Every internet messageboard that you visit nowadays it seems that there is a "Kovalchuk to ____" rumor. Well, Atlanta GM Don Waddell, has made it clear that he's not shopping Kovalchuk and that he intends to re-sign him before he becomes a UFA next summer. Did you really expect him to say anything different? Kovalchuk is one of the top goal scorers in the NHL and obviously Waddell wasn't going to announce that he was trying to trade Kovalchuk, unless it was a guarantee. But, at the same time, would he have come out and said that he wasn't trading him? This probably won't kill the internet chatter, but here's what Waddell had to say to the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week:
General manager Don Waddell told the Journal-Constitution last week that, unequivocally, Kovalchuk will remain with the team as it attempts to re-sign one of the NHL’s elite players. There will be no trade deadline move — such as with Marian Hossa — if negotiations reach an impasse.
Beyond next season, well, that remains to be seen.
The Thrashers face a franchise-defining summer with Kovalchuk entering the final year of his contract. Re-signing Kovalchuk, who will command a major contract, is unquestionably the priority. He is the franchise leader in goals, points and games played.
Kovalchuk, 26, has made it clear that to re-sign him, the Thrashers must improve a team that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons after failing to win a game in its only postseason appearance.
“If I feel like we’re in the right direction, for sure I think we’ll figure out a way to sign a new deal,” Kovalchuk told the AJC last month.
For Kovalchuk to stay, a player such as Kari Lehtonen might go.
The Thrashers’ best chance to acquire a top-six forward, their biggest need according to Waddell, is by trade. There is depth at goaltender, the only position where that is the case. Lehtonen, a restricted free agent, is the team’s top goalie, and veteran backup Johan Hedberg is signed through next season. Ondrej Pavelec is the team’s top prospect.
“If we felt we were helping our team and getting a good player back for one of our goalies, and I couldn’t tell you which one because I honestly don’t know right now, that would be something we would look at,” Waddell said.
Waddell would like to re-sign Kovalchuk before the start of the season. Once the season starts in October the trade deadline looms, and it could become a distraction. Do you trade a player to get something in return or allow him to leave as a free agent and get nothing? Such was the case two seasons ago with Hossa.
“The Hossa thing was not a distraction, I don’t think, until three weeks before the trade deadline,” Waddell said. “Then it was a huge distraction. We want to avoid that.
“I think [the Thrashers and Kovalchuk] will both know where we are way before the season starts if it is going to happen. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen once the season starts. My mission is to keep Ilya Kovalchuk here, whether that happens in July or August or we have to go out and prove that we are a team that’s going to take that next step we are fine with that.”
Waddell insists that the situations with Kovalchuk and Hossa are different. Hossa was inclined to leave, Waddell said, and there was little negotiation. He believes Kovalchuk wants to stay — if the team can win.
“If you trade every player that is going to come up to be an unrestricted free agent, the way the league is set up you are going to be a free agent at 25 [years old], so we are going to be doing this all the time,” Waddell said. “You have to look at the big picture and say this year is more important to us than years from now. Florida went through it with [Jay] Bouwmeester. They didn’t trade their big guy, but they missed the playoffs.
“You are going to see that more and more. Where a player is 25 and he’s going to get a home-run deal, but it’s more important right now to keep him and keep the franchise moving in the right direction.”
The team knows that Kovalchuk will get a monster contract. He has 297 goals in seven seasons. He scored 43 last year, 27 coming after he was named captain Jan. 11.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep Ilya here,” co-owner Bruce Levenson told the AJC in March. “Just look at his leadership since they put that [captain’s] “C” on his jersey, you understand how valuable he is. We really need to build this team around Ilya. As he goes, so go the Thrashers.”
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