This has Marian Hossa written all over it, only in larger letters. The Thrashers dumped their second-best player at the 2008 trading deadline because they knew they couldn’t re-sign him. Their best player is about to enter the final season of his contract, and Don Waddell shouldn’t let Ilya Kovalchuk enter it as a Thrasher.
Kovalchuk was the NHL’s 11th-highest-paid player in 2008-2009, and some club will make him one of the top five come 2010-2011. It would be an upset if that team is the Thrashers. And if they can’t keep him, they should trade him.
Last month Waddell, the Thrashers’ GM, told esteemed colleague Chris Vivlamore he wouldn’t trade Kovalchuk this summer or at the deadline or ever. “[Both parties] will both know where we are way before the season starts, if it is going to happen,” Waddell said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen once the season starts. My mission is to keep Ilya Kovalchuk here.”
That, alas, seems a mission impossible. If you knew you’d have better options as a free agent, would you choose to remain a Thrasher? And for Waddell to proclaim he’ll never trade Kovalchuk only sets this franchise up for more disappointment and even deeper failure.
Kovalchuk is coming off the best all-around season of his career. He finished sixth among league scorers and grew into his rank of team captain. But there’s no reason to believe a serious hockey player would seriously consider re-upping with the only team in the league that, at season’s end, had a payroll under $40 million — the big boys had payrolls over $60 million — and there’s no reason to believe the Atlanta Spirit is going to start splurging. Not on this sport.
We have to remember that the Spirit owns two teams, and the Hawks are demonstrably the better of the two. The Hawks face an even more momentous offseason: Four of their top eight players are free agents of some stripe, and the chief voices of the Hydra-headed Spirit — the Gearons — care more for basketball.
In an ideal world, Kovalchuk would stay here and everyone would live happily ever after. But this is a niche team in an uncertain market, and he deserves a bigger stage. And the Thrashers need to clear the air and start rebuilding around someone else. Grand as he is, Kovy needs to go now.