Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers has 14 goals and 40 points in 41 games this season. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
In one of his Insider Blogs for TheHockeyNews.com, Jay Feaster wrote that he never wanted to be known as the GM who traded Vincent Lecavalier.
Say what you will about Feaster’s role in Tampa’s tumble down the standings, but I think we can agree, the man picked a good label to avoid.
However, sometimes it can be good to be the guy who trades away a supreme talent. Occasionally, it is in a hockey team’s best interest to scrub away all vestiges of a failed experiment and start from scratch.
For instance, it makes perfect sense for Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell to trade superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk. Indeed, the more Waddell dawdles, the more modest the bounty he’ll receive in return for one of the game’s premier goal factories.
The notion of trading Kovalchuk made sense long before the star’s comments in early November to a Russian newspaper that implied he wasn’t enthralled with what has been going on in Atlanta of late.
Really, who can fault him? The 2008-09 season was only a month old, but it already qualified as a calamitous year for the Thrashers: they were the last team in the entire league still seeking a road win; they’d posted a six-game losing skid; and a serious injury to rookie defenseman/future cornerstone Zach Bogosian hasn’t done much for playoff chances many had defined as slim to begin with.
Worst of all, the Thrashers could only fill their arena to 71.5 percent capacity – an average of 13,260 – through their first six games, which left them dead last in the NHL in that category. As brilliant as Kovalchuk can be, he clearly cannot compel Georgians to form lengthy queues at his team’s ticket wicket. Ergo, there goes the argument his departure would serve as a Kill Bill-style Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart deathblow to the club.
There are only two factors to consider: the first is Kovalchuk’s minimal value to a team that may not be a serious Stanley Cup threat until at least the summer of 2010, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent; the second concerns his desire to stay on a ship that’s had a great deal of trouble sailing out of the harbor, let alone cruising into championship waters.
If the Thrashers’ history of retaining talent is any indication, their fans shouldn’t be confident of keeping the team’s best player in the fold.
Marian Hossa refused to stick around Atlanta, despite Waddell’s best sales pitch to keep him. Keith Tkachuk and Marc Savard also chose to scram at the first opportunity. And with every passing day that doesn’t include his signature on a multi-year contract extension, Kovalchuk appears more prepared to join that group.
Given the early warning signals from Kovalchuk, the key question is whether Waddell should deal him now, or wait until a pressure point – the trade deadline or the eve of unrestricted free agency – to ratchet up interest in his services.
According to one Eastern Conference GM who spoke on condition of anonymity, the wait-and-bait scenario may work as intended, but could fail just as easily.
“Look at (Wild winger Marian) Gaborik and (Panthers blueliner) Jay Bouwmeester,” the GM said of the two NHLers, both of whom are scheduled to become UFAs after this season and have had their names run ragged through the rumor mill for months. “Because the business component of a deal now is a lot more significant than it ever has been, neither one of those guys are going to get the team that trades them an equal amount of talent.
“The time to trade them probably was in the summer, before teams spent all their (free agent) money. That’s what this collective bargaining agreement is about – teams have to project further into the future than ever before, either in terms of long-term contracts or UFA targets.
“There are times it’s prudent to wait for the trade deadline to trade a guy, but if you can read the market right, that isn’t the best way to go.”
As if the Bouwmeester and Gaborik cautionary examples weren’t frightening enough, imagine this theoretical situation: Let’s say, thanks to league-wide economic woes, the NHL’s salary cap maximum is cut by $5-6 million in the next two years. That would result in even fewer teams capable of clearing enough space to acquire a big-time, bigger-ticket player.
With a reduced number of potential trade partners to play off one another, Atlanta almost assuredly would be left with a less lucrative return on Kovalchuk’s services.
The only alternative to that – Kovalchuk leaving as a UFA for nothing – is even worse.
The time for Waddell, despite his reticence, to be bold has arrived. With each click of the clock, the window in which to maximize Kovalchuk’s worth shrinks – and so too, the Thrashers’ chances at consistent legitimacy.
Parting may be sweet sorrow, but staying intact with nothing to show for it removes any residual sweetness you had to begin with.
This column originally appeared in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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