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McKenzie: Waddell did what he could with Kovalchuk deal

Bob McKenzie
2/5/2010 11:20:06 AM
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For those who are saying the Atlanta Thrashers didn't get nearly enough for Ilya Kovalchuk, what exactly did you expect?

A lot, apparently.

And for that, we are all guilty to varying degrees.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell told teams he wanted a top six forward, a top four defenceman and a first-round pick and/or a prospect. And who can blame him? You have to start somewhere, might as well be at the high end.

We all reported that, but did we honestly, really, believe he would ever actually get that?

Did we actually think Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg or Cam Barker – or all three as some reported – would be the yield on an admittedly superstar offensive player, but one who is going to unrestricted free agency and just turned down one of the most lucrative long-term contracts in NHL history? One hundred freakin' million dollars large?

Did we honestly believe Wayne Simmonds and Jack Johnson would be packaged? Or that Brandon Dubinsky or Marc Staal or Ryan Callahan were Atlanta bound?

If any of those possibilities were on the table, Waddell would have taken one of them. But they weren't, so he had to deal in the reality of what was.

We'll never know for sure what the actual best offers from the other teams were. Whether Waddell, could have gotten Alexander Frolov, another roster player from the Kings (not Simmonds or Jack Johnson) and a good prospect or two and if a package like that would have eclipsed the New Jersey Devil offering of prospect/player Niclas Bergfors, veteran defenceman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a late first-round pick that is minimized somewhat by the fact the playoff bound Devils will flip flop second rounders with the Thrashers.

So we are left to decide the merit of the deal based on what did change hands.

The fact Oduya, a proven and somewhat underrated NHL defenceman who plays more than 20 minutes per game, is under contract to Atlanta for the next two years is the most noteworthy takeaway. That is the most tangible asset Atlanta received. There is no mystery to what they got there. It's not exciting, but it is effective.

Bergfors, a first-round pick who has 13 goals this season, is a tougher read.

TSN canvassed a variety of NHL scouts, pro and amateur, on Bergfors and the opinions were mixed. Some see him as a potential second-liner, a top-six forward in waiting. Others say his lack of dynamic speed and size make him no better than a third-liner. It was noted he started the season much stronger than he has been of late. No one doubts he's an NHL forward but whether it's in the top six or top nine remains to be seen.

There is more certainty on Cormier. For all the negativity associated with his season-ending suspension in the Quebec League, most scouts peg Cormier as a solid third-line NHL prospect with a few suggesting he may only be a fourth liner. But the consensus was as a third liner.

Oduya and Bergfors go immediately into the lineup to help offset the loss of Kovalchuk, but that's a big hole to fill.

If all goes well, Oduya, Bergfors and Cormier will be in the Thrashers' lineup for years to come and what we do know is that Kovalchuk wasn't sticking around past this year.

Kovalchuk was walking at the end of this season. The Thrashers could not have done any more to sign him than they did. There is no doubt about that. They could not have offered him any more than they did. And it wasn't enough.

So Waddell was backed into a corner. He knew it. Everyone knew it. And as valuable as Kovalchuk is as a player, the truth is the potential offers were never going to be anywhere close to what we all imagined they might be.

It's a good deal for New Jersey, regardless of how the players traded to Atlanta fare, and it really doesn't matter whether the Devils are able to sign Kovalchuk to a contract extension.

Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello knows the East is relatively wide open this year and his surprising Devils have a chance. That's all he needs to hear to take action on a player like Kovalchuk, who can be a game breaker. Odds are Lamoriello won't be able to sign Kovalchuk, unless the player is prepared to take a nice haircut to stay in New Jersey.

Still, for a team like New Jersey, which remains competitive year after year, the Devils can withstand the loss of Bergfors, Oduya and Cormier, both in the short and long term. The addition of Kovalchuk provides them with a dynamic they didn't have. So it's well worth it for an established NHL franchise that doesn't have many mood swings, regardless of who comes and goes, to take a swing for the fences.

We were all delusional to think the Thrashers could really win this trade outright in the short term. I mean, how can you replace the loss of a franchise player, but how can you get market value either, not when everyone knows he's going and what it's going to cost to sign him to a contract extension.

So we are left to question whether Waddell could have done things differently to a get a better result. And the answer would appear to be, probably not.

He worked the teams that were interested. Worked them hard. Once he had a tangible offer he knew he could live with – from the Devils – he went public that he was trading Kovalchuk in order to flush out any late bids and leverage other teams with the Devils' offer. On the day he knew he was trading Kovalchuk, he issued a statement demonstrating exactly how far the franchise went in an effort to re-sign him and ensure that no one could make Waddell or the Thrashers culpable for Kovalchuk walking. And then he acted, obviously believing the market was as good as it was going to get.

Tactically, he played it about as well as he possibly could.

Now, he'll hope the Thrashers don't fall out of the playoff race. He'll hope Bergfors will score a few goals and Oduya will solidify things on the blueline. He'll hope that Cormier hasn't been damaged by the suspension experience and can step into the lineup next season.

That's a lot to hope for, but maybe not as much as we all hoped he would have gotten from Chicago or the Rangers or the Kings. Honestly, though, those blockbuster deals with the big names were never happening and we were kidding ourselves to think they were.

Waddell said he wanted a top six forward. Bergfors could be that. We'll see. He said he wanted a top four defenceman. Oduya, based on minutes played in New Jersey, is that. Just. He said he wanted a prospect and Cormier is that. He said he wanted a first rounder and he got one.

Mission accomplished, for the most part, though it didn't turn out to be nearly as exciting and impactful as many would have liked.

Bob McKenzie

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