This is generally how these things end. A star goes one way. A large package of some undetermined substance and quality goes the other.
This isn’t a new practice with the Thrashers, just an evolving one. The names keep getting bigger. Dealing Ray Ferraro and Jiri Slegr in the early days came with limited blowback. They were late in their careers. But then another impending free agent, Donald Audette, couldn’t come to terms and was traded to Montreal for an obscure prospect named Kamil Piros. (Unfortunate early analysis from then-coach Curt Fraser: “The greatest player in Czechoslovakia.”). Then Marian Hossa wouldn’t re-sign and was dealt to Pittsburgh.
Now it’s Ilya Kovalchuk’s turn.
This isn’t just a trend any more. It’s a disturbing franchise trait, with no sign of change in sight.
Kovalchuk was traded Thursday night to New Jersey. His exit was predictable since last season, when the team struggled (again), failed to amend for past mistakes (again), failed to accurately gauge the market (again) and in the end was forced to desperately deal him for another questionable package of players and prospects. It’s a nice trade-up for Kovalchuk. He goes from a franchise that has never won a playoff game to one that has won three Stanley Cups, four conference championships and nine division titles since 1994-95.
Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’ general manager, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Don Waddell? He has been the architect of disaster central in Atlanta since Day 1. Anybody want to venture how this one turns out?
“I don’t think it sets us back at all,” Waddell said after the deal. “I think it moves us forward.”
Yes. He really said that.
It’s another quantity-for-quality trade. That’s the way these things work. The Devils get Kovalchuk, Atlanta’s all-time leading scorer (328 goals, 615 points, in 594 games) and defenseman Anssi Salmela. The Thrashers get right wing Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, troubled prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick. The teams also will swap second-round draft picks.
Bergfors? A nice young player, hardly a star (27 points in 54 games). Oduya? A solid puck-moving defenseman. Cormier? A train wreck. He elbowed a player in the Quebec juniors, sending himto the hospital, and has been suspended for the season. The No. 1 pick? Maybe this one works out. And stays.
At least Waddell didn’t slam Kovalchuk going out the door. He was given a chance to say Kovalchuk only cares about money. Instead, he reiterated what Kovalchuk has been saying all along (the screams of short-sighted critics notwithstanding): “I think, Kovy right to the last day, wanted to be a Thrasher. But it’s a business decision.”
Waddell knew he would get slammed for this. Earlier Thursday, in hopes of swaying public opinion, he released a statement including some of the team’s contract offers to Kovalchuk. But the offers — $70 million over seven years ($10 million per year) and $101 million for 12 years ($8.42 average) — already had appeared in Wednesday’s Journal-Constitution. So his intended thunder was muted.
It never should have come to this. Kovalchuk is one of the NHL’s few elite players and has been since he entered the league in 2001. He’s on pace to score 40-plus goals for the sixth consecutive season. That’s a rare commodity in the NHL. But he has been frustrated by the team’s lack of success. The Thrashers have reached the postseason once. Attendance has declined. Concern over the club’s future fed into Kovalchuk’s desire to ask for the maximum salary allowed by the collective bargaining agreement: $11.3 million per season for 10 to 12 years. He asked for the only thing he felt he could control, and he had the leverage of unrestricted free agency. Unless he immediately signs an extension with the Devils, Kovalchuk will become the highest-profile unrestricted free agent in his prime in NHL history.
It’s another ugly ending. Two years ago, it was Hossa. He went to Pittsburgh, and the Thrashers celebrated the package they got back. But look at it now: Colby Armstrong (third-line winger, impending free agent), Erik Christensen (washed out), Angelo Esposito (flawed prospect) a No. 1 pick (Daultan Leveille, Michigan State).
Maybe this deal turns out better. But history tells us otherwise. Another star was just shipped out of town. This is where we came in.