A source familiar with the talks suggested Thrashers’ ownership might be tying Waddell’s hands by an unwillingness to pay what it takes to commit to the franchise’s success.
The Thrashers are owned by Atlanta Spirit, a group of nine businessmen which also own the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks as well as Phillips Arena, where both teams play.
In recent years the group has been mired in legal infighting which critics claim has become a distraction hurting both franchises.
Atlanta Spirit recently faced criticism for not investing in the upkeep of the arena, and for the most part has been unable -- or unwilling -- to keep pace with the NHL’s increasing salary cap since 2005-06.
That’s created a belief amongst pundits and fans the group isn’t interested in doing what it takes to turn the Thrashers into a winning franchise, leading to poor attendance and fueling uncertainty over the club’s future in Atlanta.
Waddell recently hinted the snag in Kovalchuk’s negotiations wasn’t his status as a franchise player but rather the necessity to ensure they can re-sign him and have enough cap room to continue growing the franchise.
That would be an issue if the Thrashers were pressed for cap space, but they currently have just over $25 million committed to 11 players for 2010-11. They must spend over $15 million just to be above the mandated cap minimum, which for this season is currently $40.8 million and could remain the same or increase slightly for next season.
If they were to re-sign Kovalchuk to, say, $10 million per season that would still leave over $20 million (assuming the salary cap remains over $56 million) to re-sign other key players and fill out the remainder of their roster. That’s of course assuming ownership is willing to invest more in the club’s payroll than it has in the recent past.
This situation isn’t unique to the Thrashers.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks were once-struggling franchises which in recent years committed to retaining their best players resulting in varying degrees of success, earning praise for maintaining competitive rosters under the constraints of the salary cap.
It’s been suggested the Thrashers might be better off without Kovalchuk as the club hasn’t won anything with him in the lineup and perhaps would be better off instead focusing on their rising talent and other veterans.
Yet that suggestion was rarely heard last summer when the Vancouver Canucks re-signed Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins to an expensive, long-term contract despite the fact that team hadn’t won anything with them in the lineup. The Canucks front office was praised for the most part for their commitment to their future by retaining their best players.
Given Kovalchuk’s strong performance as a Thrasher it’s baseless to suggest the team would be better off without him or for that matter to lay blame for the club’s poor record during that time at his feet, considering the criticism the front office has received in recent years for poor player management decisions.
Kovalchuk’s negotiations are not just an evaluation of his market value as a free agent but also an evaluation of Atlanta Spirit’s commitment to the Thrashers’ future.
An investment in their best player would be a considerable part of that future.