The Atlanta Thrashers dealt their captain, an impending free agent, to the Devils on Thursday night for a package that includes defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and New Jersey's first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Defenseman Anssi Salmela, traded by the Devils to the Thrashers last March for Niclas Havelid, will return to New Jersey as part of the deal. The teams will also flip second-round picks.
"This wasn't an easy deal to make," General Manager Don Waddell said Thursday night. "Ilya Kovalchuk has been with us for eight years. He's been the face of our franchise and done so many good things for us, on and off the ice.
"We tried everything we can. I had great support from ownership. We offered him over $100 million in a long-term contract. He had said he wanted to be a Thrasher for life. We tried to make that happen, but unfortunately we couldn't reach a deal.
Kovalchuk owns almost all the offensive records in Thrashers history and is having another excellent season with 31 goals and 27 assists for 58 points in 49 games. But he will become a free agent on July 1 and had not reached agreement on a new contract with the team.
"It's disappointing, but we have to turn the page," Waddell said. "He's been a great captain for our team. We thank him for everything he's done for us. Now we look forward to the new guys coming in."
Since the Thrashers drafted him with the No. 1 pick in 2001, Kovalchuk leads the NHL with 328 goals. But Atlanta, an expansion team that debuted in 1999-2000, has made just one playoff appearance and has never won a postseason game.
"[New Jersey] is a good team and it's a great chance to play in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs," Kovalchuk told the Atlanta Jornal-Constitution. "It's sad at the same time because now -- I can say it -- I've been a Thrasher for eight years. I'm appreciative of everything, the organization and the fans."
Kovalchuk, who has 328 goals and 615 points in 594 NHL games, is a two-time 50-goal scorer who has at least 41 goals in each of the last five seasons. He fiures to be a major offensive boost for the Devils, who've slumped badly in the last few weeks and are in danger of dropping out of first place in the Atlantic Division.
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello noted that while the Devils gave away a lot, they have the depth in the organization to overcome it. He also noted that the Devils' recent scoring slump played a part.
"We felt Kovalchuk was a player who could come and fill the need that we felt we had for an explosive scorer and someone who could add a different dimension to our power play with the type of shot," Lamoriello said. "Then it was just the case of trying to make it work somehow where we could not sacrifice tomorrow."
Lamoriello said the idea of trying to re-sign Kovalchuk wasn't a consideration in the deal.
"That has not even been a thought at this moment," Lamoriello said. "What we want to do is just get him here, get him into the environment, get him into the lineup, get our coaches to see what he brings. We see what he brings, he sees what we bring and not even think about that (re-signing him) whatsoever. That is not the thought process at this time. It is to get this team better and in the next couple of weeks, get sort of an acquaintance, so that once the break is over we get all of our players back. Paul Martin will be back. David Clarkson will be back. Certainly, Patrik (Elias) should be back before then, hopefully, and then we'll know what we are."
Oduya, a 28-year-old, has 2 goals and 4 points in 40 games this season. Bergfors, New Jersey's first-round pick in 2005, has 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 54 games, but hasn't scored a goal since Dec. 30 and has gone 13 games without a point.
"We're very excited to be adding Johnny Oduya to our hockey club," Waddell said. "He's a top-four defenseman and he's going to be playing in the Olympics for Sweden. Nicklas Bergfors is a first-year player with 13 goals who has a lot of potential."
Cormier was captain of Canada's world junior championship team. He has been suspended for the rest of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season for an elbow that left an opponent in convulsions. Waddell said he's hopeful Cormier can make the Thrashers next season.