In the end, the decision was a bittersweet but sensible one for Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell.
Team captain and franchise superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, a free agent on July 1, had rejected the Thrashers' 12-year, $101 million contract offer and was seeking a new deal reportedly worth the maximum of 20 percent of the salary cap.
Instead of giving in to the eight-year veteran's demands and potentially impeding his ability to keep some of his young and developing players in the future, Waddell elected to deal Kovalchuk on Thursday, sending him and defenseman Anssi Salmela to the New Jersey Devils in return for forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round 2010 draft pick. The teams will also swap second-round picks in the 2010 Entry Draft.
"This has been a very tough day for all of us here," Waddell said in a conference call with the media after the trade was announced. "Ilya's been a big part of our organization for eight years. He's done a tremendous job for us on and off the ice. When you have to trade this type of player, it's not easy and there are a lot of emotions with it, but we came to the conclusion we weren't going to get him signed and he was too big an asset to let walk away."
Atlanta currently sits just three points out of an Eastern Conference playoff berth. For a franchise that has only reached postseason play once -- the Thrashers won the Southeast Division in 2006-07 -- and has never won a playoff game, trading its best player comes as a significant blow. But as Waddell looked at a roster featuring up-and-coming talent such as Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom and Bryan Little, he felt he had no other choice.
"When you offer a player the contract we did, in excess of $100 million, and we couldn't get a deal done … we need to build a team with that in mind," he said. "If you pay one player the maximum cap amount it really ties your hands. We have a good nucleus of young players, and for us to be able to keep these guys together is important moving forward."
As early as last summer, Waddell made overtures to Kovalchuk -- including visiting him at his home -- with the intentions of conveying to him how important he was to the franchise. Waddell said he truly believed the Thrashers would be able to get a deal done, but once it became obvious that wasn't the case he found a number of suitors for the two-time 50-goal scorer.
The Devils didn't become one of them until Monday, when GM Lou Lamoriello came calling. Waddell had been in New Jersey the previous day to watch the Devils' game against the Kings, and talks moved quickly. Waddell said the Devils were originally hesitant to include Cormier, a second-round pick in 2008 who recently was suspended for the remainder of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season for an elbow that left an opponent in convulsions, but that he "was an important piece for us, and once we got past that point we were able to get it done."
Waddell said there was a Western Conference team that inquired frequently about Kovalchuk up until the last moment, but in the end didn't have the assets the Devils were offering.
He pointed to the fact Bergfors has 13 goals as a rookie, including eight on the power play. Oduya, who will play for Sweden in the upcoming Olympics, will help anchor the team's blue line. Cormier's suspension runs through the end of his junior team's season, but after that Waddell said he could be assigned to Atlanta's AHL team in Chicago.
"No doubt, New Jersey, if you look at their history -- they're one of the premier franchises, winning all the Cups they have with Lou there. You know they draft players with strong character who are good guys. You look at their history and it speaks for itself. When you're dealing with them you have it in the back of your mind that there are a lot of positives with the players they've already drafted," Waddell said.
Waddell talked to the team after the Kovalchuk trade went down and said the players are still confident in what the Thrashers can accomplish this season.
"The most important thing is, hockey is different from other sports in that one player plays 20 minutes and you still have many more minutes that have to be played," he said. "Other players have to step up. This is an opportunity for players to get more ice time and take the next step maybe faster than they would have, but it might help their development. These guys are proud and still believe they can make the playoffs."
He also dispelled any notion that trading Kovalchuk signaled the Thrashers will be sellers and not buyers as the March 3 trade deadline approaches.
"No doubt about it -- if there is a piece out there we can add at the right price, and will fit in with the chemistry, we are certainly going to look at that," Waddell said.
"This doesn't set us back at all. I think we're moving forward. We picked up some nice pieces, some nice assets. This gives us a nice bank of young players we can continue to build with. It's one of those moves you don't look forward to making, but something we were forced to do."