Today I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time unplugged from others' takes on the Kovalchuk situation. By unplugged, I mean that my only internet access was on my Blackberry, so I didn't read any columns or extraneous analysis of the Kovy trade/UFA debacle.
Having that kind of time to look at the situation myself from various angles, I have been able to come up with a unique view of all of the Thrashers' options and the impact that they may have on this team for the 2010-2011 season.
This is not a dismissive Glen Healeyesque declaration that "this franchise will be in another city within two years either way." Nor is it a homerific "trade him or sign him, either way the Cup comes to Atlanta in two years." Instead, it is a realistic look at what each scenario would mean for the rest of the roster and what it would mean for the kind of team that Atlanta could put on the ice in the next couple of years.
First, I think everyone has recognized by now (even if they are Canadian media who react with incredulity) that the Czar likes playing in Atlanta and would sign here if management would meet his current salary demand. It hasn't been verified, but most appear to think that demand is somewhere in the neighborhood of the $11 million range, or the 20% of total team salary. So giving in to Kovalchuk's current salary demand (assumptively 11m) is scenario 1.
We will call scenario 2 one in which DW is able to convince Kovalchuk to re-sign with Atlanta for 9 million. Actually, scratch that. I think Kovy wants to make more money than Alex Ovechkin. Ovi makes 9m. So in scenario 2, we'll say DW signs Kovy to 9,000,001 per year. Either Kovalchuk tested the free agent market and realized no team was going to pay more than Atlanta so he might as well stay home, or he decided that it was worth it to leave an extra 2m per year to distribute to some folks who can pass him the puck.
Scenario 3 will be the one that 95% of the hockey world believes will come to pass. That is that DW swings a trade between February 28 and March 3 which brings back two young roster players and a first round draft pick.
Of course, there is a 4th scenario in which DW holds on to Kovalchuk through July 1 attempting to re-sign him, then the Czar signs with another team and leaves without Atlanta receiving any return.
Now that we've identified these scenarios, let's look at the Thrashers 2010-2011 squad in each one. To start out with the scariest, we'll examine scenario 4 in which Kovy walks for nothing. If you look at the Thrashers' other unrestricted free agents, you can see the potential for a domino effect. Maxim Afinogenov is playing for 800k right now and would have no reason to re-sign with Atlanta without his buddy Kovalchuk. Pavel Kubina is making 5m per year and was brought here via trade for the last year of his contract. Seeing the team captain leave town after spending his whole career here would probably be a sign to Pavel to hit the road as well. Based on his play this season, we can consider Slava Kozlov to be retired in any scenario. Colby Armstrong went to arbitration this year and I would wager that watching Kovy leave town would convince him to follow suit. The only UFA's I would expect to stick with Atlanta after watching Kovalchuk walk for nothing would be Hedberg, Slater, and Boulton. That would leave a lineup that looked like this:
Kane Antropov Little
White Peverly ______
_____ Reasoner ____
Boulton Slater Thorburn
Fill in the blanks with whatever UFA's you can convince to come after the exodus or with players from the Wolves. It is safe to say this is NOT a playoff team and will not be very soon either.
The only difference in lineup between scenario 4 in which Kovalchuk walks away for nothing and scenario 3 that assumes a successful deadline trade would be that you can fill in a couple of those blanks with the roster players that came in the trade. You can also argue that making a successful trade would make some of our own UFA's more likely to re-sign, but I think Kovalchuk in another team's sweater has the same effect no matter how it happens.
Then we come to the scenario two in which Kovalchuk relents and accepts a deal at $9 million per year. This would allow enough cap space to hopefully re-sign one expensive UFA in addition to the Czar- either Afinogenov (who will probably be looking for 4-5 million next year after playing for 800k this season) or Kubina (who may get a small raise from his 5 million). Kovy deciding to stay, especially at a discounted rate, should inspire confidence in other UFA's as well who don't stand to earn as much of a raise, and could lead to a lineup like this:
It would however, be close to the cap and DW would be have to make hard decisions to make room for new contracts for Bogosian in one year and Kane in two.
Finally, let's look at what the lineup might look like if Kovalchuk re-signs for $11 million per year. We'll assume that Atlanta can't afford either Afinogenov or Kubina in this scenario.
Fill in that blank with either a Wolf (Joseph S. Crabb anyone?) or another UFA, or perhaps someone brought over in a trade involving either Kari or Ondrej. This team could compete for the playoffs, but it would be a much rougher road with a big drop off in production after the second line. Again, a lack of cap space would make it difficult to renegotiate with RFA's Bogosian and Kane when the time comes.
So if the Thrashers want to continue to be a winning club and sell tickets, it appears that they need to sign Kovalchuk one way or the other. Obviously it would be better to sign him for 9 million than for 11, but how much better?
Kovalchuk is currently making 7.5 million. Kozlov 3.8, Zhitnik is still being paid 1.6. Kari is making 3m and Ondrej 0.8m. Assume that the Thrashers only keep one of those two goalies and pay him 3m per year. With Kozlov retirning and Zhitnik coming off the books this year, that saves 6.2 million dollars. You can give Kovalchuk a 1.5 million per year raise to 9m/y or a 3.5 million raise to 11m/y and still have some room to resign some combination of Afinogenov, Armstrong, Little, Slater, Thorburn, Kubina, and Hedberg this season. Even if the salary cap drops as many think it will.
Now, let's say for the sake of argument that the cap does indeed drop next year. Because we have to pick a number, we'll say that the cap drops to 54 million dollars. If Kovalchuk is making 11 million per year, then the rest of the team has to average $2.04 million per year. That's not a high average for a roster.
So, let's look at it under the same 54 million cap if Kovy makes 9 million per year. In that scenario, the rest of the roster can average $2.14 million per year. A whole 100k per year more. That doesn't sound like a huge difference.
Most people (except Brian Burke, that genius who traded Kubina for Exelby) would say that Kovalchuk is worth 9 million per year. Most also seem to be saying that he's not worth 11 million. But when you factor in what losing Kovalchuk would do to the team's competitiveness and therefore the reception the team receives in Atlanta, a pay cut of 100k per year for the rest of the team seems worth it.