I have been lax with the articles lately, but there is one topic in the NHL world that has been staying close to the surface for some time now. Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers is in the final year of a 5 year, $32 million contract that was signed in October 2005 and will be a free agent on July 1st. Although Atlanta GM Don Waddell has been trying to sign Kovalchuk, reports say that the negotiations haven’t been going as well as hoped. It has been reported that Kovalchuk may be looking to join his countrymen Alex Ovechkin in the $100 million club. If this is so, there is a distinct possibility that Kovalchuk will be traded before the March 3rd trade deadline.
Kovalchuk is the Thrashers captain and has been the only great player in the franchise’s short history (Marian Hossa was good, but doesn’t have Kovalchuk’s tenure with the team). He is the franchise leader in all major statistical categories including goals, assists, points, and games played. Quite frankly, Ilya Kovalchuk IS the Atlanta Thrashers. If the Thrashers trade him, what motivation is there for fans to come watch the team?
As other commentators have written, Don Waddell is in a tough spot. He has six weeks to convince Kovalchuk to sign with the team before the trade deadline. At the same time, he has to very seriously consider trading the soul of his franchise, because to lose him for nothing would be disastrous. He was in a similar situation with Marian Hossa two years ago and managed to get a decent haul for him, but so far there have been no solid offers for Kovalchuk.
One event that will have an effect on the situation is the Winter Olympics in Vancouver next month. Kovalchuk is expected to be one of the stars of the Russian team along with Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk. A good showing from Kovalchuk means that Waddell could ask for more in return. A poor showing may end up dropping his trade stock.
If he is traded, there won’t be much left for Thrashers fans to cheer for. The team has made only one playoff appearance (2006-07 when they won the Southeast Division) and is consistently in the draft lottery. To say there isn’t much hope for hockey in Atlanta is an understatement. While NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has stated that he does not want to relocate franchises, Ilya Kovalchuk leaving Atlanta could put the Thrashers on the road to relocation.
Much more will be written on this over the next month. Kovalchuk is one of the top talents in the NHL and has achieved that status with little offensive help while in Atlanta. There have to be coaches and GMs out there salivating at the thought of pairing him with a good set up man (a reunion with Marc Savard in Boston perhaps?) Only time will tell, but it certainly seems as though Ilya Kovalchuk’s days in Atlanta are numbered.