It’s an odd task. Don Waddell is making moves with the goal of improving his hockey club, which ordinarily would be a general manager’s highest priority. But this GM has something more in mind:
He’s trying to impress Ilya Kovalchuk.
The best player in Thrashers history is scheduled to become a free agent next summer. He has given indications he’d like to stay here, but his desire is conditional: The Thrashers must first get better. “I know for sure we need some more players,” Kovalchuk told reporters after the final game of last season, and that’s where Waddell comes in.
Known as the Teflon Don in some circles for his ability to avoid blame — and to stick like Krazy Glue to his GM’s chair — Waddell has had an impressive fortnight. The Thrashers appeared to do well in the NHL draft, picking a power forward in Round 1 who might soon be with the big club. (Waddell to Evander Kane on draft night: “You’re going to look good next to Ilya Kovalchuk.”)
And then, scarcely having returned from Montreal, Waddell authored two more big moves: A trade with Toronto that yielded defenseman Pavel Kubina, and the free-agent signing of right wing Nik Antropov, who has two things going for him: He’s a good player who’s an F.O.I. (friend of Ilya’s).
“They go hand in hand,” Waddell said Monday. “We’re trying to improve our team, and by doing that we’re trying to convince our best player to stay. This is a guy who has been part of two world championships with Russia. He wants to be part of a winning organization.”
About Kubina and Antropov: “We got a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman. Those are the two biggest acquisitions at this time of the year we’ve ever made.”
Are the Thrashers, as newly constituted, a playoff-caliber team? “Absolutely,” Waddell said. “We’ve got to make sure guys are healthy, but we’ve got enough depth at forward and defenseman. Goaltender is a key position in hockey, and we haven’t been able to keep our No. 1 guy [Kari Lehtonen] healthy early in seasons. It’s tough when you lose games early.”
Approaching the draft, there was much speculation that the Thrashers were looking to offload Lehtonen. No so, Waddell said. “We got some phone calls, but we never initiated anything. He’s a key piece.”
Also of note: The Thrashers, who wound up spending the least of any NHL club on salary last season, just invested $16 million over four seasons in Antropov. Should that be seen as a signal that the Atlanta Spirit is willing to spend more to win at hockey?
Waddell: “It’s a positive sign for our team and our fans. Ownership has been very supportive. If you don’t have the resources, [improvement is] not going to happen.”
And now the key question: What does Kovalchuk think?
“I’ve had very good conversations with Kovy, and I talk more with his agent, Jay Grossman,” Waddell said. “And the best thing about this is that the core of our team is all young players. When we won our division [in 2007], we were a much older team. We took some lumps, but we’ve gotten younger.”
Is there a timetable for discussions about Kovalchuk’s extension to begin in earnest? “I’d say over the next six weeks,” Waddell said.
And take this for what’s it worth. On the day Waddell signed Antropov, the GM received a two-word text message from No. 17. The two words: “Good job.”