January 26, 2010
It's Jan. 26, 2010. Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) is still playing for the Atlanta Thrashers, with months remaining on his contract and weeks before the NHL trade deadline. That we've reached this point is, in our estimation, an indication that the team doesn't have a clue how to resolve this franchise-defining crisis. So let's break it down, Monty Hall style ...
What's Behind Door No. 1: Signing Ilya Kovalchuk to the money he's looking for and the years he's asking for. There would be no hometown discount; there would be overpayment, as Camp Kovalchuk asks for a theoretical, unrestricted free-agent contract number. But, in the end, one of the best hockey players in the world remains in Atlanta, as does some semblance of optimism about the franchise's future.
What's Behind Door No. 2: Trading Ilya Kovalchuk at, or before, the March 3 deadline. Most likely to a team acquiring him as a rental player. Most likely for a package that's better than the one they received for Marian Hossa(notes), but one that's going to be a collection of spare parts, prospects and salary castoffs. Or as others might call it, "Not Ilya Kovalchuk." Which brings us to ...
What's Behind Door No. 3: Hanging on to Kovalchuk through the trade deadline in the hopes of making the postseason, continuing contract negotiations and, if all else fails, trading his negotiating rights to the highest bidder before he turns UFA.
In speaking to some sources over the last week, all three options appear on the table for Atlanta. Which one is the best one for the Thrashers?
First, some facts amid the buzz about Kovalchuk potentially being on the move.
There is a significant gap between the two sides in the contract negotiations, as far as dollars. The Thrashers are listening to offers. But while there's been some breathless speculation about imminent deals for the Russian sniper, we wouldn't expect any move to be made until after the Olympic break. Penny-pinching teams don't want to pay Kovalchuk for two weeks away from the NHL, and god forbid some mishap occurs in Vancouver that affects his health down the stretch. Too risky.
As far as the options, let's begin with trading Kovalchuk at the deadline.
There are only a handful of teams that could hope to afford Kovalchuk as a long-term prospect; there are plenty that could afford his prorated salary for a playoff run. The Thrashers will have some significant suitors, even if the bounty for Kovalchuk will never be what Atlanta could have received last summer.
No team should be considered off the table as a short-term solution. The Chicago Blackhawks are a short-term play: A team that could create No. 1 and No. 1-A lines with the addition of Kovalchuk, but one that couldn't hope to sign him after the season due to the cap. (And we still don't see them giving up a Kris Versteeg(notes) type for that rental.) The Washington Capitals are another short-term play.
But again: Nothing the Thrashers get back is going to be close to the equivalent of Ilya Kovalchuk. And there's no getting around what raising the white flag on these negotiations and saying goodbye to Kovalchuk means, aesthetically and intrinsically, for this franchise.
What free agent is coming to this team? What free agents are staying with this team? The money saved from letting Kovalchuk go could be reallocated to other players ... but who? Who is walking into that locker room with the abilities and value of Ilya Kovalchuk?
That's why the third option is an interesting one: Keeping Kovalchuk through the deadline with the hopes of signing him before free agency. If nothing else, it brings Ilya and his reps closer to the inevitable question: Is the grass really greener somewhere amongst the other 29 teams in the NHL?
Letting Kovalchuk test the UFA market would be a huge gamble. It would cause both Thrashers fans and Thrashers management a lot of heart burn--that's for certain. In a perfect world, Grossman and Kovalchuk would discover that no team is willing to offer him $11 for the next 7-10 years, and then re-sign with Atlanta for less money. On the down side, it only takes one crazy GM to make a cap max offer, and Kovalchuk is gone with nothing to show for his departure. Is it worth the risk to save $2 million per year?
If nothing else, the Thrashers will have added time to the negotiation clock and likely would get something in return for Kovalchuk's rights if time ran out; if Jay Bouwmeester(notes) earns the rights to Jordan Leopold(notes) and a third-round pick, what does Kovalchuk earn?
But there's something to be said for Kovalchuk's asking price potentially coming down if Atlanta waits through the trade deadline and into the summer.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke passed along "the rumor" on Sportsnet that Kovalchuk was offered "$8.5 million times 10" and turned it down, before saying "I'm not interested in committing that amount of money for that term for that kind of player." He's probably not alone, and you may hear more lip service about that asking price going forward; either for GM Don Waddell's sake or because that's actually the market for Kovalchuk.
(At this point, we should note that Kovalchuk loves Atlanta and that a pressure-cooker like Toronto probably wasn't going to be on his wish list anyway. Which is to say that Kovalchuk's desired destinations, combined with teams that can afford him, makes for a narrow collection of options next summer.)
Perhaps that's why the Thrashers have been so reluctant to do what we feel is clearly the best, clearly the logical, clearly the only option for the franchise: Re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term, blockbuster deal.
The money being discussed is theoretical. There's never been a player on this level, in his prime, that's gone UFA, and certainly not in a capped League. Marian Gaborik(notes) earned $7.5 million per season over five years with the New York Rangers; is that the bar? Can Alex Ovechkin's(notes) or Evgeni Malkin's(notes) contracts be considered the bar? Is a max contract coming down the pike to Kovalchuk this summer from another team?
It's here where we sympathize with Don Waddell and the Thrashers. They clearly have a number in mind for what Ilya would earn as a UFA; and Kovalchuk clearly has a different number in mind, no doubt fueled from informal feelers from other teams that may court him in the summer. (Whether they end up bidding that amount is, again, just a theory.) There's nothing concrete that says Kovalchuk earns the max; but there's also nothing concrete to say he wouldn't.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told us, in speaking about Ovechkin's long-term deal, that attempting to predict the future is a tricky facet of these types of negotiations: "There's nothing that says the cap keeps going up. The cap was flat this year, will probably be flat next year. It could go down. I'm not so sure that $57 million is as high as we go."
But the reason Door No. 1 is the best option for Atlanta has less to do with the financials and everything to do with the franchise.
It's the only option offering a definable future for the Thrashers. It protects them from wandering through the wilderness as a franchise, hoping the bits and pieces they received for their star pan out; or that the draft picks the use become significant building blocks. (How much confidence does this list inspire?)
It's a foreseeable future vs. a potential future. A player who you build around vs. a player whose absence reverberates through the franchise and the fan base. You don't replace these numbers, unless another once-in-a-generation player arrives through the draft.
To put it in "Let's Make a Deal" terms: It's like knowing there's a new car behind Door No. 1, but having a 20-percent chance at that European vacation or an 80-percent chance of finding that goat behind the other doors -- and then taking it.
There's no spinning the PR disaster of losing Kovalchuk, either at the deadline or in the summer. Not to his teammates, not to his peers, not to the fans. It's the moment at which Atlanta decides whether it's going to spend and contend like an NHL franchise or continue to surrender talent while missing the postseason.
Hopefully, there's some actual negotiation between the two sides at some point -- instead of posturing and unyielding recitation of salary numbers -- because for the sake of the franchise, this deal needs to get done. And we doubt Camp Kovalchuk and its allies will go quietly if it doesn't.