Here at BWA we recently conducted an experiment with fellow writers to see what a Kovalchuk-as-rental trade would bring. The results of that experiment were probably rather disappointing for most Thrashers fans. As of this moment, it appears that Don Waddell is in a jam. It would seem that he has two choices 1) trade Kovalchuk and receive a weak return or 2) re-sign Ilya for more money than he is worth.
My personal feeling is that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to stay, and Don Waddell wants him to stay, and all of this is posturing over how much money it will take. It is rumored that Ilya's agent, Jay Grossman, has requested a cap max contract ($11 per season), and personally I don't think Kovalchuk is worth the cap max salary.
How much is Kovalchuk worth? How much would another team pay him? Are there ANY teams that would offer him a cap max contract? This last question is really the critical one. It seems to me that I'm not the only person who wouldn't hand Kovalchuk a contract for $11 million per year. What if the Thrashers kept Kovalchuk and then said "here's our offer of $9.5 million per year, we think it is a fair offer," and then let him test the market on July 1st.
Would a team like the Rangers or Kings toss him a offer of $11 million per season? Not many teams have the cap space to fit that kind of salary into their existing payroll structure. In fact, I can't think of a single contending team that make that work--especially with the cap expected to hold steady or perhaps even slightly decline. Even with teams that have the cap space, how many GMs would be very reluctant to pay 20% of their entire payroll to one guy (especially a guy who doesn't help on the defensive side of things)?
Letting Kovalchuk test the UFA market would be a huge gamble. It would cause both Thrashers fans and Thrashers management a lot of heart burn--that's for certain. In a perfect world, Grossman and Kovalchuk would discover that no team is willing to offer him $11 for the next 7-10 years, and then re-sign with Atlanta for less money. On the down side, it only takes one crazy GM to make a cap max offer, and Kovalchuk is gone with nothing to show for his departure. Is it worth the risk to save $2 million per year?