Thrashers’ uncertain future may contribute to Kovalchuk’s exit

This is an Ilya photo. (AP photo)

Odds are that Ilya Kovalchuk will be celebrating goals for another team soon.

There is an undercurrent in the Ilya Kovalchuk negotiations that goes far beyond what most protracted player-management negotiations eventually come down to, which is, of course: “Pay me like I’m great, because I am,” countered immediately by, “You’d be a lot greater if we could find a helmet to fit over your  inflated, blimpy head.”

And that undercurrent is this: Hockey’s uncertain future in Atlanta.

If the Thrashers can’t re-sign Kovalchuk – and I now believe the chances of a deal are just this side of dead — it will be at least in part because of the backdrop of ownership’s uncertain long-term commitment to hockey and the possibility of the franchise being sold and moved during the period of Kovalchuk’s contract.

This has become abundantly clear, especially given Kovalchuk’s recent comments about desiring to spend the rest of his career in Atlanta, and Waddell’s contention that these talks are all about money. If Waddell believes that all Kovalchuk cares about is money, he’s failing to recognize that it’s the only thing the player can control.

I don’t blame Kovalchuk if he’s asking for a max contract (annual salary equal to 20 percent of the team’s cap, or currently about $11 million) for probably 10 to 12 years.

I also wouldn’t blame Waddell (or ownership) if they say, “We can’t do that,” and Kovalchuk ends up being traded before the deadline. The real problem is what led to all of this.

Years of mismanagement and/or neglect ran down a franchise in a second-chance NHL market, where commissioner Gary Bettman desperately wants hockey to succeed. Even with matters at the Atlanta Spirit somewhat stabilizing (emphasis on somewhat), the Steve Belkin vs. non-Belkins matter is not yet closed. Ultimately, Belkin likely will be out of the picture. Rumors persist that the remaining owners will be looking to sell the team (something they’ve long denied). Problem: Finding an owner who would keep the team in Atlanta is not going to be easy, especially in this economy.

Back to Kovalchuk. He and his wife, Nicole, have two children and a third on the way. They’re settled. When Kovalchuk says his first choice is to stay here, I believe him. (When Marian Hossa said it, I laughed inside.)

A player can ask for a no-trade clause in his contract. But he can’t ask for a clause that reads, “If the franchise relocates to Winnipeg or Quebec, the player can opt out.” Doesn’t work that way. And I would like to see the look on the face of the next owner when the Thrashers tell him, “Well, we can bring Todd White with us but not Kovalchuk.”

Kovalchuk can’t be guaranteed of anything: 1) That the Atlanta Spirit will keep the team and spend to keep and acquire players (according to NHLnumbers.com, the Thrashers rank only 23rd out of 30 teams in payroll); 2) That anybody who purchases the team will keep it in Atlanta and also spend to compete.

Look at the past. Look at the present. Look at the future. There is no reason for Kovalchuk to feel comfortable.

The only thing he can control is his salary. (And by the way: Do you really believe the difference in him making $9 million and $11 million next season will be the difference in whether the Thrashers are successful or not, given what we’ve witnessed?) Given everything, and the fact he is staring at unrestricted free agency, why would he not ask for the most he can get? Would he get it on the open market? Probably yes. It only takes one big-market team to jump (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, or maybe star-crazed Los Angeles).

Even if Kovalchuk’s next deal falls short of the max, he still can control where he signs. He can pick a stable franchise, one that he believes  is committed to winning — and staying put.

The Thrashers offer no guarantees. Please excuse Kovalchuk if he wants something more.

91 comments Add your comment

The first first

December 30th, 2009
2:54 pm

This might be the first first worth mentioning when it comes to hockey in Atlanta.

The first first

December 30th, 2009
2:55 pm

Legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup or easy access to The Varsity?

Decisions, decisions.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
3:06 pm

The first first — Would that be the first with a bullet?

GWH Rich

December 30th, 2009
3:13 pm

Spirit should change their names to SPirit Killers, since they’re slowly doing that to this hockey fan.

