December 23, 2009 :: 12:53pm ET
It's not only about the money
By David Pagnotta, TheFourthPeriod.com

[TORONTO, ON] -- There are a number of factors that come into play when a free agent is about to sign a new contract.

Dollars and cents are certainly one major component, along with the overall length of a deal. But let's not forget to consider the following: local community, family, schools, friends, teammates, big/small market, weather, media attention, privacy... the list goes on.

For Ilya Kovalchuk, it's not all about the Benjamins.

Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, and Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell have been going back and forth for several months trying to come to terms on a new contract.

Following a face-to-face meeting over the weekend, Waddell spoke publicly this week (for the first time since October) about the negotiations, updating the local media.

"We still have a long ways to go," Waddell said. "It's been an interesting negotiations because there's been so many other factors that have entered into the contract as far as where our team is and where we're heading.

"I still remain optimistic that we will get something done. I don't have any kind of timeframe. We seem to have hit a little snag right now and we're going to take a little time to re-think our positions and we'll get back after the holidays."

When the season start, Waddell was convinced he'd have Kovalchuk locked up to an extension by the New Year. He even went as far as to tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in October, "I don't think we'll be talking about this at Christmas time."

Kovalchuk has repeated several times that he wants to remain a Thrasher, something he reiterated to me earlier this month. One source close to the Russian star told me, "He wants to be a Thrasher for life."

But as much as he wants to stay and build a championship with Atlanta, those "outside" factors are in the back of his mind.

According to several sources, Kovalchuk is somewhat concerned with the future of the franchise. Will they stay in Atlanta? Is relocation a possibility in three, four, or five years? Waddell says no, but there are plenty of people out there who believe it's a possibility.

"The one thing we continue to keep telling people is this franchise is not going any place," Waddell said. "Every time there's ever talk about a franchise moving we always get lumped in there.

"This franchise is not going any place, but we do get lumped in and it's a concern of a player that's going to sign a long-term contract to remain with this franchise. He'd be signing that contract to stay here in Atlanta and not think we'd be going someplace else. There are of those kinds of factors you have to deal with."

And that's something weighing on Kovalchuk's mind.

It's believed the Thrashers are willing to sign their captain to a long-term deal, well past a 10-year term. However, money is playing another role in the decision process.

Waddell told the Journal-Constitution, "Their position is fixed years with money and we have a different side of that."

To clarify, it doesn't look like the Thrashers want to dish out the same amount of cash the Kovalchuk camp is asking for.

Taking into account the question-marks surrounding the stability of the franchise -- regardless of what management says, the future of the team in Atlanta isn't firm -- it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for Kovalchuk, or any player for that matter, to ask for a higher salary to offset any concerns.

There's no guarantee this is the direction Kovalchuk has taken, but it would seem logical and it certainly wouldn't surprise some of the people in the league I've spoken to.

Does this mean that Kovalchuk is asking for the 20% maximum salary, the most a player can receive in the salary cap world? Not necessarily. I'd be very surprised if he, or any player, received such a high contract.

I'm still under the impression Kovalchuk is asking for close to the $9.5 million annual salary Alex Ovechkin received in Washington, much to the chagrin of Waddell.

"It's a different contract. He was a restricted free agent and our player is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year," Waddell said. "Ovechkin's contract is what it is and Washington did it. We don't look at that. We look at what we think is a fair contract for him to be here in Atlanta and what it's going to take to keep him here."

Read that quote again and think carefully. ("We don't look at that"??) It certainly leads one to believe the Thrashers may not be willing to dish out a contract in the $9 million neighborhood.

Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are similar, whether the Thrashers like it or not. They're both the faces of their franchise. They're both dynamic goal-scorers. They're both .. Russian.

Granted, Ovechkin has put up better numbers (to date, he's average 1.3 points per game in his career), but he's had arguably better linemates. Kovalchuk, who has played alongside Marian Hossa and Marc Savard, has averaged 1.03 points per game, but is on pace for over 50 goals this year and near 100 points.

You cannot win with just one superstar, but it definitely helps. How many players would love to play alongside Ovechkin in Washington? Or Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh? If the Thrashers keep winning, you'll see players itching to get in on the action. But they need Kovalchuk.

If the Thrashers are balking at the idea of paying Kovalchuk $9 million a year over a very long-term contract, then they are now left with two options: 1) Try to work out a deal in the five-year range; and 2) trade him.

According to one source, the idea of a lesser term is a possibility. Whether both sides fully explore that option remains to be seen, but I'm no longer convinced that any less than an eight-year deal is out of the question.

As for the second option, I think the Thrashers may have cursed me out after reading that. Waddell does not want to trade Kovalchuk, and I don't blame him, neither would I. However, if this "snag" isn't resolved a month from now, the Thrashers will have to seriously consider moving their most prized possession.

At this point in time, any trade talk is taboo. Waddell isn't considering it, and anything suggesting otherwise is false. Are teams asking about Kovalchuk? Probably. But the answer remains no... for now.

"Would I rather have got this deal done three months ago," Waddell asked. "I know one thing... I would have gotten more sleep by now. It still remains our first choice to get the deal done as quickly as we could."

In order for that to happen, they may need to open their supposedly loose wallets a little wider.


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:
  Dec. 17, 2009 Kovalchuk dominates, contract talks continue
  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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