A few days before the Thrashers opened this season, general manager Don Waddell expressed great optimism about his chances of signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a contract extension. He punctuated his remarks with, “I don’t think we’ll be talking about this at Christmas time.”
A week before Christmas, Waddell continues to express great optimism. About that Christmas quote?
“I never said what year,” he said.
I’m guessing funny man is funny in public but he’s getting a little nervous out of public view. There was a report this week in a Russian sports newspaper that negotiations between the Thrashers and Kovalchuk now are at an impasse, that he asked for a 10-year contract at the maximum salary allowed by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement (20 percent of the salary cap, the equivalent of $11.3 million per season) and the team balked.
Now, I know two things about unsourced reports on contract negotiations: 1) You often can’t believe them, especially when they’re in Russian newspapers; 2) Talks can change with one phone call. I’ve also learned that the most honest guy tends to be the player. I once covered a protracted negotiation and quickly discovered that both the general manager and the player’s agent were lying to me about their proposals. Fortunately, the player was telling me the truth.
This is what I know about the Thrashers-Kovalchuk talks. Optimism aside, Waddell is saying the same thing he was saying in September. If anything, he has backed off a little.
Kovalchuk? This is where it gets interesting. When I asked him following Thursday night’s overtime win over Dallas, his initial response was, “Same, I think. You should ask them.” And he went on to talk about how he is “just focusing on my game.” Standard response.
But when asked whether he still believed a deal would get done, neither his tone nor his words were quite as positive as they had been in the past.
“Hopefully,” he said. “But, you know — you never know. It’s all [up to] our owners and management.”
This is how one generally translates that: “I want this amount. Let’s see if they give it to me.”
Kovalchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, know the Thrashers need the player more than the player needs them. They also know that they can ask for the moon — in this case, the max contract — because they’re staring at unrestricted free agency. They’ve got nothing to lose by shooting high now because they can always settle for less later.
When asked if Kovalchuk would get a max deal, Waddell said: “No, I wouldn’t think so. We have a lot of young guys here. If you want to play with all $500,000 players — some teams [gave out rich] long-term deals and now they’re in trouble because they have no flexibility to do anything.”
His point is that Kovalchuk says he wants to win but he can’t win if he’s taking up so much room on the cap. It’s the proper argument for a general manager. But try convincing an agent of that before free agency.
This can change with one phone call. But bottom line: I don’t feel as good about Kovalchuk re-signing as I did a month ago. Even Waddell acknowledged the time constraints he is now working with. The trade deadline is March 3. But a decision on whether to deal Kovalchuk really has to be made before the Olympic break (Feb. 15-28).
Waddell: “We can’t be talking about this in February. The next month is going to be crucial.”
And they don’t have until Christmas next year.