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(Jim McIsaac/2009 Getty Images)
(Jim McIsaac/2009 Getty Images)

Duhatschek's Friday Notebook

Expect Kovalchuk to be on the move Add to ...

Except for the odd Jason Chimera-for-Chris Clark here or a Guillaume Latendresse-for-Benoit Pouliot there, not much happens on the NHL trade front until much closer to the annual deadline, which this year falls on Mar. 3.

All that could change this year, depending upon what the Atlanta Thrashers do with Ilya Kovalchuk in the weeks ahead.

Kovalchuk is in a contract year, as are lots of other NHLers. But the Thrashers are desperate to sign him; look as if they can't; and as such, will probably start to shop him discreetly to see what the market for his services will potentially bring.

The parallel here is what happened last year with the Minnesota Wild and Marian Gaborik; or more closer to home, what happened with the Thrashers and Marian Hossa two years ago.

Last season, the Wild made all sorts of contract overtures in an all-out effort to retain Gaborik - long-term deals, short-term deals, big money in the former offers; even bigger money in the latter ones. Eventually, it became clear to them that no matter what they offered, Gaborik was determined to test free agency and see what might be available to him. In the end, the Wild lost him for nothing.

The fundamental difference between Gaborik's situation and Kovalchuk's is that Gaborik was injured for much of last season and thus was a difficult commodity to trade. Kovalchuk represents a different kettle of fish. The six games he missed earlier this season recovering from a broken foot represented Kovalchuk's first consequential injury since his rookie season (when he missed 17 games and essentially lost the rookie-of-the-year award to teammate Dany Heatley). Kovalchuk has mostly been a durable player, a consistent scorer, and the one thing that he hasn't been able to do is lead the Thrashers to the playoffs - except for one year.

So Atlanta is in there, pitching numbers and term at Kovalchuk that would likely be exceeded only by the two-time Hart Trophy winner, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

The sense is that Kovalchuk wants to get close to the maximum allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement, which is 20 per cent of the ($56.8-million) salary cap - or a salary in the $11-million annual range, which would make him the highest-paid player in the game.

Is he worth it? No.

There is much to like about Kovalchuk - and in a different market, his personality might shine almost as Ovechkin's level. For sure, his English is better; and he seems like a thoughtful individual; and wouldn't Russia's Continental Hockey League welcome him into the fold, if he were ever the prodigal son, returning home?

Theoretically, Kovalchuk could have an 11th-hour change of heart and sign with Atlanta before negotiations get past the point of no return, but if he doesn't - and if the talks grind to a full stop - then the onus will be on general manager Don Waddell to maximize his return in a possible deal, in order to protect an organization that seems to be heading in the right direction.

So much of what the Thrashers have done in the past couple of years were steps taken to lure Kovalchuk into staying - making him captain, signing a couple of fellow Russians (Max Afinogenov, Nikolai Antropov) to play alongside him.

The fear in Atlanta is that Waddell will need to do with Kovalchuk what he did two years ago with Hossa, another player that Atlanta was obliged to deal at the deadline, once it became clear that he wasn't going to sign an extension either.

In exchange for Hossa, Atlanta received a modest return - Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito plus a first-round draft choice they turned into Daulton Leveille, the 29th player chosen in the 2008 entry draft.

Not much, right?

But the landscape has changed since then and it may well be that teams that will have trouble finding room under the salary cap next year will make a play for Kovalchuk, even if they just deploy him as a rental, in order to dump contracts that they'd need to move in the summer anyway.

Chicago naturally would fall into that category - and although why the Blackhawks would want to tamper with their gold-plated chemistry at this stage is anybody's guess. Sometimes, general managers will overplay their hands, not content to leave well-enough alone when, in the Blackhawks' case, they seem to be firing on all cylinders.

A more defensible destination might be Boston, where Kovalchuk could be reunited with his former centre in Atlanta, Marc Savard, a pairing that produced oodles of scoring for years. Savard has not been his usual productive self this season, largely because he doesn't have a finisher with Kovalchuk's flair playing on his wing. If the Bruins are serious about challenging for the Stanley Cup this season, their offence needs a significant boost - and the good news for Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli is that he has nine picks in the first two rounds of the 2010 and 2011 entry drafts with which to barter.

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