Here we are again. The night starts with the team ranked 25th of 30 in the standings, the stands are half-empty and the talk leading to another trade deadline is not about the potential inbox but the likely outbox.
This is not what the NHL banked on (pun absolutely intended) when it brought Atlanta back into the league. It is not what former owner Ted Turner intended when he spent $80 million for an expansion franchise that in 2009 was ranked 29th in total value ($143 million), ahead of only the Phoenix Coyotes, who were in bankruptcy. It’s certainly not what the shrinking base of hockey fans in Atlanta deserves.
But here we are. Again.
“I expected us to compete for a playoff spot,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said, “and that’s what we’re doing.”
Well, yes. Welcome to the NHL, where teams have to lose a game and practically spread an incurable disease not to get a point in the standings. But the Thrashers are not quite blowing anybody away these days, possibly the final ones with Ilya Kovalchuk on their roster. They won their game against Anaheim 2-1 on Tuesday night at Philips Arena. Their record is now 23-21-8 (23-29 in the real world). The 54 points places them in a three-way tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the New York Rangers. In short: Eight teams separated by three points are competing for three playoff spots in the East.
Even after Tuesday, the Thrashers still have only five wins in the past 19 games (with a recent nine-game winless skid).
Waddell called this “no doubt the most talented team we’ve ever had.” That might be true, but the masses have been turned off. Attendance is so low (13,140 average, 28th in the league) that Waddell acknowledged that the Thrashers will be among only a few teams penalized in the NHL’s revenue-sharing program: 10 to 25 percent. Last year’s normal share was $17 million. The loss would be $1.7 million to $4.25 million for a franchise already counting pennies.
He also acknowledged that Philips has sought to get out of its naming-rights deal at the arena and sell it to a third party. He dismissed any notion that ownership would accept a reduction in the deal with Philips.
None of this projects well for re-signing Kovalchuk. He wants progress. He wants a guarantee of franchise stability. He wants the max contract. He would settle for two out of three — but since progress and stability can’t be guaranteed, and this ownership doesn’t give him a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, he is asking for the only thing he can control: max salary over the long term (think $11.3 times 12). If he doesn’t get it here, he’ll either get it on the open market or get close enough to it with a team he knows is committed to winning (and not moving). Also a team not getting penalized in revenue sharing and trying to compete a mile below the salary cap.
Kovalchuk informed the Thrashers in October he was ready to do a deal. Nearly two months passed before the two sides had significant negotiations. What exactly ownership was doing during that time lapse can’t be certain. Was it to gauge Kovalchuk’s value on the open market? His value to them? What had they been doing for the past year? The past two years? Didn’t everybody know this day was coming?
Or was this just a stall tactic to find a buyer for the team? We’ll never know.
The trade deadline is March 3. But really, it’s not even that far off. There’s a two-week roster freeze Feb. 14-28 during the Olympic break. So Waddell really has only eight more games to assess things before the Olympics. After the Games, he would have to move quickly on a trade if he didn’t think Kovalchuk could be signed. Technically, there is a third option: Do nothing. The latter allows the Thrashers to let the season play out, buying them time to deal him before he officially becomes a free agent July 1. But Waddell has always been a “sign-him or trade-him” guy with his impending free agents. The risk: If nobody bites on a deal after the season and before July 1, he gets nothing.
The real problem is that this is even an issue. It’s 10 seasons and 11 years into the process, and here we are looking at a team scrambling for its playoff life and on the verge of losing another star. It’s all too familiar.