Friday, February 5, 2010

The Kovalchuk Fallout

When I found out Russian superwinger Ilya Kovalchuk had finally been cast out of Atlanta after a prolonged back-and-forth, I certainly wasn't surprised. Not after Thrashers GM Don Waddell announced his intentions to move Kovalchuk in advance of the upcoming Olympic break.

The shock came when I learned of his destination, New Jersey. And even more shock registered when I heard about the poo-poo platter Waddell accepted in return.

Johnny Oduya isn't the top-notch defensive prospect he once was, and his absolute ceiling would be as a number two defenseman on a solid team. That's the only thing the Thrashers got of any real substance in this trade. Rookie Niclas Bergfors might become a top-six forward, and prospect Patrice Cormier is currently best known for his vicious headhunting. His season-long suspension will almost certainly harm his development, and the Devils' 2010 first-rounder is just that; a first-rounder, not likely to be very high at that.

Oh, and New Jersey got depth defenseman Anssi Salmela back, too, because this wasn't enough of a hijacking already.

If Waddell is to be believed, it's not like the Thrashers didn't pull out all the stops to keep Kovalchuk. In the offseason, they added his Russian buddies Nik Antropov and Max Afinogenov, and tried like hell to sign Nikolai Zherdev, too. A young Thrashers core centered around winger Evander Kane and defenders Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian started to emerge, representing promise for a future Kovalchuk could be legitimately excited for.

But Kovalchuk and his representatives were (and presumably still are) hellbent on making history. They insisted on the NHL's first-ever max contract, a deal with an astronomical $11.3 million cap hit, taking up 20 percent of Atlanta's cap space.

The Thrashers, rightly, refused. They countered with two proposals. One was for 12 years, $101 million, an $8.42 million cap hit, somewhat more flexibility for Atlanta, and the second-biggest contract in league history. The other was seven years and $70 million, which would allow Kovalchuk to earn the highest average salary in the league but over a shorter period of time.

When Kovalchuk rejected both proposals, the writing was on the half-wall. Just as they'd done with their two previous franchise talents (Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa), the Thrashers had to trade Kovalchuk, and this time before the Olympics so as to maximize their return. Although I'm not sure "maximize" belongs anywhere near the word "return" on this trade.

What kills me is that Waddell settled for such a mediocre assortment of hockey glitterati when his reported demands for others teams seemed totally unreasonable for a rental superstar. He reportedly asked for; either Dustin Brown or Jack Johnson from the Kings, Kris Versteeg from Chicago, some combination of Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky or top prospect Chris Kreider from the Rangers, Scott Hartnell and Matt Carle (or possibly even Jeff Carter!!!!) from Philadelphia, and Tuukka Rask and Toronto's 2010 first rounder from the Bruins.

So that fact that he made a deal with Lou Lamoriello without getting, say, Travis Zajac back is pretty laughable. No matter. Their loss is New Jersey's infinite gain.

Devils fans are understandably ecstatic, as this move adds a top scoring threat to a Jacques Lemaire crew predicated on defense and goaltending. I'm excited about the possibility of Kovalchuk on the same power play with Zach Parise. Losing Oduya leaves NJ thin on the blue line, but after the Olympics they'll have Paul Martin back. Regardless, Kovalchuk will be the most talented offensive player to ever put on a Devils sweater and puts them right on par with Washington for the East's best team.

As for Atlanta, and all two dozen of their fans, it's hard to not feel heartbroken on their behalf. Like I mentioned above, the team's had three franchise stars in their 10-year history, and they've all been traded. If you're looking for the right franchise to relocate to a colder location, let's start with Atlanta.

On Twitter last night I declared that Thrashers fans now have every right to abandon their team if they feel so inclined. This opportunity is rare; basically, it only comes if a team makes it consistently clear they don't care about the fans, or if they refuse to improve their product over a number of years, or, if after that, the front office makes a series of baffling idiotic moves that will doom the franchise or psychologically disaffect all their fans.

The Thrashers definitely tried to keep Kovalchuk, and in all honesty, his contract demands are unreasonable. (Kovy is an elite NHL scoring winger, which is undoubtedly valuable. But he does not deserve more money per year than Ovechkin. Kovalchuk has never scored more than 98 points in a season, and he doesn't contribute on the defensive end. No team is going to pay him $11.3 million a year. I'll be surprised if he gets any offers this summer better than the two he left on the table with Atlanta.) But in the end, they traded him, and for not that much.

If you're a Thrashers fan, what do you do now, knowing that players like Bogosian and Kane are going to suffer the same fate as Heatley, Hossa and Kovalchuk? How do you root for players you're totally certain will be gone in the next few seasons? Isn't hard enough to keep any sense of faith when the team's made one playoff appearance in its entire history?

So to me, the Thrashers now belong in the same category as the Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Clippers, Pittsburgh Pirates and a scant few others. If you're a fan of any of these teams, you can stop being a fan, and nobody could blame you.

But if you do stick around, well, you're a better fan than me.

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