return are mostly unrecognizable for southern hockey fans. However, I believe General Manager Don Waddell got a fair deal, given that Kovalchuk is an impending unrestricted free agent. Here's why:
-Niclas Bergfors: As a Thrashers enthusiast, I have to say that Bergfors is the element of this deal that excites me the most. I was surprised to see that New Jersey included him in the deal. At 22 years old, Bergfors was already becoming a solid piece of the New Jersey offense. He is 5th in rookie scoring so far this year. In 54 games he has 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points. Drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft, Bergfors was trusted by Devils coach Jaques Lemaire to play an average of 15 minutes per game. That is impressive for a rookie. He is ready to step in and make an immediate impact for a Thrashers offense that is in need of a fresh start. He has the potential to be a consistent 20-goal scorer for years to come. Besides, his name is really just “Forsberg” switched around! Bergfors will be a restricted free agent this summer.
-Johnny Oduya: TSN's Darren Dreger hit this one on the head: “Oduya is a safe player.” The 28 year old Oduya was a top 4 defenseman on a very defensive Devils team. He will be representing Team Sweden in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Under former Devils coach Brent Sutter, Oduya put together 26 and 29-point campaigns and was +20 or higher in the plus-minus department. This year, those numbers are down, but that could be attributed to the style of new coach Jaques Lemaire, who was hired by the devils last summer. Most telling of Oduya is that he averaged over 21 minutes of ice time per game in New Jersey. He is more than capable of making an immediate impact on a struggling Thrashers defense. Oduya is under contract for two more years.
-Patrice Cormier: Cormier was recently the center of attention for a cheap shot that earned him a season-long suspension from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. By no means do I condone the use of cheap shots. However, Cormier is an important part of this trade. At 19 years old, he was the captain of the Canadian World Junior team. To be captain on a team that includes elite prospects such as Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle is quite an honor and tells of Cormier's potential leadership skills. In 54 games last year with Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL, Cormier tallied 51 points in 54 games and 9 points in 9 playoff games. Waddell has already stated that he expects Cormier to make the Atlanta Thrashers roster out of training camp next year.
In the end, Waddell got exactly what he needed to get from this trade: Two players who can make an impact now (Oduya, Bergfors), a skilled prospect that can help the team in the near future (Cormier), and a 1st round pick that could used to stockpile prospects at the draft or could potentially be traded elsewhere for a deal at the deadline. Waddell doesn't have a face to his franchise, but he does have assets to work with.
Unfortunately, there is no longer a superstar in Atlanta for everybody to refer to. However, that does not mean Thrashers hockey cannot succeed in the near future. Let's face it: under terrible ownership circumstances, Waddell attempted to build a team around Ilya Kovalchuk for 8 years. It just didn't work out. Perhaps the writing is on the wall and it is time to take a fresh approach to building the hockey team. The Thrashers have young talent in Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Niclas Bergfors, and Ondrej Pavelec, along with solid veterans like Nikolai Antropov, Tobias Enstrom, and Ron Hainsey. There is no reason to believe the Thrashers cannot make the playoffs this year and be a contender in years to come. It will be tough, it will take hard work, patience, and some luck, but hope is still alive.
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Written by Kevin Thurston