There has been a lot of speculation about Kovalchuk's contract situation so far this season. Most of that contract chatter is conducted in the absence of hard facts. Let's review the known facts as of yesterday.
- Kovalchuk has played great hockey since being captain one year ago and embraced his leadership role.
- Kovalchuk has played poor hockey (especially defensively) for the last month.
- Kovalchuk's agent was at the game last night (perhaps for the first time all season).
- Bruce Levenson was in Don Waddell's box last night (which has been rare this season).
Based on those known facts, I would deduce that Kovalchuk has become a bit more distracted about his contract of late. I would also deduce that Kovalchuk is not hearing exactly what he wants to hear in those talks. On the other hand, the physical appearance of both his Ilya's agent and the point man of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group suggests an intensification of talks. If either side were taking a hard line you could do that just as easily via the fax or phone, thus for me the physical presence of key players at Philips Arena suggest that there is an interest on both sides in forging an agreement. However, merely being interested may not be sufficient when you're talking about a $100 million dollar deal.
People have speculated about the intentions of both sides in this situation. The truth is that only about four people know exactly where these contracts stand at the moment and all of them have reasons to be less than honest. If you're the Atlanta Thrashers and talks are going poorly you don't want to broadcast that and hurt a team that currently sits in a playoff position. If you're Kovalchuk's agent you don't want your client to appear to be overly greedy or difficult if you anticipate negotiating with another club down the road. If talks are bogging down there are good reasons not to say so in public. On the other hand if talks were going perfectly, Ilya would have already signed on the dotted line.
My personal belief has always been that Kovalchuk with either re-sign with the Thrashers or go to the KHL. If the KHL wants to make an offer that is well in excess of the cap max there is nothing the Thrashers can do to match that. If Kovalchuk is motivated by a desire to return to his home country and become the biggest star in that league--there is little the Thrashers can do about that either.
Contrary to snipping remarks from northern journalists, I don't think Ilya is eager to play in another market where hockey is a bigger deal. He is a private person who doesn't seek out media attention and he enjoys being able to go out with his family without it becoming a public spectacle. He also is uniquely committed to making hockey successful in Atlanta.
Only Ilya Kovalchuk knows what number will get him to re-sign in Atlanta. What I do know is that the clock is ticking. Thrashers GM Don Waddell has indicated that he will not wait forever like the Florida Panthers did with Jay Bouwmeester last spring. The NHL trade deadline is March 3rd and the NHL is on the Olympic Break for the last two weeks of Februrary. If Kovalchuk has not signed by the time the Olympic Games commence, then I expect a crazy bidding war will transpire in the final days of February.
What will happen to the Thrashers team if talks drag out over the next seven weeks? Certainly it appears to be affecting Kovalchuk's play of late. The young core of the team (Kane, Bogosian, Enstrom, Little, Pavelec) might be immune to these distractions, but for veterans hoping for the Stanley Cup playoffs it could prove more troubling.