When and Why the Thrashers Should Trade Ilya Kovalchuk

Photo courtesy of Matthieu Masquelet via Flickr®
All eyes on Ilya Kovalchuk. Will he remain a Thrasher in 2010? (Photo courtesy of Matthieu Masquelet via Flickr®)

As the critical season progresses for the Atlanta Thrashers, the biggest question on the minds of Thrashers fans is whether or not their star will return to the lineup. Kovalchuk, with little argument, will become the biggest item on the trading block and the biggest free agent should he not sign with the Thrashers approaching the trade deadline in 2010.

This not to argue that Kovalchuk should or should not be traded, but I would like to offer the options and scenarios and utilize the comments for your input. If you don’t feel like reading, head to the bottom and there’s some summary questions you can answer. Before the preseason, my colleague Rafal Ladysz offered ten reasons why Ilya Kovalchuk will return to said lineup. You could also read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for glimpses of hope that Ilya wants a deal done. It’s mentioned in nearly every new article, even irrelevant ones, that GM Don Waddell is continuing negotiations with Kovalchuk’s agent. The tone has been very optimistic to the press, and even Kovalchuk is quoted for wanting to get “a deal” done soon.

“I didn’t put any pressure on them and they didn’t put any pressure on me. Hopefully we’ll get it done some time.” -Ilya Kovalchuk on making his decision.

What is this “deal”? Is it a contractual deal with the Thrashers, or is it his personal decision to stay or hit the road?

Ilya Kovalchuk has 9 goals in 8 full games played. He is currently sidelined for 2-4 weeks with a fracture in his foot.
Ilya Kovalchuk has 9 goals in 6 full games played. He is currently sidelined for 2-4 weeks with a fracture in his foot. (Photo courtesy of Matthieu Masquelet via Flickr®)

Here, a month has passed, and Kovy is still a pending free agent. Negotiations continue. Should Thrashers fans be concerned or practice patience? There are several scenarios that may happen.

Kovalchuk may sign in November (while injured). While Kovalchuk is out for four weeks with a fracture in his foot, this is an opportunity for Ilya to see a Thrashers independent of Kovalchuk. Last season, the Thrashers earned a late-season victory against the Washington Capitals without a second of ice time for the captain. Before that, Kovalchuk left the ice early in the first period in Edmonton. The Thrashers defeated the Oilers in overtime that night.

The Thrashers need to prove that they can win consistently without their captain and best goal scorer, and this is their opportunity to prove it. It may sway their captain to stay a while.

Kovalchuk may sign in December. If the Thrashers can not put in consistent effort, Ilya will have to take the ice and attempt to bounce the Thrashers back into the playoffs hunt.

If a deal is not done in November, this is nowhere near a cause for concern. It wasn’t until December 28, 2007 when Washington climbed out of 15th in the Eastern Conference with a 14-19-5 record only to take the division title by season end. Granted the Thrashers are better off than the Capitals on this date of that season, the Thrashers still have as good of a shot at the playoffs, even the division, as their four division rivals. The chances for the Thrashers will be even greater than Washington’s come Christmas if Atlanta can avoid the basement. If the team shows signs of a bounce-back in December, Ilya could very well wait until early January to extend his stay in Atlanta.

A final option, which is the latest RDS spouting but also the most unlikely, is that Kovalchuk could be the next $100 million man after Alex Ovechkin. The problem with this deal is that such a deal could mean nearly $11 million per season. The Thrashers run on a budget, but even if they were willing to pay this price, it would mean future severe paycuts to those feeding the puck to the skating gem. By paycuts, it means replacing Bryan Little, Nik Antropov, and Ron Hainsey with some boys from the farm. This move would be a risk of ridiculous proportion, and one that even a desperate Thrashers organization aren’t willing to take.

Thrashers fans, be concerned if the captain does not sign by mid-January. Then the following scenarios become more likely.

Kovalchuk will need to be traded as long as possible before the deadline. As owner Bruce Levenson put it, “If [Kovalchuk] goes, so go the Thrashers.” This does not have to be the case if the team can get maximum value for Kovalchuk. The Thrashers would be foolish to trade their captain before January, but they would also be foolish to wait until the deadline when Kovalchuk is likely to play for a different team than the one he’s been dealt to. A high return to build around future talent in Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Bryan Little will be necessary to the Thrashers survival in Atlanta.

After this season, it’s either about money or championship for Ilya. I believe you can’t have both. Come free agency in 2010, the greatest rumor is the KHL’s interest in Kovalchuk. In the past, Kovalchuk’s agent has stated that he has no interest in the KHL, but this was at a time that Alexander Radulov breached his NHL commitments to play in the KHL. It is known that the KHL is handing out ten million dollar salaries like candy. Only downfall is that there is no Stanley Cup in the KHL, and that remains the greatest worldwide honor for hockey. Now that Kovalchuk’s commitment is coming to a close, the KHL is within the realm of possibility for the 2010-2011 season if money outweighs the championship. The second option for next season is to head to another NHL club.

With the elite teams in the league facing salary cap issues, what club with great promise could sign Kovalchuk and have a legitimate chance for the Stanley Cup finals? To be on a championship team, Kovalchuk would have to turn down the millions thrown at him from the KHL for a slight raise from his seven million dollar-per-year salary. The postseason-bound NHL team that will take him is up in the air.

What will happen? It’s all open to interpretation. Kovalchuk himself could weigh his options, but can’t say where he’ll play this time next year. You weigh the options:

  1. Should Ilya Kovalchuk re-sign with the Thrashers?
  2. When should Thrashers fans become concerned when he doesn’t sign?
  3. Should he consider the KHL or the NHL should he not re-sign?

In the mean time, get better, Ilya!

Photos by Matthieu Masquelet on Flickr®.