Kovalchuk trade appears imminent

Reports out of Atlanta suggest Thrashers general manager Don Waddell has told star star left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk to expect a trade in the coming hours or days.

Thrashers GM Waddell tells star forward to expect move in hours, days

Is Darryl Sutter poised to make another significant trade, one that would trump the Calgary Flames' recent acquisitions of Niklas Hagman and Ales Kotalik?

Reports out of Atlanta Wednesday suggest Thrashers general manager Don Waddell has told star left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk to expect a trade in the coming hours or days.

Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that the team and Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, have not talked in more than a week.

Sutter has about $1.2 million US in salary cap space for this season after dealing all-star defenceman Dion Phaneuf and forwards Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust in separate moves with Toronto and the New York Rangers on Sunday and Monday.

"I think what we did this week gives us some flexibility on our payroll now and moving forward," Sutter told reporters in Calgary. "I think we just have to see how it plays out."

With $1.2 million in cap space, the Flames could add a player with a contract worth the equivalent of around $5 million to start the season. Kovalchuk is making $7.5 million this season, so Sutter would have to send additional money to Atlanta or elsewhere to make such a trade happen.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins reportedly are interested in acquiring Kovalchuk, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and has 31 goals and 58 points in 49 games this season.

Cleared cap room

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Waddell scouted the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders last week, while the New York Rangers also cleared cap room by shipping forwards Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins to Calgary on Monday night.

Kovalchuk, the Thrashers' all-time leader in games, points, goals and assists, would best fit a team that believes it could contend for the Stanley Cup this season.

"There's a lot of people that think they can't sign Kovalchuk into next season because he's going to the [Continental Hockey League in his native Russia] or wants to hit a home run on the free-agent market," Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman said during a Hotstove segment on Jan. 9.

Kovalchuk has maintained he wants to remain in Atlanta, but part of the problem is the state of Thrashers ownership, a group of eight known as the Spirit group that has been embroiled in a quiet dispute for more than four years over how to run the team.

The Russian forward told the Journal-Constitution earlier this week he didn't want his contract situation to become a distraction.

Embraced captaincy

"I've worked here for eight years and hopefully I will stay but you know it's a business and you never know what's going to happen," he said. "We are in a playoff race and we are only one point from [the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference]."

Atlanta entered play Wednesday with a 24-23-8 record for 56 points. Three points separate sixth-place Philadelphia and the Thrashers, so presumably Waddell would want a mix of prospects and players off a team's roster that could help in their playoff push.

Attracting and/or keeping great players has never been a strength of Atlanta management (see Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa) but Kovalchuk has embraced the captaincy and helped Waddell in recruiting several players.

Drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001, he has recorded 328 goals and 615 points in 594 regular-season games. He had two points in four contests in a first-round playoff loss in 2007.

The NHL trade deadline is March 3, following a two-week roster freeze starting Feb. 14 for the Vancouver Olympics.