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Campbell's Cuts: Kovalchuk saga shows lockout was a farce

Talk surrounding the future of Ilya Kovalchuk will continue to flourish until he's signed or dealt. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Talk surrounding the future of Ilya Kovalchuk will continue to flourish until he's signed or dealt. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

If the Atlanta Thrashers do end up trading Ilya Kovalchuk over the course of the next month or so – and with every passing day it looks as though they will – it will set this franchise further back than ever.

It will also go a long way toward proving the collective bargaining agreement was a sham and that we missed a year of hockey for a whole lot of bupkis.

Think about it. Wasn’t the season-long lockout and subsequent CBA supposed to prevent this very thing from happening? Didn’t the league sit out the 2004-05 season so struggling non-traditional hockey markets wouldn’t be forced to trade their superstar players at the primes of their careers? Wasn’t the mere presence of a salary cap supposed to even the playing field for everyone?

Yes and yes. Has it turned out that way? No and no. The reality is there remains a huge division between the have and have-not teams in the NHL, which is a major reason why the Thrashers will almost certainly be forced to deal Kovalchuk prior to the March 3 trade deadline. The other reality is there isn’t a financial system or enforced curbs on spending that can overcome incompetent management and ownership. The NFL’s Detroit Lions should have perhaps given the NHL ample proof of that, but the league now has tangible and in-house evidence in the form of the Atlanta Thrashers.

Who knew? It turns out there’s no CBA in the world that can protect a team from bad drafting and developing, poor player personnel decisions and ownership wars that seem to keep the franchise in a constant state of chaos.

Whether or not the Thrashers can make the playoffs this season, they’ll almost certainly come to the conclusion they have no ability to sign Kovalchuk to an Alex Ovechkin-type deal and will trade him rather than watch him sign elsewhere for nothing in the summer. If they were to somehow sign him to such a deal, it would almost certainly cripple the franchise from a competitive standpoint and continue to make the Thrashers what they have been since 2001 – a team with a superstar and not enough good players around to help him.

So, the trade will be made and regardless of what the Thrashers receive in return, they won’t get equal value unless one of the draft picks they acquire turns out to be a stud superstar five years from now. Whether the team will actually be playing in Atlanta by that time is anyone’s guess.

Kovalchuk is fully within his rights to demand $12 million on a long-term deal and who can blame him for making that kind of monetary demand to the Thrashers? After all, if he were to sign long-term in Atlanta, he’d almost certainly be spending his most productive hockey years playing for a losing team that has almost no prospect of winning the Stanley Cup. That has to be worth something.

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When you look at the Thrashers as currently constituted, you see a squad that pretty much resembles a .500 team, one that might be good enough to make the playoffs and perhaps win a round. But as of Monday, they’re out of the post-season dance and could very well miss the playoffs completely.

Do things really look any more optimistic in the next couple of seasons? Do the Thrashers have any kind of identity beyond what they already are?

No, and that’s why if Kovalchuk is interested in going to a team that is at least building toward a Stanley Cup, his mind is probably made up already. And while the cynic might suggest Kovalchuk has been part of the reason why the Thrashers have only made the playoffs once in their history, this is not a Jay Bouwmeester situation.

The real reason is more likely because the Thrashers have never been able to fill their roster with NHL-caliber players and have never been able to find a center any better than Todd White to play with Kovalchuk. With two 50-goal seasons, one Rocket Richard Trophy and possibly another 50-goal campaign this season, Kovalchuk has done his bit for the good of the organization.

So the Thrashers can probably wave goodbye to the greatest player they’ve ever had and get on with it. Any team wanting to acquire Kovalchuk would be required to pick up only $1.52 million of his salary cap hit for the remainder of the season if it were to make a deal for him Monday and that amount will decrease by a little more than $33,000 with each passing day.

The Thrashers will have no shortage of willing dance partners when they put the crown jewel of the 2010 trade deadline up for auction. And as was the case with Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa before him, Kovalchuk’s departure will leave the Thrashers in worse shape both in the short- and long-term.

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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