Ilya Kovalchuk is scheduled to become a UFA next summer. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s not easy being a GM.
Aside from all the off-ice commitments and challenges facing whomever holds this position, assembling an exciting and contending team from ashes left over from a previous meltdown will tear your fan base in two over which direction the team should go.
This is why good management teams don’t – and shouldn’t – listen to or really even care about what their fans want to happen in the off-season; that will only make the mess bigger and those onlookers don’t have to be held accountable in hindsight.
When Montreal Canadiens fans took to the front of the Bell Centre to ‘protest’ their desire to have Alex Kovalev return, it didn’t take long for GM Bob Gainey to shoot them down, saying the Russian wouldn’t be back. It’s nothing against the fans, it’s just not the way Gainey feels he should go – and this is a guy who knows every in and out of the team.
So is it any better when a player has some influence in how a team is built?
Take the Atlanta Thrashers – please, take them – for example. Here we have the Teflon Don, GM Don Waddell, trying to overhaul a team that was going nowhere in a hurry, but had a strong crop of promise making its way up through the system. Bryan Little scored 31 goals in his sophomore season and is on his way to breaking the Barrie Colt curse; Tobias Enstrom scored six fewer points in 2008-09, but had a 19-point improvement in his plus-minus rating; Ondrej Pavelec had a weak 12 games when he was given a sniff of the NHL, but was lights-out in the American League where life was more stable; and Zach Bogosian would have been in the running for the Calder had he not broken his leg in his eighth game of the season.
And now, because the GM has to impress his star player – Ilya Kovalchuk – to convince him to stick around, Waddell has spent $4 million on a flat-footed Nik Antropov and traded for a $5 million cap hit contract on Pavel Kubina, though the blueliner is only tied up there for one year. When those two are the “biggest acquisitions at this time of year” your team has ever made, as Waddell noted, and the main thing Antropov has going for him is that he is a “friend of Ilya’s” the formula being put together won’t prove to be a long-term success.
Now don’t get me wrong; every GM’s job is and should be to improve his team and not “tank” anything to intentionally rebuild through high-end draft picks. And it’s not a bad thing that Kovalchuk wants to play on a winner instead of a team that struggles to reach even mediocrity each year.
But if that’s the way it has to be and the Thrashers have to improve enough to reach Kovalchuk’s standards in only a year, maybe it’s time to go another route.
The fact of the matter is, Atlanta just had the fourth overall pick in the draft for a reason. And if Evander Kane jumps right to the NHL, hopefully it’s because he is truly ready for it and not because the team needs a secondary or even tertiary scoring threat right now.
There are teams whose futures look much worse off than the Thrashers and Waddell could rebuild this squad relatively quickly, but it won’t be done overnight by slapping square pegs into rounds holes.
For Atlanta, it’s all about making the small, shrewd moves now – i.e. trading declining defenseman Niclas Havelid for prospect Anssi Salmela – and trying to hit a home run when the timing is just right; perhaps next season when Vyacheslav Kozlov and Kubina come off the books just as salary cap declines, making stars available either for trade or off the UFA market.
Kovalchuk is a dynamic player whose caliber doesn’t come around often, but if he is unwilling to commit to the team, I’m not sure the GM should be committing the team to him. If Atlanta struggles again next year despite Waddell’s efforts, Kovy will be gone and the Thrashers will be a misfit team without direction.
Perhaps Waddell should urge Kovy to sign a one- or two-year deal to give the team ample time to correct itself and get its new ownership group on the same page. Then, if he is still unhappy with the direction, by all means, trade him or let him sign with a winner.
But Atlanta shouldn’t be hastily building a team in a year to appease one player with an expiring contract – it’s just too risky and too short-term.
Man, it’s not easy being a GM.