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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Another possible suitor for Kovalchuk might be the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings, like the Bruins, have young organizational assets that would interest Atlanta. Up to now, Kings' general manager Dean Lombardi has resisted the temptation to import a high-profile scorer into his slowly rebuilding young team. Not sure if it would make any sense to do it at this stage of their development either, although the appetite to land a marquee name must surely be there.

Occasionally, trading-deadline deals can make a difference in winning and losing, although many in the recent past have had a way of backfiring on the teams that made them. Caveat emptor may be the prevailing rule of thumb, but Kovalchuk is a special talent, someone who could shift the balance of power in a very close league.

His availability - and it looks as if it may come to that - is going to tempt some hungry general manager to roll the dice and make a risky, splashy play for his rights.

SINGING THE BLUES: As part of the St. Louis Blues' coaching shuffle, the popular and effervescent Rick Wamsley - formerly an assistant on Andy Murray's staff - took over the AHL's Peoria Rivermen, replacing the new man in St. Louis, Davis Payne. For Wamsley, whose NHL playing stops included the Blues, Calgary and Toronto, this is his first head-coaching position, after years of coaching goaltenders, mostly as an NHL assistant. Wamsley was best remembered as one of four players to accompany Doug Gilmour to the Maple Leafs in that record 10-player swap with Calgary that turned out to the most lopsided deal of the 1990s.

TRADE OF THE CENTURY: The Hockey News' Ken Campbell nominated the Leafs' deal with Boston, which sent prospect Tuuka Rask to the Bruins in exchange for Andrew Raycroft - as the worst deal of the 2000s. Considering Rask's strong work for Boston this year - and his upside - that ranks right up there among the great stinkers, but was it really worse than an earlier decision by the Bruins to send Joe Thornton packing and receive three players in return (Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau?) Only Sturm remains in Boston. Thornton, in stats provided by the Elias Sports Bureau, led the NHL in assists (569) and points during the past decade; the players going Boston's way had a far less tangible impact …

OLYMPIC EFFORTS: Now that the men's Olympic hockey rosters are all in, it turns out that two West Coast teams - the Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks - lead the pack in terms of Olympians, with eight apiece, provided you count the Ducks' Luca Sbisa, who started the year in the NHL, but was sent down to junior after eight games. Sbisa is one of two players under contract to Anaheim to make Switzerland's roster; the other is goaltender Jonas Hiller. Makes you wonder, if the Ducks are so deep that they can send eight players to the Olympics, why are they languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings? With all hands on deck, you'd have to think that they are the one team that looks completely dead in the standings right now that could get on a roll and perhaps challenge for a playoff spot … San Jose's eight Olympians include four Canadians (Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle), along with Evgeni Nabokov (Russia), Joe Pavelski (USA), Douglas Murray (Sweden) and back-up goaltender Thomas Greiss (Germany). Normally, one rarely pays attention to those corporate driven, internal player-of-the-month awards that some teams hand out, but it was instructive and perhaps telling that the Sharks gave the December nod to Murray, a member of the supporting cast, as opposed to one of their front-line stars. Murray is a comparative unknown outside of San Jose, but he is a physically dominant defenceman, one of those under-the-radar gems that occasionally emerges in the NHL, appreciated more by his team and teammates than anyone else … Chemistry is the most elusive quality that any pick-up international team needs to develop, but it shouldn't be an issue for Olympic qualifier Latvia, which chose 15 of its 23 players from a single club, Dynamo Riga of Russia's Continental Hockey League. Curiously, the Latvians omitted the most visible name on the Riga roster, former NHL defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh, who is back playing at the age of 37 and leads the team in minutes played and points by a defenceman, according to IIHF stats. Latvia chose two NHLers (Karlis Skrastins from Dallas and Oskars Bartulis from Philadelphia), but passed on Los Angeles Kings' thumper Raitis Ivanans, presumably because they don't expect a lot of grappling at the Olympics. That's left to the Summer Games.

HOWARD'S END: It looks as if the Detroit Red Wings first-year goaltender Jimmy Howard has won the No. 1 job from Chris Osgood, after a thoroughly respectable 14-9-2 start. As of Thursday, Howard was sandwiched between the Sharks' Nabokov and the Devils' Martin Brodeur in the all-important save percentage category, with a .923 mark, good for seventh best in the league. Osgood, who redeemed a mediocre regular season with a strong playoff run last year, vowed to do better this year, but is struggling again - 35th out of the 47 goaltenders listed in the NHL stats package … The Ducks welcomed Ryan Getzlaf back this past Tuesday, which meant he missed just four games with a skate cut. Is it just me, or are these sorts of lacerations becoming more prevalent this year than ever before? It seems to happen once a week now … Rick DiPietro dressed as Dwayne Roloson's backup in Wednesday night's 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche, meaning his return to the NHL is imminent. DiPietro hasn't played in about 15 months following knee surgery in October, 2008 and it's easy forget in the fuss over his contract that he did win 30 and 32 games for a not-so-great Islanders' team in the two years following the lockout - and was good enough to start four games for the U.S. in the 2006 Olympics … Defining what constitutes a bad season varies from player to player, largely depending upon expectation. But the overall sense that the Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier is having a bad year isn't supported by the stats. Lecavalier is on pace for just 20 goals this season, far off his Rocket Richard trophy-winning pace of a few years ago, but overall, had 39 points in his first 42 games, averaged better than a point per game in December, and has edged into the top 30 of NHL scorers. Maybe not what you expect for $10 million per season, but not bottom-falling-out-of-his game bad either.

AND FINALLY: Remember Michael Liambas? The former Erie Otters' player, who was thrown out of the Ontario Hockey League for a hit from behind on the Kitchener Rangers' Ben Fannelli earlier this season, received a five-game suspension from the International Hockey League this past week. Liambas, who had signed by the IHL's Bloomington Prairie Thunder following his year-long ban from the OHL, was suspended under the IHL's supplementary discipline procedures, for an unpenalized hit from behind that ruptured the spleen of Jason Lawmaster, a Muskegon Lumberjacks' defenceman. Lawmaster was hospitalized as a result of the injury. According to the IHL's website, Liambas will be eligible to return to the line-up following Bloomington's Jan. 16 game against Fort Wayne.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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