Are Waddell’s hands tied in Kovalchuk standoff?

Contract negotiations between Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta
Thrashers are rapidly becoming one of the top NHL stories of this
season, which isn’t surprising given the 26-year-old
superstar winger is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July
1, 2010.

Since joining the Thrashers as a rookie in 2001-02 Kovalchuk
has been a model of consistency, becoming their all-time leading
scoring in goals, assists and points. He also holds the single
season record for most goals (52).

This season Kovalchuk is once again the Thrashers’
leading scorer — a feat he’s accomplished four times in his
NHL career — and on pace for 50 goals and 94 points in 76 games.
Since 2005-06 only Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin has scored
more goals than Kovalchuk.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell claimed there is no one comparable
to Kovalchuk in this summer’s free-agent market. Clearly
he’s a franchise player any team with Stanley Cup aspirations
would love to build around.

Should he become a free agent, Kovalchuk will undoubtedly
command top dollar but it’s believed he’d prefer to
remain in Atlanta and his camp is willing to continue negotiating
with Waddell up to July 1.

Kovalchuk recently stated he’s focusing on helping the
Thrashers make the playoffs rather than his contract status,
although he remains confident a deal could still be reached.

“This is definitely the year we have to make the
playoffs,” he told Rogers Sportsnet. “It’s do or
die for us.”

A source close to the Kovalchuk camp said the winger called
together a group of veteran teammates prior to Tuesday’s game
vs. the Senators, telling them he wouldn’t let his contract
situation become a distraction and stressing the importance of
making the playoffs.

Given Kovalchuk’s stature as an elite player, his value
and commitment to the Thrashers, plus his apparent willingness to
remain in Atlanta, it is surprising he hasn’t been re-signed
by now.

Waddell, Kovalchuk and his agent Jay Grossman have declined
to discuss the details of their negotiations, but there’s
speculation the Russian sniper was seeking the salary cap maximum
of over $11 million per season.

A rumor out of Russia claiming Kovalchuk wanted a 10-year,
$100 million deal further stoked talk he could be traded in the
weeks leading up to the March 3 trade deadline.

Waddell has received his share of criticism over his handling
of these negotiations. But while acknowledging a trade is an
option, he insists he wants to retain Kovalchuk.

A source familiar with the talks suggested Thrashers’
ownership might be tying Waddell’s hands by an unwillingness
to pay what it takes to commit to the franchise’s success.

The Thrashers are owned by Atlanta Spirit, a group of nine
businessmen which also own the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks as well as
Phillips Arena, where both teams play.

In recent years the group has been mired in legal infighting
which critics claim has become a distraction hurting both
franchises.

Atlanta Spirit recently faced criticism for not investing in
the upkeep of the arena, and for the most part has been unable —
or unwilling — to keep pace with the NHL’s increasing salary
cap since 2005-06.

That’s created a belief amongst pundits and fans the
group isn’t interested in doing what it takes to turn the
Thrashers into a winning franchise, leading to poor attendance and
fueling uncertainty over the club’s future in Atlanta.

Waddell recently hinted the snag in Kovalchuk’s
negotiations wasn’t his status as a franchise player but
rather the necessity to ensure they can re-sign him and have enough
cap room to continue growing the franchise.

That would be an issue if the Thrashers were pressed for cap
space, but they currently have just over $25 million committed to
11 players for 2010-11. They must spend over $15 million just to be
above the mandated cap minimum, which for this season is currently
$40.8 million and could remain the same or increase slightly for
next season.

If they were to re-sign Kovalchuk to, say, $10 million per
season that would still leave over $20 million (assuming the salary
cap remains over $56 million) to re-sign other key players and fill
out the remainder of their roster. That’s of course assuming
ownership is willing to invest more in the club’s payroll
than it has in the recent past.

This situation isn’t unique to the Thrashers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago
Blackhawks were once-struggling franchises which in recent years
committed to retaining their best players resulting in varying
degrees of success, earning praise for maintaining competitive
rosters under the constraints of the salary cap.

It’s been suggested the Thrashers might be better off
without Kovalchuk as the club hasn’t won anything with him in
the lineup and perhaps would be better off instead focusing on
their rising talent and other veterans.

Yet that suggestion was rarely heard last summer when the
Vancouver Canucks re-signed Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins to
an expensive, long-term contract despite the fact that team
hadn’t won anything with them in the lineup. The Canucks
front office was praised for the most part for their commitment to
their future by retaining their best players.

Given Kovalchuk’s strong performance as a Thrasher
it’s baseless to suggest the team would be better off without
him or for that matter to lay blame for the club’s poor
record during that time at his feet, considering the criticism the
front office has received in recent years for poor player
management decisions.

Kovalchuk’s negotiations are not just an evaluation of
his market value as a free agent but also an evaluation of Atlanta
Spirit’s commitment to the Thrashers’ future.

An investment in their best player would be a considerable
part of that future.