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.