DanTheMan

December 30th, 2009
3:15 pm

I would forgive Ilya for pursuing his career elsewhere… However i would not forgive him for telling the world he would like to stay in Atlanta and how great the city has been to him etc.

That’s what we call “Pulling a Hossa”. If you’re going to say things like that, better back up your words with some actions. Right now, that’s now what i see. If the rumors are true, asking for the top salary is just basically a disguised trade request. So if they don’t sign him, the blame goes to Waddell and the Thrashers not on Ilya.

CrazyVol

December 30th, 2009
3:15 pm

Hey Schultz!!!!!!!!!! How come every paper in the country is talking about Leach getting canned and you talking about the Thrashers????

Lets get with it your making the paper look bad.

Payner17

December 30th, 2009
3:16 pm

Jeff…what you say is all true. However, although I do not want Kovy to leave, I’d still rather sign 3-4 $3 mill guys than one Kovy for the same price. He can score goals, but the rest of his game is lacking. I understand the “face of the franchise” thing, but I hope to see him moved soon while we can get something for him.

DanTheMan

December 30th, 2009
3:18 pm

[follow up on my post]…. So if they don’t sign him, the blame will go on Waddell and the Thrashers not on Ilya although it was clear from the beginning of negotiations that Ilya wanted to split.

I still hope the rumors are false and that somehow Waddell and Spirit will find a way to erase any doubts of relocation. As far as money goes, i say pay him what he wants. Clear some cap space with Kozlov and Armstrong and go from there.

DanTheMan

December 30th, 2009
3:25 pm

It’s funny to hear people talking about Kovalchuk’s contract being too big and that it would bog down the team salary in 7 or 10 years when Kovalchuk starts to underachieve. It’s in 7 years!!!! This franchise needs results right now. You can only look ahead for the next 3 to 4 years anything beyond that is a bit stupid IMO. The salary cap might as well be 100 million in 10 years… the average salary might be 8 million in 10 years… so what difference would it make to pay Kovalchuk 10 or 11 million if the cap does get that high?

There are rumors of the cap going down in the short future… If so, then all teams are going to suffer… thing of the Penguins, Blackhawks and the Capitals that have those big names and big contracts on their hand.

PMC

December 30th, 2009
3:27 pm

“years of mismanagement and or neglect” – and yet the guy at the helm Don Waddell is still in the doldrums and still making decisions?

REALLY? If they don’t retain thier best player in the history of this dreadful franchise what’s the point of trying to keep it here???

Darkhorse

December 30th, 2009
3:30 pm

I hope Waddell goes if Kovy does. Might be a small sliver of a silver lining.

Darkhorse

December 30th, 2009
3:33 pm

If the team was a winner on the ice, the relo talk would surface only occasionally. But I guess we would have to live in the twilight zone for that to be reality?

The Real Thrash

December 30th, 2009
3:35 pm

There is no evidence that Kovy wants to leave. What he wants is be paid for his worth which is what we all want! I am still amazed at Atlanta’s so-called hockey fans. They complain about salaries of players while siding with the team being 23th in salary spending. They wonder why we don’t win and it’s because we accept ineptitude by that same management. And we wonder why the team is moving out of town!

matt r

December 30th, 2009
3:36 pm

I so badly wish ajc columnists would stop rewarding the FIRST people. Maybe then they would go away and I wouldn’t have to scroll through ten posts of attention-seekers (which I am certainly not even though I am commenting on a blog… right?).

The Real Thrash

December 30th, 2009
3:46 pm

The team has not won because of the GM and ownership. You have to invest in the team and a core of proven players. The Thrashers have never done that. We compete on a shoestring, and the record of the team shows it.

Hillbilly Deluxe

December 30th, 2009
3:56 pm

Things look a lot like they did in 1979-80. Atlanta has lost one hockey team and I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. If you want to draw, you have to put a competitive team on the ice, at least every couple years or so.

Russ, the Temporary Mascot

December 30th, 2009
4:03 pm

At least they won’t paint his a$$. I say pay him the money and let him remain. Going with a temp is good for no one. They want somebody with a perfectly white a$$ and you just want a little respect. Kovy will be back with the Thrashers and Coach Willie will be coming back to Athens with a raise.

