One of the biggest off-ice stories around the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL, is the impending status of Atlanta star and captain Ilya Kovalchuk.
On July 1, 2010, Kovalchuk is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. After having traded free agent-to-be Marian Hossa at the 2008 trade deadline, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell would really like to re-sign Kovalchuk. He's a phenomenal talent and the face of the Atlanta organization. Losing him would set the development of the team back years.
For his part, Kovalchuk claims to enjoy the Atlanta area. Reportedly, he wants to stay with the team, as long as they can be competitive.
His desires are understandable. In seven completed seasons in Atlanta, Kovalchuk has been to the playoffs just once, and it was a short-lived sweep in 2007 at the hands of the Rangers.
Waddell has taken measures not just to improve the team but to surround Kovalchuk with buddies. In the summer, he signed Russians Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov, and together with Kovalchuk, those two have formed a very potent line. Secondary scoring from the Little White Russian line (Bryan Little, Todd White, Slava Kozlov) has been lacking all season, but Atlanta still finds itself sixth in the East as of this writing.
In their place though, has been the great Rich Peverley, a waiver wire castoff who has been a near point-per-game player. Fourth overall pick Evander Kane is having a solid rookie campaign and Colby Armstrong is one of the better role players in the league.
On the blue line, Tobias Enstrom is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the newcomers, as his 29 points have almost surpassed his total last year of 32 in a full season. His 2008-09 season was a bit of a backstep after he tallied 38 points in his rookie season. Pavel Kubina, another offseason acquisition, has 20 points, and youngster Zach Bogosian - the 2008 third overall pick - has eight goals and is an overall stud in the making.
There's plenty of reasons to have hope in Atlanta, especially with the emergence of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
So what's the holdup in Kovalchuk signing a new contract?
Well, if reports are to be believed, Kovalchuk is seeking a maximum contract, which under the current settings is $11.36 million annually, and he's hoping to get that over 10 to 12 years. Yowza.
If that's true, it's easy to figure out why Waddell doesn't want to commit to that. There aren't many teams in the league who can, let alone who would want to, so he has to figure - if that's what Kovalchuk's demand is - that Waddell can bring the amount down a bit.
If you're Kovalchuk, whose contract this season calls for $7.5 million at a cap hit of $6.4 million, do you really think it's wise to ask for a max deal?
Let's first look at other players. If Kovalchuk is indeed asking for that much, he is saying that he's the best player in the league and would make almost $2 million more than Alexander Ovechkin. Is there anyone who would take Kovalchuk over Ovechkin?
But it also goes beyond that. If Kovalchuk truly wants the Thrashers to be competitive during his time with the team if he re-signs, he cannot possibly sign a maximum deal. According to nhlnumbers.com, the Thrashers have a tad over $25 million committed to 10 players for 2010-11. However, that total includes no goaltender - Johan Hedberg will be a UFA, and Pavelec and Kari Lehtonen will be RFAs - and is missing several other key players, among them Kubina, Afinogenov, Armstrong and Kozlov, who will all be UFAs after this season.
Little will be a restricted free agent and will command a raise. Kozlov will be 38 in May and could retire, so re-signing him might not be an issue. But Bogosian will need a new contract after 2011 and Kane's current deal expires after 2012. If the latter two develop as everyone expects them to, their price tags will be fairly large.
And if 20 percent of the cap hit is tied up in one player, that isn't likely to leave much room to pay enough of a supporting cast to make the Thrashers a playoff-caliber, or Stanley Cup-contender team.
That's certainly something Waddell needs to take into account. Kovalchuk should too. Players like Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin could easily demand the max amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, but they all took less money to stay with their team so that their general managers could spend on other players.
Maybe Kovalchuk knows this, and all these rumors about him demanding the max are untrue. That's certainly possible. But if they're not, and he gets his max deal, he'll surely be happy that he's raking in a lot of dough. But if Waddell - or an eventual successor - finds his hands tied and the Thrashers continue to be on the fringe of the playoff picture at best, then I doubt Kovalchuk will find his springs all that exciting.
Waddell said the situation would be resolved before Christmas. So he's got two and a half days left to sign Kovalchuk, who might want to see if someone throws a Brinks truck or two at him in the offseason.
But if Kovalchuk is sincere about wanting to stay in Atlanta and turn the Thrashers into a winner, he should sign for Ovechkin- or Crosby-like money and let his GM find the pieces that make Atlanta a dangerous opponent.
Otherwise, the only thing he'll have to do during the playoffs is count how much money he's earning.