December 17, 2009 :: 12:03am ET
Kovalchuk dominates, contract talks continue
By David Pagnotta, TheFourthPeriod.com

[TORONTO, ON] -- For years, one of the National Hockey League's best kept secrets has been hiding in hockey-crazed Atlanta.

He's never grabbed major headlines. He's never been given the key to the city. He's never been the poster child for the NHL.

Too bad, because Ilya Kovalchuk's worthy of all of those things and more.

Now in his eighth season with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk has scored an average of 42 goals per year, and he's on pace for over 50 this season. He's arguably one of the most dynamic and most potent offensive players in the game.

Ilya KovalchukNow he's getting a tone of attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Kovalchuk, 26, is in the final-year of his current contract and can become an unrestricted free agent this coming July. The native of Tver, Russia, has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately over his future with the Thrashers.

Various media outlets have published conflicting reports surrounding Kovalchuk's future with Atlanta. Some claim he's all set to leave, others believe he'll re-sign, and some even suggest he'll end up in the KHL.

Having spoken to Kovalchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, several times over the last few seasons, it's become very clear to me that Kovalchuk genuinely wants to stay in Atlanta. I'll be the first to admit how surprise I was to hear that, but after continuously being told the same thing, it finally sunk in.

Kovalchuk wants to build a winner with the Thrashers, that much is certain. (I was at the All-Star game in Atlanta a couple years back and the fans absolutely love this guy.) He's devoted, dedicated and committed. He helped the team lure free agent Nik Antropov this past summer and has been involved in a variety of team functions.

At the same time, though, he can't let his passion cloud his judgment. As much as he may want to stay, it may be in his best interest (for his career both on and off the ice) to play the free agent market this summer. If that's the decision he ends up making, the Thrashers will have no other choice but to field trade offers.

For now, contract talks between Grossman and Thrashers GM Don Waddell are ongoing and the lines of communication are wide open.

On Wednesday, a report from Russian daily sports newspaper Sovetsky Sport claimed negotiations had stalled after Kovalchuk's party demanded a 10-year contract worth $11.5 million per season. The paper then went on to suggest that Waddell is now considering his trade options, with Vancouver and Los Angeles supposedly knocking on his door.

After receiving a boat load of emails about this, I decided to do some digging. One source denied the report and told me the Thrashers haven't even begun to consider trading Kovalchuk, while another very well-placed source simply scoffed at the entire article.

While I wouldn't be surprised to see Kovalchuk obtain a 10-year deal, or longer, I'd be shocked if he pulled in that kind of dough.

First off, a player's salary cannot exceed 20% of the salary cap, which would make the maximum salary $11.34 million per season based on this year's cap figure of $56.7 million.

Secondly, several league executives don't believe any player in the league will receive more than $10 million per season over such a long period of time -- Alex Ovechkin's 13-year deal with a $9.538 million annual salary currently leads the pack.

Waddell has acknowledged that he has full support from ownership to get Kovalchuk locked up to an extension and to give him the big bucks. He also knows that if these negotiations drag on into February, he's going to have to start exploring other options.

Neither party has implemented a timeline to getting a deal finalized. But whether the Thrashers are first in the East or battling for eighth position by the time the Olympic break kicks in, if Kovalchuk isn't signed to a long-term contract, Atlanta will have to entertain trade offers and subsequently move him. The fans will understand; the Thrashers cannot afford to let him walk as a UFA in July. If he leaves, expect the entire organization to quickly follow suit.

As it stands, the communication channels are still very open; nobody is pressing 'ignore' on their cell phones, and that's a good time.

There's still time.

How the next three to six weeks play out will ultimately solidify Kovalchuk's future with Atlanta, one way or another.


David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period Magazine and covers the NHL for TheFourthPeriod.com. He is also a contributing writer for NBCSports.com and MSNBC.

  Archives:
  Nov. 24, 2009 Pouliot finally arrives in Montreal
  Oct. 16, 2009 For Bozak and Leafs, the future should be now
  Oct. 1, 2009 Kovalchuk remains in wait-and-see mode


 

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