When Ilya Kovalchuk turned down the best contract Don Waddell could offer, the general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers quickly traded him rather than lose the superstar left winger for nothing as a free agent.
A few hours after he released a statement saying Kovalchuk, 26, spurned a long-term contract, Waddell traded the Russian sniper to the New Jersey Devils for rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, defenceman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick in this year's NHL entry draft. The Devils also received defenceman Anssi Salmela and the teams swapped second-round picks.
"Obviously a tough day for all of us here in our organization," Waddell said Thursday night. "When you have to trade this type of player, it's not easy. There's a lot of emotion."
Waddell has been forced to trade his best player in circumstances out of his control on two previous occasions. He was hoping to avoid a repeat, but Kovalchuk did not want to sign again with the Thrashers, who took him first overall in the 2001 NHL entry draft. Kovalchuk was said to be frustrated over the Thrashers' failure to become a playoff contender and to be leery of the team's future.
In 2005, forward Dany Heatley demanded and received a trade after he was in a car accident that claimed the life of teammate Dan Snyder. The player Heatley was traded for, Marian Hossa, was traded in the same circumstances as Kovalchuk in 2008 - before he could become an unrestricted free agent and be lost for nothing in return.
The Thrashers consistently rank near the bottom in NHL attendance, and the team's ownership is looking for a buyer after a bitter court battle in which minority owner Steve Belkin lost his attempt to gain control of the franchise.
Earlier this week, Kovalchuk turned down offers of $101-million (all currency U.S.) over 12 years, and $10-million a year for seven years. Waddell said the 12-year contract was the most money ever offered a pending unrestricted free agent. He said he could not offer more because it would have restricted the team too much under the salary cap.
"I think [Kovalchuk]right to the last day wanted to be a Thrasher, but it was a business decision," Waddell said. "Under the cap, you have to make all the pieces fit. You can't have one player taking up all that cap space.
"As our young players get better, we have to have room to sign them."
Kovalchuk, who has 31 goals and 27 assists in 49 games this season, is on track to hit 40 goals for the sixth consecutive season. Since he was drafted in 2001, he has scored more goals than any other NHL player (328). He was considered the top player available before the NHL trade deadline.
Waddell tried to put the best face on the trade, saying the players and draft picks he received from the Devils will help the Thrashers in the future even if the trade is one more big disappointment for the team's small fan base.
"I don't think this sets us back at all," he said. "We have realized some assets. It gives us young players to build with."
Waddell also said the new players will help the Thrashers make the playoffs this season. They were one point out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before last night's games.
Several teams made bids for Kovalchuk, with the Los Angeles Kings thought to be the front-runners. But they dropped out rather than surrender young defenceman Jack Johnson.
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made the move because his team is in a 3-6-1 slide in its last 10 games due to a lack of scoring. Kovalchuk will make his debut for the Devils Friday night at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Waddell received a good return for Kovalchuk considering that he is strictly a rental player for the Devils, who may not be able to sign him before July 1 when he becomes a free agent.
Oduya, 28, is a solid defenceman who has two years left on his contract at $3.5-million a season. Bergfors, 22, has 27 points in 54 games in his first full NHL season but he will be a restricted free agent on July 1.
Cormier, 19, created his own media storm last month with a vicious hit that drew a suspension for the rest of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season. The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies' player was suspended for hitting Mikael Tam of the Quebec Remparts on the head with his elbow.
After he gave up hope of signing Kovalchuk, Waddell released a statement Thursday afternoon to explain his decision to trade him.
"We've spent several months exploring scenarios with [Kovalchuk]and his agent to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives," Waddell said. "Unfortunately, we've reached an impasse and at this point he has declined all of our proposals and we can't reasonably go any higher..
"If we went beyond these offers, we would not be able to retain the young players on our roster when it came time to sign them or invest in other top-tier players needed to assemble a truly competitive team."