Decision Day Looms for Kovalchuk, Waddell and Thrashers

Pierre LeBrun reported on CBC's Hot Stove that today the Atlanta Thrashers are to make a "final offer" to Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman at the World Junior Tournament in Saskatoon. On the credibility scale, Pierre LeBurn ranks significantly higher than Eklund or Bruce Garroich so I'm going to put more stock in this report than your run-of-the-mill rumor mongers. Whether the Thrashers deadline for a Kovalchuk decision is today, tomorrow or next week is beside the point--at some point a decision must be made--this thing can not go on forever. As a fan of the Thrashers since Game One of the team's history, I'm very concerned about what happens next. Frankly, I see more negative outcomes than positive ones.

Let's say Kovalchuk accepts the rumored offer of 12 years for $10 million each. Many fans would rejoice and proclaim their happiness--I'm not so sure. Can you win a Stanley Cup with 20% of your entire payroll invested in a guy who is great on offense but who contributes very little on the defensive side of the equation? Have teams won the Stanley Cup with one sided offensive players? Yes. Has anyone won the Stanley Cup with with a one-way player who consumes 1 out of every 5 payroll dollars? I don't think so. As a fan I'd trade one Stanley Cup for ten 50 goal seasons.

On the other hand, let's say Kovalchuk turns down the reported offer of 12 years at $10 million per year--that might avoid a Brian Campbell type contract overpayment, but it also leaves the franchise in a terrible bargaining position. If they Thrashers keep Kovalchuk for the remainder of the season in an attempt to get back to the playoffs they could trade his negotiating rights after the playoffs for a very small return. Or they could try and trade him tomorrow for a modest return. But no matter when they trade him, the return will not be nearly what it ought to be--because they waited too long to cut bait.

If the Thrashers had dealt Kovalchuk in the summer of 2008 or 2009 they could have gotten a king's ransom of picks, prospects and players. If you make a deal in the summer when teams have cap room there would be many more bidders, right now cap space is going to limit the number of bidders and the potential payoff. The organization gambled that they could re-sign him--right now it looks like they're about to lose that bet.

No matter what happens in the next several weeks I don't see any "great" outcomes for the Atlanta Thrashers. The two best possible outcomes would have been 1) a "home-team" discount in re-signing Kovalchuk or 2) a king's ransom received in trading Kovalchuk. Neither outcome is now possible. The team will either over-pay him or they will trade away their leading scorer while sinking fast in the Eastern Conference standings. There is a very real risk that the team could miss the playoffs yet another year AND lose the face of the franchise at the same time. Ouch.

The other story here is that reputations will be made or lost in the next few weeks. How will people view Kovalchuk? He certainly has played his best hockey since being named Captain one year ago. By all accounts he wants to see the NHL succeed in Atlanta. He also has expressed a desire to be a Thrasher for life. On the other hand, holding out for every last dollar makes it much harder for the Thrashers to pay for quality teammates to fill out their roster. If this is all just a negotiating ploy to get more money it is certainly having a negative impact on the current season and the team's playoff hopes.

In life people rarely get everything that they desire, most of us have to choose one thing over another. Ilya Kovalchuk must decide what is most important to him. Is it money? Is it a winning hockey team? Is it stability and staying someplace he is comfortable? I remember when Ryan Smyth was Captain of the Oilers and he held out for more money than the Oilers were offering him. Edmonton then traded the face of their franchise to the Islanders for picks and prospects and Ryan Smyth cried at his farewell news conference. I often wonder if Ryan Smyth is happier in Colorado Los Angeles, earning that extra couple of million dollars? If he could do it over again would Smyth take less money to stay with the team he loved? If Kovalchuk departs for another market and more money he might be surprised by the pressure that comes with being the star attraction. The Atlanta market has been very easy on him over the years. In other NHL cities he would be ripped apart on TV, radio and print for his defensive indifference. With big money comes big expectations. Be careful what you wish for.

For Don Waddell this will likely be a career defining moment. By all rights he should have been replaced after the 2007-08 season after Hartley was fired, the Coburn-Zhitnik trade turned sour and the Hossa departure saga. Many people get a second chance in life. In pro sports some people get a 2nd chance. But VERY FEW people get a 2nd chance with the same team. Waddell has done much better in his 2nd attempt to build a contending team. He's avoided overpaying for veterans nearing the end of their career. The roster matches up better with the coach's style than in the past. Waddell's done well at finding "nearly free talent" (Peverly, Schubert and Afinogenov). There is more veteran depth in Chicago and more prospect depth than in the past. All of these are areas where Waddell and the management team have shown improvement.

As human beings our strengths are also our weaknesses. Waddell is a passionate and emotional guy. Waddell believes in his guys, and faults them at times. Exelby is Exhibit A on that point. But Kovalchuk may end up being Exhibit B. Waddell believes that Kovalchuk is a great hockey player and wants to be a life-long Thrasher. But the decision to sign or trade Ilya should have been made before training camp even began. How could anyone forget the Hossa soap opera? Waddell remained loyal to the player and now Kovalchuk has all the leverage and Waddell has only bad options available to him. If Kovalchuk fails re-sign Waddell's loyalty will have been mis-placed and the Thrashers will likely miss the playoffs for yet another season.

The third group with something on the line is ownership of the Thrashers. When they bought the team they were excited and wanted to make a big splash. They were in a hurray to spend a lot of money on players and ended up with an old team and no cap space--which resulted in missing the playoffs in 2006, then overpaying in trades to ensure a playoff appearance in 2007 and then the harsh reality of an old roster and a lack of depth in the dismal 2008 season. The ownership should have hired a new GM in 2008. The organization had a narrow foundation of young cheap talent and had a one-way star player who was 2 years away from becoming an UFA. They needed a man with a long-term vision who could come to Atlanta and sweep away the rubble and re-build the organization with a broad base of young cheap talent.

Instead, they choose not to go that route. They kept Waddell who attempted to rebuild a contender without ever uttering the "r word" since he was the man responsible for the first attempt. Making a change in 2008 would have shown that accountability exists not just for players and coaches, it even exists for management. A new GM could have sold "the future". A new GM could have traded Kovalchuk and built a roster loaded with young talent and built the foundation of a Stanley Cup contender. By not making a change they gambled that Waddell could improve on his performance as GM (which he has) and that Kovalchuk would play better (which he did) and that he would re-sign for a reasonable price (which he hasn't) and stay a long time (which looks unlikely).

If the rumors are accurate, the ownership has signed off on a more-than-adequate offer to Kovalchuk (so no complaints about them being too cheap) but in my mind, they missed the opportunity for the full rebuild that was necessary in 2008. When I floated the idea of trading Kovalchuk for lots of prospects and high draft picks to people in the summer of 2008, they argued that fans would desert the team and nobody had any stomach for another rebuild. And yet, that is precisely the situation ownership may be confronted with in the summer of 2010. What if Kovalchuk is gone, the team flat-lines and misses the playoffs yet again? No gate attraction. No winning season. No load of prospects that could have been obtained back in 2008. If 2010 goes sour for the Thrashers franchise, the origin of that bad taste goes back to mis-judgments in the summers of 2008 and 2009.

Conclusion

The Atlanta Thrashers and Ilya Kovalchuk are both at a crossroads. They arrived at this crossroads because of past choices that set up the current organizational crisis. I certainly can't predict what will happen next, but dead ahead is a fork in the road and whichever path is traveled will have significant consequences for the reputation (and future) of Ilya Kovalchuk, Don Waddell and the Atlanta Thrashers ownership.

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