Imagine that Ilya Kovalchuk played for some other team. Yes, I know, very soon you won't have to use your imagination. But imagine if you will, that Kovy has played all along for someone like the Edmonton Oilers.
Now imagine that the Atlanta Thrashers are just one point out of the playoffs 52 games into the season. Oh, you don't have to imagine that part. Just look at the standings.
If we didn't have Ilya Kovalchuk, and were sitting on the bubble of making the playoffs, and another team was offering his services as a rental player (along with the exclusive rights to negotiate for a new contract until July 1), what would you give to get him?
Would you trade a high draft pick, a couple of semi-promising young 3rd line guys, and one recently drafted kid to bring Kovy in and hopefully put us over the top, make the playoffs and do a little damage? Imagine you're not just a fan, but an owner or GM. You have to look at the revenue aspect of all of this. Even two home playoff games would bring in a lot more money and generate a lot of positive energy among the fans and the players.
So would you be willing to make the trade to bring Kovy here in those circumstances? Knowing that there's a very good chance that he'll just be a rental and will walk in July?
If DW doesn't trade Kovy, he's keeping him along with his negotiating rights for a playoff push. He's giving up what he might have received in a trade. It's the same situation as if he were the buyer team giving up those assets for Kovy as a rental player. The one advantage he has over that scenario, is that Atlanta is already Kovy's home, so he has one more bargaining chip in contract negotiations than other GM's will have.
X= the package of assets DW can get for Kovy in a trade.
X < Kovy
If the Thrashers trade Kovy at the deadline, they become Thrashers+X.
Since X < Kovy, Thrashers+X < Thrashers+Kovy.
If the Thrashers keep Kovy for a playoff run, then there's a small chance he will re-sign and they will continue to be Thrashers+Kovy, but there's a much greater chance that they will become Thrashers (no Kovy).
Thrashers(no Kovy) = Thrashers(no X).
So letting Kovy leave via free agency (i.e. not making a trade) means the team is lessened by the value of X, which is less than the value of Kovy.
Still with me?
If he walks, then we're out 1 high draft pick (we've got another), two ok mid-line contributors (we have a whole team of them right now) and one AHL or junior level prospect who may or may not ever make an NHL roster.
But, maybe we made the playoffs. Maybe the team's ledgers are in the black for the season. Maybe we caught the attention of some other UFA's who will be a little more interested when DW/Dudley call on July 1.
Anyway, that's my argument for telling the Kings, Canucks, Flyers, and Bruins to take a hike.