Four months into the season and the Ilya Kovalchuk contract situation has yet to be resolved. While both the Thrashers and Kovalchuk’s representatives continue to negotiate, the same options remain today that were present this summer.
• Kovalchuk signs a long-term deal.
• The Thrashers trade Kovalchuk.
• No move is made before the end of the season.
What will happen to the Thrashers’ franchise player? Here is a closer look at the situation and the options:
Both sides have offers on the table. However, in the words of Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, they differ regarding the value of the player. The length of the contract likely is in the 10-to-12 year range.
Waddell calls the Thrashers’ offer “significant,” and it could exceed $100 million. He has made it clear that the franchise’s long-term health is a factor -- with young players who will need to be re-signed in the future and the financial ability to sign quality players to surround Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk, 27, certainly would be looking for a deal at, or near, the maximum. According to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, a player can be paid an annual salary of 20 percent of the salary cap. With the cap currently at $56.8 million, that would be a yearly sum of $11.36 million. Could he sign for less? Perhaps. However, as a pending unrestricted free agent, he would have plenty of options. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract two years ago, but that was when he was a restricted free agent.
Kovalchuk has said publicly on several occasions that he wants to remain in Atlanta.
An issue for Kovalchuk could be the stability of the franchise. Ownership remains in a long-term legal battle. Also, there is a search for “investors” to buy a portion, or perhaps all, of the franchise.
The NHL’s trade deadline is March 3, but there is a two-week roster freeze during the Winter Olympics, from Feb. 14-28. That leaves three days following the break to complete a deal.
Waddell has acknowledged that Kovalchuk is an “asset” to the franchise. Reports are starting to surface that five or six teams are showing an interest, including Los Angeles, Boston and Vancouver. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times speculated that New Jersey or the New York Islanders could be involved.
Waddell joined the Thrashers in Philadelphia before Thursday’s game, but did not travel with the team to Nashville for Saturday’s game. Waddell was at the Flyers-Islanders game Saturday.
Waddell has declined further comment on negotiations. On Tuesday, Waddell answered “Not going there,” to the following questions: Has he had significant negotiations with Kovalchuk’s agent Jay Grossman recently? Have there been any trade talks? Has he asked a team for its best offer? Has he explored trade possibilities?
“Two weeks ago we agreed to keep it out of the media, and that’s what we are doing,” Waddell said.
At Thursday’s game, scouts from Ottawa, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Columbus, Detroit and the New York Islanders were in attendance. It does not necessarily mean those scouts were there to look at Kovalchuk or the even the Thrashers.
A third option, which carries significant risk, is to not make a move at all and play out the season. With the Thrashers in the middle of a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, could they afford to lose their star player? One option is to play out the season and continue negotiations until June 30. Kovalchuk becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, free to sign with any team he pleases.
How would the team react if Kovalchuk was traded during a playoff run? Could players received in return be enough to push the team into its second-ever postseason?
If the Thrashers hold on to Kovalchuk and he leaves via free agency, they will have nothing to show for a former No. 1 overall pick who leads the franchise in every major statistical category. Florida made the same move with Jay Bouwmeester last season. They held on to the free-agent to be, missed the playoffs and eventually traded his negotiating rights to Calgary days before he could leave.
When asked last week if he was serious that he might not trade Kovalchuk at the deadline, Waddell said “Correct. Absolutely.”
“If we stay in this playoff thing, I know everybody’s got things written the way they want to write them, but that’s why I’m not saying anything about it,” Waddell said. “I’m not so sure ...”
With three roads to take, the final destination has yet to be determined in the matter. Thrashers coach John Anderson said the situation has not been a distraction.
“I certainly haven’t seen a ton of signs [that Kovlachuk is distracted by contract talks],” Anderson said. “If Kovy has a bad game we just can’t go and say that’s the reason. Sometimes a player has a bad game. It is what it is. So far I haven’t seen it in the dressing room. I hope it doesn’t rear its ugly head. Hopefully everything gets done and we don’t have to talk about this anymore.”
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