In the past several weeks, the Thrashers have signed a free agent forward (Nik Antropov), traded for a top-four defenseman (Pavel Kubina) and drafted potential top scorer (Evander Kane). Whether they keep the only player that most people walking around the streets of Atlanta can actually identify is another matter.
Negotiations are expected to heat up this week between general manager Don Waddell and Ilya Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman. The two sides aren’t saying much publicly that they haven’t said before. Waddell sent me an email Monday, saying: “It’s our goal to sign Ilya to a long-term deal.” Grossman declined comment. (He’s known as a tough agent, but issuing negotiating rhetoric to the media isn’t his thing.)
Kovalchuk has a year left on his contract at $7.5 million. Theoretically, his new deal could pay him up to $11.2 million per season (20 percent of the NHL salary cap of $56 million). The bigger issue is term: The NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement has no cap on length of contract. For example, former Thrasher Marian Hossa just signed a 12-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks (no doubt clinching the Cup for the Blackhawks in 13 years).
But the Thrashers’ negotiations with Kovalchuk will be different than those they had with Hossa. Kovlachuk seems to be looking for a reason to stay here. I’m not sure that ever was the case with Hossa, who wasn’t drafted by the team and never really adopted Atlanta as a home the way Kovalchuk has. Hossa also wanted a chance to win the Stanley Cup immediately (as shown by his ill-fated decision to leave Pittsburgh and sign a one-year deal with Detroit, which then lost to the Penguins in the finals).
Kovalchuk was the Thrashers’ team captain last season. He developed into more of a leader than Hossa ever was. That said, he wants to win. He wants to walk into the locker room when the Thrashers open training camp and think the franchise is at least moving in the direction of being a legitimate contender.
The belief is, it’s going to take far more than his own contract to get him to sign. He’s going to have to be convinced that ownership and Waddell are committed to building a winner — and that they’re capable of it. Neither has been the case so far. Waddell has been the architect from day one and built only one playoff team in nine seasons. Ownership is fractured, remains tied up in litigation, could be for sale at some point and is holding the line on overall payroll (the Thrashers’ projected team payroll of $42 to $45 million will be far below the cap).
If you’re Kovalchuk, there is no real advantage to signing now and passing up unrestricted free agency after the season, when potentially another franchise in far better shape could compete for his services, and probably pay just as much. For him to sign an extension now, he has to be swayed.
I’m not quite as pessimistic about Kovalchuk re-signing as I used to be. Part of the reason is, he helped recruit Antropov. It’s clear he’s being kept in the loop and the team is doing all they can to convince him to stay. But it’s sort of like the Wizard telling Dorothy, “Pay no attention to that franchise history behind the curtain. We’re going to do things right now!”
Re-signing Kovalchuk would be step one. But it’s only step one.