Wharnsby: Kovalchuk wanted out of Atlanta

Superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk never demanded a trade from the Atlanta Thrashers, but he certainly made it clear to the team that he wanted out when he turned down two different lucrative contract offers last fall.

Ilya Kovalchuk finally got his wish and was dealt away from the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday evening.

The New Jersey Devils wound up landing the proven Russian sniper, along with prospect defenceman Anssi Salmela, in exchange for defenceman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft selection.

Kovalchuk, the first overall selection in the 2001 NHL entry draft, was in Washington with his former Thrashers teammates when he found out he had been traded to New Jersey. The Thrashers play the high-flying Capitals on Friday, while Kovalchuk will play for the Devils when they entertain the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

The 26-year-old never demanded a trade from the Thrashers, but he certainly made it clear to Atlanta general manager Don Waddell that he wanted out when he turned down two different lucrative proposals last fall.

"This wasn't an easy deal to make," Waddell said.

Waddell revealed that he was willing to make Kovalchuk the highest-paid player in the league, but that Kovalchuk turned down a 12-year, $101-million US tender and a seven-season, $70-million pact.

So Waddell moved swiftly to rid himself of a major-league headache. He told Kovalchuk and his agent on Thursday to expect a trade by the weekend. Waddell later issued a statement, outlining the frustrating negotiation process with Kovalchuk earlier Thursday.

"Our goal from the start of this negotiating process was to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract," Waddell said in the statement. "During the process, Kovy affirmed his desire to be a Thrasher for life.

"We've spent several months exploring scenarios with Kovy and his agent to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives ... he has declined all of our proposals and we can't reasonably go any higher," Waddell said in the statement.

"If we went beyond these offers," he continued, "we would not be able to retain the young players on our roster when it came time to sign them or invest in other top-tier players needed to assemble a truly competitive team."

Word is Kovalchuk, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, simply didn't want to sign on with Atlanta long-term because of the club's uncertain future. Thrashers ownership has had internal legal battles for years, and Kovalchuk was concerned that the team would not be around by the end of the proposed long-term contract.

"We're struggling with our attendance as it is," Waddell said. "The only way we're going to brings fans back is by winning hockey games."

Devils desperate for roster shuffle 

Numbers Game

 Ilya Kovalchuk 49 31 27 58 45
 Anssi Salmela 29 1 4 5 22
 Niclas Bergfors 54 13 14 27 10
 Johnny Oduya 40 2 2 4 18

Enter the Devils, who desperately needed a roster shuffle. Since forward Patrik Elias was sidelined with concussion problems last month, New Jersey has struggled along at 3-6-1 in their past 10 games.

Now they have landed Kovalchuk for "the power that he brings," said Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello. "He is a power forward, he has hockey sense and he knows how to make other people around him better."

New Jersey also gets back Salmela, a minor-league defenceman originally signed by the Devils and traded to the Thrashers a year ago.

In Oduya, the Thrashers get a solid two-way defender from Sweden. But he has never accounted for more than 22 points in his four NHL seasons.

The 29-year-old has two more years at $3.5-million a season remaining on his contract.

Bergfors, 22, is a restricted free agent on July 1. In his first full season with the Devils, he has scored 13 goals and 27 points in 54 games.

Cormer, meantime, is a top prospect, but the former Canadian junior captain arrives with baggage. He was the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies player who last month landed a vicious elbow to the head of Quebec Remparts opponent Mikael Tam and was banished for the season and playoffs by the QMJHL.

But this sort of elite-rental player trade rarely favours the team giving up the big-name player.

The Thrashers were in a similar situation two years ago, when they gave up Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick, which turned into centre Daultan Leveille, a Michigan State sophomore from St. Catharines, Ont.

Armstrong is the only player currently in the Thrashers lineup. Christensen was later dumped in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for Sudbury Wolves junior Eric O'Dell and Esposito's career has been hindered by a series of serious injuries.