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Kovalchuk Deal Not Good For Three Reasons

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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The Maple Leafs play the Devils tonight. What better opportunity to examine the troubling legacy of the NHL’s latest blockbuster trade between the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils.

Ilya Kovalchuk is now a Devil and for the price of a first rounder, dependable defenceman John Oduya, middling prospect NIcklas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier, the Devils have a marvelous scorer who already has 31 goals in 48 games.

The trade is great for New Jersey and passable for Atlanta. Everyone else loses for three reasons.

1. The likelihood of re-signing players in the final year of their contracts has dwindled to about zero. Consider the past trials of Thrashers GM Don Waddell who traded his best player in Danny Heatley for Marian Hossa in August 2005. Hossa produced two good years in Atlanta before it became apparent he was not planning to re-sign.  Waddell traded him to Pittsburgh and in return received Colby Armstrong, who has nine goals for the Thrashers. Everyone else is playing somewhere else. Erik Christensen has three goals in 25 games for the Rangers. Prospect Angelo Esposito is still waiting to hit the scoresheet in a dozen games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and the first rounder the Thrash got back ended up being the 29th in the 2008 draft.

Hossa, properly grateful, left Pittsburgh after 12 regular season and 20 playoff contests, signed a one-year-deal with Detroit and then used the same free agent leverage to exact a 12-year contract from Chicago at an annual average salary of $ 5.2 million. Marian Hossa is a guy getting good advice.

The GM unfortunate enough to have good players can’t win. Consider the return for the Florida Panthers who decided to hang on to Jay Bouwmeester only to see him sign on with Calgary. Mike Cammalleri ditched the Flames who received exactly what Florida did.

If you’re a fan of a team that has a significant pending free agent, you are likely spending your days fretting over your club’s future. For every Marc Savard, who signed a seven-year deal with Boston to bring him to retirement, there is a Tomas Plekanec or a Sergei Gonchar. For every Jonas Hiller willing to sign there are a bunch of Evgeni Nabokov’s looking to parlay a career year into a big raise.

You may ask what’s wrong with that. No less of an authority than Brian Burke is convinced that trades drive interest. The possibility of somehow landing Kovalchuk sparked conversation in a handful of cities.

But in a market struggling for fans, and that description fits Atlanta, the pending defection of a star player is the bad news story that won’t go away. A trade like this sets a franchise back and leaves the GM, who is dependent on fan goodwill as much as anyone, having to sell what is usually a one-sided deal. If you think waiting a player out as he approaches free agency is fun, talk to Raptor fans about Chris Bosh.

2. What do Jason Kidd, Ben Rothlisberger, Albert Pujols, Shaquille O’Neal and Brett Favre have in common? Give up. All signed contracts worth about $100 million. Waddell said Kovalchuk turned down a 12-year contract worth $101 million. Kovalchuk has often stated he liked playing in Atlanta so we are to assume this is a business move. Cap or no cap, there are no $100 million players in hockey.  The players above play in leagues with gargantuan television earnings and ancillary revenue streams.  If this is where the salary escalation has taken the NHL, it is in big trouble.  And as far as the contracts go, consider the spectacular mistakes accorded Rick DiPietro (15 years, $67 million) and Brian Campbell (8 years,  $56.8 million).

If Kovalchuk , as is widely expected, signs with the Kontinental Hockey League, the legitimizing effect could be the same as Bobby Hull’s decision to play in the World Hockey Association.  The only thing that will cost more than signing Ilya Kovulchuk may be  the decision to let him play in Russia.

3. Waddell said he wouldn’t have made the deal if Patrice Cormier wasn’t included. What a terrible message.  Cormier’s cowardly blind-side elbow on Mikael Tam could have been fatal. Police are investigating the possibility of criminal charges. This is reminiscent of the Flyers promotion of Steve Downie, who knocked a junior teammate’s teeth out because the younger player refused to be victimized in hazing. NHL teams seem to fall over players who have showed the worst, most base judgment. Downie would later play in Philly and take a 20-game suspension for a vicious cross-check on Dean McAmmond. Downie is still where he doesn’t belong, the NHL. By insisting that Cormier be included in the deal, Waddell made a bad situation worse. The team lost their best player and gained a poster boy for all that is bad in the game.
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