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Jay Feaster’s Blog: Despite being too late, Atlanta must still deal Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk staying in Atlanta beyond this season is looking less and less likely. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Ilya Kovalchuk staying in Atlanta beyond this season is looking less and less likely. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell confirmed last week negotiations between the club and the agent for franchise-forward and pending summer 2010 unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk had hit a “snag.”

According to Waddell, the club’s position is now “different” than Camp Kovalchuk. Waddell was quoted as saying, “Their position is fixed years with money and we have a different side of that.” Bottom line, unless Atlanta is prepared to blow-up its financial structure by signing Kovalchuk to a mega-deal (think at least 10-years and at least $10 million per season) that will handcuff the franchise for years to come, the Ilya Kovalchuk Farewell Atlanta Tour is already in its final leg.

If Waddell is correct that Camp Kovy is focused on term and dollars, nothing will change the landscape for Atlanta. Kovalchuk is represented by Jay Grossman, who also was Nikolai Khabibulin’s agent when I was negotiating with him following the lockout in 2005.

From our first conversation about a new contract for Nik, Grossman made it clear it was about “the dollars” and their position never changed. Khabibulin wanted the maximum allowed under the new CBA, 20 percent of the upper limit of the salary cap, and we never received a counter-offer of any kind.

Nothing else mattered, including the chance to defend our 2004 Stanley Cup title. There was no gamesmanship. If it’s about term and dollars with Kovalchuk, I doubt anything else will matter, including an improved team and the very real possibility of playoff hockey in Atlanta this spring.

Of course, that makes Waddell’s job even more difficult. When I managed the Lightning, our mandate was to make the playoffs and take our chances in the post-season tournament. For that reason, we did not trade potential UFA’s at the trade deadline.

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As a result, we qualified for the playoffs four consecutive seasons (2002-03 through 2006-07) and won a Stanley Cup. However, we also lost a number of outstanding players (Khabibulin, Pavel Kubina, Cory Sarich and Ruslan Fedotenko, for example) with no compensation whatsoever. 

While we were able to replace those players in the summer via our own free agent signings, the loss of quality players with no compensation eroded our depth and left us thin in many areas.

Waddell cannot allow that to happen with Kovalchuk. He must trade him if he cannot sign him (regardless of Atlanta’s current playoff position) and he must get excellent value in return. Rightly or wrongly, Waddell was criticized for failing to secure a significant enough return when trading superstar winger Marion Hossa to Pittsburgh at the deadline two seasons ago. And there’s the rub – if you wait until the deadline to move him, you may find yourself at the mercy of a restricted market.

I believe Waddell should have moved Kovalchuk at last year’s deadline, or at the draft, or immediately after Chicago signed Hossa this summer as a UFA.

In my opinion, the market would have been much stronger for Kovalchuk at any of those three points in time than Waddell will find it to be next month, or prior to the Olympic break in February, or at the deadline on March 3, just three days after the Olympic gold medal game in Vancouver.

As he saw in trading Hossa, timing is just as vital to the process as is the quality of the player being moved. Given last week’s “snag” in negotiations, the timing is working against Atlanta and Camp Kovy has put Waddell on the clock.

Here’s hoping the Thrashers’ GM can make it a Happy New Year for all concerned in Atlanta.

Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.

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