Russ, the Temporary Mascot

December 30th, 2009
4:10 pm

I left a little something Between the Hedges today. It’s payback for painting my a$$ white in Shreveport. I was never so humiliated. Did they do the same thing to the two temporary coaches? What kind of school paints a dog’s a$$? I hope they have to give Coach Willie a raise to get him back. No big time DC is going to be associated with a$$ painting a dog.

ChippersLoveChild

December 30th, 2009
4:43 pm

I’m tired of discussing this. Whatever happens, happens. This topic has been beaten to death among Thrasher fans, time to move on to the next chapter. Either get the deal done or move on. And how about holding the owners more accountable, Jeff? Instead of just writing a piece about how terrible they are, why not go to them and confront them about this? I know it isn’t always that easy, but surely you could get something out of them. I mean Gearon responded to the Forbes piece, I think he might give you something on Kovy, the product they put on the ice, and relocation, no?

sam

December 30th, 2009
4:53 pm

wait a minute…atlanta has a hockey team?

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:09 pm

DanTheMan — It’s called business. He can want to stay here, but should he shortchange his earning potential if he can get something somewhere else? It’s the same in any vocation.

Supes

December 30th, 2009
5:10 pm

Pay Kovy his MONEY and keep him here.

The Spirit Group are the worst NHL owners this side of the Mississippi!

Ilya Kovalchuck is the ATL Thrashers.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:10 pm

Crazy Vol — Wrote about Leach Tuesday in Countdown. The firing was easy to see coming. And I work for a paper in Atlanta, not Lubbock. Plus, some things are news stories but not necessarily great blog material. I’ve already weighed in on Leach — nothing new to say. Enough?

Mike Vick Kisses Trouser Snakes

December 30th, 2009
5:11 pm

If Ted Turner still owned this beloved NHL franchise, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

IF……

[Sigh]

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:12 pm

Payner17 — I understand the 3 $3 million guys argument. But ultimately I think every team in every sport needs a go-to guy. And I think in markets like Atlanta in particular, the hockey franchise needs a face.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:14 pm

DanTheMan — You make a great point about today, not seven years from now. And I can’t believe the cap is going to go down, regardless of the rumors.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:14 pm

PMC — agreed.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:14 pm

Matt R — Reward? It’s not like I’ve written anybody a check, ya know?

Sonny Clusters

December 30th, 2009
5:16 pm

Jeff, we was wondering if there is any Braves news we can blog about? Clusters never played hockey or basketball (can’t jump) but Clusters played a lot of baseball. We was noticing they is some talk about trading Melky Cabrera and we think if they do they should try and get a strong armed corner outfielder with a local following.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:16 pm

Russ — There’s a certain consistency to your posts. I admire that. But maybe a painted a– could be an alternate third jersey?

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:18 pm

ChippersLoveChild — I’ve confronted AS several times about issues, including Thrashers’ payroll. I have all of their answers memorized if you want to ask me a question.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:20 pm

Sonny — We wuz thinking the Thrashers have never had a player named Melky. Can he skate?

lanier

December 30th, 2009
5:21 pm

if i was kovy i would run from this situation. like hockey and having a home team but this has been a disaster both from record and ownership since 1999

Russ, the Temporary Mascot

December 30th, 2009
5:27 pm

Well, Jeff . . . Damon has already said there’d be no more uniform surprises but a bunch of painted a$$es running out there on the field might be just what this team needs. If they’d done that against Kentucky you can bet the results would have been different. Nobody’d want to tackle somebody with a painted a$$. I am just sorry the a$$ painting story broke on my watch. I was never so humiliated on regional television yet. There must have been several hundred people watching that game on tv and all they’re talking about is painting a dog’s a$$. If my a$$ unpainted isn’t good enough to sit over there on the sidelines with all those other temps then they need to find themselves a new dog more comfortable with a$$ painting.

lanier

December 30th, 2009
5:28 pm

also i had tix for 1st 3 years and i knew what would happen when they started with a minor league gm and coach but it was too late to quit

lanier

December 30th, 2009
5:29 pm

$42 grand flushed away i am an idiot

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:51 pm

Russ — how do you type with paws? And do you type with two paws or four? Front or back? Do you hold one back for scratching? These are the questions that have to be answered.

