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Campbell's Cuts: The Kovalchuk conundrum – keep him or deal him?

Will Ilya Kovalchuk still be wearing a Thrashers sweater after the trade deadline? (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Will Ilya Kovalchuk still be wearing a Thrashers sweater after the trade deadline? (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ilya Kovalchuk has the potential to put the Atlanta Thrashers in an almost untenable situation. Superstars who back a Brinks truck up to the arena doors and demand it be filled have a tendency to do that kind of thing.

The Thrashers have also done their part, of course. Generally speaking, they’ve failed to do two things – get enough requisite talent to surround Kovalchuk and develop a stable of top young players with all those high draft choices that would make the possible departure of Kovalchuk less traumatic than it will be if he leaves.

This much is certain: No matter how the Thrashers handle the Kovalchuk negotiations over the next couple of months and no matter what the result ends up being, the Thrashers run the risk of doing some long-term damage to their franchise.

That’s particularly true if reports from a Russian newspaper that Kovalchuk is seeking a 10-year contract at the league’s maximum salary are to be believed. If the Thrashers were to give in on that one, it would mean Kovalchuk would get a 10-year deal worth somewhere in the $111 million range. That would make him virtually untradeable if his game went south or things didn’t work out so well in Atlanta.

Those are the kinds of contracts, regardless of how good the player is, that can cripple a franchise for years and years. To be certain, Kovalchuk, 26, is a star player with the potential at times to be a superstar. He not only scores goals, but he scores big goals and can change the complexion of a game or a playoff series all by himself.

But does that merit surrendering 20 percent (or more if the salary cap goes down in future years) of your payroll for the next decade? Does a move such as that one make sense? As great as Kovalchuk is, I’m not totally convinced the Thrashers wouldn’t be better off taking all that money and spending it on other players. But then you look at the Washington Capitals and it would be silly to suggest their long-term investment in Alex Ovechkin wasn’t a good idea.

How’s that for sitting on the fence? I don’t usually do that, but there are so many ramifications to whatever the Thrashers do, I really can’t decide which way they should go.

It’s all well and good to make the superstar happy, but spending that kind of money in the face of a possibly declining salary cap would likely mean the Thrashers wouldn’t have the cash or the flexibility to fill out a perennially contending roster around Kovalchuk. Then you risk an eternity of basically what has existed so far in Atlanta, one dynamic and explosive player surrounded by not enough talent.

Which brings us to the next vexing situation the Thrashers face. If they do come to that conclusion, what do they do now? On one hand, they’re in a market where they have done almost nothing on the ice to inspire any sort of allegiance from their fan base and losing a potential superstar, even if it’s in the best long-term interests of the team, will not be good business for what most observers see as a franchise that is hanging by a thread.

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So the Thrashers will first have to deal with the optics of that. Of course, that is made even more complicated by the fact the Thrashers, as currently constituted, are a pretty decent team with some tangible playoff aspirations. But they’re a middle-of-the-pack team at best. This decision would be a lot easier for them to make if they were either (a) a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, or (b) out of the playoff picture altogether.

Because if they’re a legitimate contender for the Cup, they simply keep Kovalchuk beyond the trade deadline regardless of the ultimate consequences and see how far he’ll take them into the playoffs. And if they’re out of the playoffs, the decision to deal Kovalchuk for prospects and draft picks would be a much easier one.

But they’re betwixt and between, these Thrashers. Good enough to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, but probably not good enough to do a whole lot of damage, unless of course they get hot at the right time. And they haven’t given their fan base much to cheer about since, well, forever, so a long playoff run couldn’t come at a better time.

All of which leaves Thrashers GM Don Waddell between a considerably large rock and a considerably hard place over the next couple of months. Last year, the Florida Panthers took a calculated gamble – it can’t be classified as a mistake because they knew the risks involved – that defenseman Jay Bouwmeester would get them into the playoffs and didn’t trade him at the deadline. There’s little doubt they came out on the short end of that particular scenario, but they made a difficult decision and stuck by their convictions.

Either way, a similar decision is going to be needed from Waddell. And no matter which way he goes with this one, it will have long-reaching effects for the Thrashers for years to come.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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