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Sean Leahy

Will he stay or go? Kovalchuk's future in Atlanta

Sean Leahy
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"It's a great city, my family loves it here. I feel very comfortable in the locker room and with management, trainers, everybody. I don't have any problems. If we're going to play well, I want to stay here. I want to win the Cup and bring it here because I was drafted by this team." -Ilya Kovalchuk, October, 2008

The upcoming 2009-10 season is a vital one for the Atlanta Thrashers franchise. Their crown jewel is entering the final year of his contract and while negotiations are underway, there's no predicting when a deal might be struck, if any. Kovalchuk has made it clear that he wants to see progress on the ice if he's to stay in Atlanta. General Manager Don Waddell's quest to prove to his star player that indeed, he is trying, led him to go out and trade for defenseman Pavel Kubina(notes) from Toronto and sign Nik Antropov(notes) to a four-year, $16.4 million deal. Helping in the recruiting process of Antropov was Kovalchuk, which is an encouraging sign for Thrashers fans and shows that Waddell and ownership are serious about doing everything they can to make him happy, like listening to his player reccomendations.

As he told Craig Custance of The Sporting News back in October, Kovalchuk wants to win in Atlanta because he feels a sense of loyalty to the team, it's city and fans. Despite seeing former line-mates Dany Heatley(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) force trades out of town, it appears Kovalchuk is looking for a reason to stay with the team, no matter the lure of a bigger contract or stable surroundings elsewhere.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick has only played four playoff games in his seven seasons with Atlanta. For most players, there's only so much talk of "progress" that one can take before deciding to start looking elsewhere. But even with all the lack of success to date in Atlanta, Kovalchuk is not the type of player who will force his way out, instead, he wants to help in the turnaround process. In other words, he's not going to turn into Dany Heatley over the next few months.

What exactly defines appeasing Kovalchuk? Is it just the additions of Antropov and Kubina? Does salary and term factor in heavily? Is it now up to what happens on the ice in order for Kovalchuk to make his decision? Jeff Schultz(notes) of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution believes that Waddell would have to blow him out of the water for him to sign an extension before the season begins:

"The belief is, it's going to take far more than his own contract to get him to sign. He's going to have to be convinced that ownership and Waddell are committed to building a winner - and that they're capable of it. Neither has been the case so far. Waddell has been the architect from day one and built only one playoff team in nine seasons. Ownership is fractured, remains tied up in litigation, could be for sale at some point and is holding the line on overall payroll (the Thrashers' projected team payroll of $42 to $45 million will be far below the cap).

If you're Kovalchuk, there is no real advantage to signing now and passing up unrestricted free agency after the season, when potentially another franchise in far better shape could compete for his services, and probably pay just as much. For him to sign an extension now, he has to be swayed."

He's right. The Thrashers ownership situation, as Schultz pointed out, is hindering Waddell's ability to spend money to further improve the team. If Kovalchuk enters the season without a new deal, suitors will be lining up outside of Waddell's office door with packages for the 26-year old left winger. As much as Kovalchuk would like to believe that contract talks during the season wouldn't be a distraction, it'll be almost impossible to not have it affect him in some way. Like the questions that came day after day in Marian Hossa's situation in 2008, every city Atlanta travels to until an extension is done or the trade deadline passes, Kovalchuk's teammates, Waddell, and he himself will be answering questions about contracts and trade rumors.

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It's now the final stretch for Waddell and Thrashers. Kovalchuk is their star and main attraction. With a young supporting cast featuring the likes of Bryan Little(notes), Zach Bogosian(notes), and recent draft choice Evander Kane(notes), the Thrashers are a team that should be on their way up and working back towards the playoffs. Will the recent moves end up being be too little too late?

An alternate solution brought up by The Hockey News' Rory Boylen is that Waddell should try and convince Kovalchuk to hold off on unrestricted free agency for a year or two, continue the talent casting full-court press, then attempt to work out the long-term deal:

"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."

I think seven years has been more than enough time for Waddell to build a contender around Kovalchuk. I don't know if asking him to sit through another year of building would even cross his mind. Kovalchuk's willing to stay in Atlanta in the right situation, but he's not going to wait forever for the Thrashers to become something that the GM has failed to do since the franchise began.

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