Jeff Schultz

December 30th, 2009
5:52 pm

Lanier — Thanks for sharing. Losing fans like you speaks volumes.

KevyGo

December 30th, 2009
6:00 pm

Trade him — he is selfish if he wants max money esp with the cap set to go down a bit.

Russ, the Temporary Mascot

December 30th, 2009
6:01 pm

Paw typing is something dogs with pure white a$$es probably aren’t going to give you. Those dogs are inbred and probably can’t use a cell phone, either. I paw type and do so flawlessly. I also communicate better than most UGA graduates represented on this blog even with emotional distress brought on by having my a$$ painted before game time. I’m only a temp so I know it’s the end of the road for me and now that I’ve spoken my mind about the a$$ painting I’m sure there will be no more mascot work for me. I may become a professor.

Has to be said

December 30th, 2009
6:50 pm

Isn’t it pretty safe to assume that, even without a formal assessment of his skating ability, Adam James isn’t hockey material?

Craig James on the other hand, has a stellar future in aviation, as his actions as a helicopter parent indicate.

Tiger's Love Child (at least that's what momma told me)

December 30th, 2009
6:52 pm

The team draws flies with him in the lineup and at his current $6.75mm salary. Ain’t know way the Spirit are going to pay max salary. Plus, anyone see the Jay Fester column in HockeyNews? He wrote that while in TB Khababulin had the same agent as Kovy and his negotiations were all about money. Nothing more nothing less. Off to Chicago went Khababulin. Too bad DW didn’t trade Kovy last trade deadline and give a team nearly two seasons with him. We would have gotten a lot more than we’re going to get now.

That can't possibly be true

December 30th, 2009
7:00 pm

I missed the epochal event known as the, whatever the name of the bowl was in Shreveport. But what I’m hearing cannot possibly be true. There is no way in he!! they painted Russ’ @ss white is there?

Seriously, they painted a dog’s @ss and PETA didn’t descend on them like a pitbull on a cube steak?

Zulu

December 30th, 2009
8:00 pm

The Thrash cannot risk being left with nothing if he leaves. They need to keep saying all the right things and get the most that they can at the deadline.

At least Waddell is finally making some good moves(Kane,Bogosian,Peverly,Afinogenov,Pavelec)after 8 years of bad moves.

[...] continued [...]

LAC

December 30th, 2009
8:39 pm

I believe he will depart, only thing we ALL know how STUPID waddell and these owners, will they have the guts to trade him or let him leave for nothing, I say the latter, not the former.

Lastly this paper spends WAY TOO much time on WORTHLESS college football,The Most BORING thing ever, tennessee has football teams, WHO GIVES A $HIT ! Hell they cannot even spell in athens… Worst sport EVER, go all you “football fans” go rant with that STUPID IDIOT bill king, who is THE WORST blog writer I ever saw, completely STUPID !

tom

December 30th, 2009
9:50 pm

Kovy should call a news conference and announce he will sign a long term contract if Wadell resigns immediately. Why stay here with a loser in charge. Fired the only winning coach they had. He would not still be in charge in any other organization.

d

December 30th, 2009
9:50 pm

I frequently tell people if football played more than 20 games a year, it would be worth watching.

That aside, everyone knows Kovy is the face of the Thrashers. I can only imagine DW will be filing for unemployment if he doesn’t make this deal. Why not work in a no moving the team clause? If Spirit is being half honest about not wanting to move the team, then that wouldn’t be a problem. Finally, with all the trouble the league and Bettman went through to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, I don’t see them jumping on the move a team out of a non-traditional market that quickly, or am I just being overly optimistic?

Arthur Blank

December 30th, 2009
9:57 pm

Pacman is clean. Screw Monkeyweather! Of wait, sorry, wrong sport!

ksiujgth

December 30th, 2009
10:09 pm

bundle kovy and letemin and get a few guys that want to win every game