Ilya Kovalchuk will answer any questions the media throws his way — with one notable exception.
The Russian superstar made it clear he will not talk about his contract negotiations with the Atlanta Thrashers in a public forum. Kovalchuk spent a few minutes speaking with Ottawa reporters on Tuesday, but he did not shed any light on whether or not he wants to leave Atlanta.
Kovalchuk did admit that the pressure is on the club to make the playoffs this year, which could be a significant factor in whether or not he re-signs with the club. Entering Tuesday’s action, the Thrashers have won just one of its past 11 games and sit four points out of a playoff spot.
“This is definitely the year we have to make the playoffs. It’s do or die for us,” Kovalchuk said.
Meantime, GM Don Waddell hinted that his hand might be forced to deal his superstar if a new contract cannot be hammered out. In Tuesday’s edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Waddell said that the two sides are far apart on a new deal.
“(A trade) still looms as an option, but it’s not my first choice,” he told the paper. “Our first priority still remains to sign him. That’s clear. I probably didn’t leave the door open enough at the beginning of the year because, obviously, I was hoping that this would be long done by now. We also have to protect the asset. He’s an asset to our franchise.”
Kovalchuk’s cloudy future is also playing into the decision-making process of other potential free agents on the Thrashers.
“A lot of it plays into what they do with him (Kovalchuk),” admitted pending free agent Colby Armstrong, who said negotiations between himself and Thrashers have not started – likely because Waddell is trying to iron out the situation with Kovalchuk first.
The 26-year-old Russian has been the face of the Thrashers franchise since he was the club’s first overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He’s twice eclipsed the 50-goal plateau and is considered one of the most dynamic players in the league. The public relations fallout of losing such a star – after the club traded away Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa in recent years – will hurt an already fragile fan base.
“He’s our best player and he’s proved that. He’s one of the top players in the world,” said 19-year-old Evander Kane, who is one of the players who may inherit the label of franchise player if Kovalchuk leaves.
The Thrashers players know that this will be a hot topic of conversation everywhere they go from now until the NHL trade deadline in early March.
“We’re used to getting questions about him. It happens every year to someone. This year, it’s Kovy’s year,” added Armstrong.