By Chris Vivlamore
WASHINGTON — That didn’t take long.
One day after informing Ilya Kovalchuk that he would be traded, the Thrashers on Thursday night sent its franchise player to New Jersey for two players, a prospect and a first-round draft pick.
The Thrashers swapped Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela to the Devils for forward Nicklas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, center Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick in this year’s draft. The teams also traded second-round picks this year.
Circle April 6th on your calendar. That’s when Kovalchuk returns to Philips Arena in his new uniform.
After months of negotiations on a long-term contract, Kovalchuk, the franchise’s all-time leader in every major offensive category, turned down the team’s final offer that was worth over $100 million. At that point, negotiations were terminated.
“At the end of the day, we felt we did everything in our power,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said in an impromptu press briefing in the lobby of the team hotel. “When you start talking over $100 million, it’s a lot of money.
“As we found out, it was all about money. We built a team that Kovy liked. We knew Kovy wanted to stay in Atlanta for the rest of his career if he could. But when you start looking at trying to sign a player to that kind of contract, tell me which one of our young players — [Evander] Kane or [Zach] Bogosian — you want me to trade, because there is no way you can be able to afford these players going forward.”
In return for Kovalchuk, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the Thrashers received:
–Bergfors, 22, ranks fifth among NHL rookies with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) and is third in goals. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound right wing ranks fifth on the Devils in points and goals and is sixth in assists.
–Oduya, 28, has appeared in 40 games for the Devils with four points (two goals, two assists). The 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman will represent Sweden at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
–Cormier, 19, had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 31 games this season with Rimouski and Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. That was prior to his being suspended for the remainder of the season for throwing a well-publicized elbow into an opposing player. The center served as captain for the Canadian team at the 2010 World Junior Championship.
In trading Kovalchuk, Waddell said the team will be changing its identity.
“This isn’t a knock on Kovy, but Kovy’s been here eight years and we still haven’t won a playoff game,” Waddell said. “This team has to take a different identity. We’ve built around one player for a long time now. It’s time to build this around a team. I think this gives us an opportunity to do it. …
“For fans, it’s tough to swallow, but the bottom line is we need to win hockey games.”
Waddell said he spoke to Kovalchuk only briefly to inform him of his destination.
Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk’s agent, said the player had mixed reactions.
“He is sad to leave Atlanta but it looking forward to the opportunities ahead,” Grossman said.
Once it was clear the team could not re-sign Kovalchuk, Waddell last month began to seek a trade. He said 10 to 12 teams expressed interest in the Atlanta captain with six or seven showing serious interest. Waddell said the Devils entered the picture late, after he scouted a Devils-Kings game last week.
“This fit everything we were looking for,” Waddell said. “We were looking for players to put on our NHL team as we speak. We also were looking to add some assets into the basket. We think we did that very strongly.”
The Thrashers also return Salmela to New Jersey, where he made his NHL debut in 2008-09. The defenseman appeared in 29 games this season with five points (one goal, four assists).
For his part, Kovalchuk knew this was coming.
“Everybody in the locker room can be traded,” Kovalchuk said Thursday morning, before departing with the team for Washington. “I’m in the same position as anybody. If they tell me I can be traded, that’s OK too. I just have to show up and play [until then].
“It’s a business.”
Kovalchuk had been seeking the maximum salary allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which is 20 percent of the salary cap, or roughly $11.3 million per season. Grossman, confirmed that he had not come off that number during negotiations and was asking for a “lifetime” contract in the 10-to-12-year range.
The Thrashers offered multiple deals, none close to that range. Waddell offered close to the maximum money ($10 million a year) but only in shorter-term contracts (three, five or seven years). The Thrashers’ last offer on the table was for $101 million. But that spanned 12 seasons for an annual average of $8.42 million.