There is an undercurrent in the Ilya Kovalchuk negotiations that goes far beyond what most protracted player-management negotiations eventually come down to, which is, of course: “Pay me like I’m great, because I am,” countered immediately by, “You’d be a lot greater if we could find a helmet to fit over your inflated, blimpy head.”
And that undercurrent is this: Hockey’s uncertain future in Atlanta.
If the Thrashers can’t re-sign Kovalchuk — and I now believe the chances of a deal are just this side of dead — it will be at least in part because of the backdrop of ownership’s uncertain long-term commitment to hockey and the possibility of the franchise being sold and moved during the period of Kovalchuk’s contract.
This has become abundantly clear, especially given Kovalchuk’s recent comments about desiring to spend the rest of his career in Atlanta, and Waddell’s contention that these talks are all about money. If Waddell believes that all Kovalchuk cares about is money, he’s failing to recognize that it’s the only thing the player can control.
I don’t blame Kovalchuk if he’s asking for a max contract (annual salary equal to 20 percent of the team’s cap, or about $11 million) for probably 10 to 12 years.
I also wouldn’t blame Waddell (or ownership) if they say, “We can’t do that,” and Kovalchuk ends up being traded before the deadline. The real problem is what led to all of this.
Years of mismanagement and/or neglect ran down a franchise in a second-chance NHL market, where commissioner Gary Bettman desperately wants hockey to succeed. Even with matters at the Atlanta Spirit somewhat stabilizing (emphasis on somewhat), the Steve Belkin vs. non-Belkins matter is not yet closed. Ultimately, Belkin likely will be out of the picture. Rumors persist that the remaining owners will be looking to sell the team (something they’ve long denied). Problem: Finding an owner who would keep the team in Atlanta is not going to be easy, especially in this economy.
Back to Kovalchuk. He and his wife, Nicole, have two children and a third on the way. They’re settled. When Kovalchuk says his first choice is to stay here, I believe him. (When Marian Hossa said it, I laughed inside.)
A player can ask for a no-trade clause in his contract. But he can’t ask for a clause that reads, “If the franchise relocates to Winnipeg or Quebec, the player can opt out.” Doesn’t work that way. And I would like to see the look on the face of the next owner when the Thrashers tell him, “Well, we can bring Todd White with us but not Kovalchuk.”
Kovalchuk can’t be guaranteed of anything: 1) That the Atlanta Spirit will keep the team and spend to keep and acquire players (according to NHLnumbers.com, the Thrashers rank 23rd out of 30 teams in payroll); 2) That anybody who purchases the team will keep it in Atlanta and also spend to compete.
Look at the past. Look at the present. Look at the future. There is no reason for Kovalchuk to feel comfortable.
The only thing he can control is his salary. (And by the way: Do you really believe the difference in him making $9 million and $11 million next season will be the difference in whether the Thrashers are successful or not, given what we’ve witnessed?) Given everything, and the fact he is staring at unrestricted free agency, why would he not ask for the most he can get? Would he get it on the open market? Probably. It only takes one big-market team to jump (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto or maybe star-crazed Los Angeles).
Even if Kovalchuk’s next deal falls short of the max, he still can control where he signs. He can pick a stable franchise, one that he believes is committed to winning — and staying put.