THE CANADIAN PRESS
ATLANTA — Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta Thrashers have parted ways.
Atlanta general manager Don Waddell dealt his captain to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, matching one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams with one of the game’s most dangerous snipers.
The Thrashers felt forced to trade Kovalchuk after failing to re-sign him. They received forward Niclas Bergfors, defenceman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round pick from the Devils.
"When you have to trade this type of player it’s not easy but we came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to get him to sign," Waddell said on conference call Thursday night.
"It’s been a very tough day for all of us."
New Jersey also received defenceman Anssi Salmela in the deal and the teams swapped 2010 second-round draft picks.
A sombre Waddell noted Kovalchuk’s contributions on and off the ice over the past eight years, but added that the trade brought fresh faces that should help boost the Thrashers in the future.
"It’s a bittersweet day," he added. "Now we have to move forward and look at the positive side of things."
The fourth significant NHL deal in less than a week was arguably the biggest. Kovalchuk leads all NHLers with 328 goals since being drafted first overall by Atlanta in 2001.
The move came just hours after Waddell released a statement saying the sides had reached an impasse on contract negotiations. He added that Kovalchuk turned down a US$101-million, 12-year deal and a $70-million, seven-year deal that would have made him the NHL’s highest-paid player.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello jumped at the situation and made the deal, noting that while the Devils gave away a lot, they have the depth in the organization to overcome it. He added that the Devils’ recent scoring slump played a part.
"We felt Kovalchuk was a player who could come and fill the need that we felt we had for an explosive scorer and someone who could add a different dimension to our power play with the type of shot," Lamoriello said. "Then it was just the case of trying to make it work somehow where we could not sacrifice tomorrow."
Lamoriello said the Devils have not spoken to the 26-year-old Kovalchuk about an extension. He will become a free agent after this season.
Despite losing their top scorer, Waddell said the trade did not set the team back.
"I feel like we’re got a real good host of young players right now."
Waddell said the deal was one which was finalized only on Thursday after contract negotiations came to an impasse.
"I think Kovy ’til the last day wanted to be a Thrasher, but at the end of the day it becomes a business situation. You have to make all the pieces fit."
One of the players Atlanta ended up receiving in exchange for their star is Cormier, who is currently suspended for the remainder of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season for his elbow on Mikael Tam last month. The 19-year-old was a second-round pick by New Jersey and the captain of Canada’s world junior team.
The other two players will join their roster right away.
Oduya, 28, has two years remaining on his contract at annual cap hit of $3.5 million. He has two goals and two assists in 40 games for the Devils this season.
Bergfors is just 22 and currently sits fifth in rookie scoring with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists). The 22-year-old was a first-round pick of the Devils in 2005.
New Jersey reacquired Salmela, 25, after dealing him to Atlanta at the trade deadline last year. He has five points (one goal, four assists) in 29 games for the Thrashers this season.
Of course, the biggest name is Kovalchuk, and Lamoriello said he doesn’t expect he will have a problem fitting into the Devils’ system.
"The power that he brings, he is a power forward, he has hockey sense and he knows how to make other people around him better," Lamoriello said. "You can tell by the assists he gets. I am sure every one of you has seen him play. What he brings, he can do things a lot of people can’t do."
Kovalchuk has scored 40 or more goals in five straight seasons and is well on his to a sixth, with 31 goals through 49 games this year.
The move comes less than two weeks before Kovalchuk will play for Russia at the Vancouver Olympics.
"Ilya’s been a big part of our organization for eight years," said Waddell.
"He’s done a tremendous job for us on and off the ice."
– With files from The Associated Press