Sports

Picking Splinters: All Eyes on Kovalchuk

When the Washington Capitals take the ice Thursday in Atlanta, the lights will come up on the single most important player in the NHL this season. And no, it’s not Alex Ovechkin.

Let’s set aside the best-player-in-the-NHL debate and the 50 goals in 50 games talk for a little while. Thursday night will feature the one player who could impact teams from the capital to the Kremlin – the Atlanta Thrashers’ Ilya Kovalchuk.

Despite breaking into the league by averaging 36 goals in his first three years and racking up a total of 304 over eight seasons, Kovalchuk’s stardom has paled in comparison to pre-lockout stars like Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov and post-lockout phenoms Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin. The reason? While the first four spent their seasons claiming Stanley Cups, and Ovechkin captured consecutive Hart Trophies, Kovalchuk has languished in Atlanta, playing in the postseason just once to this point – swept out of the first round by the New York Rangers.

But now, in his contract year, Kovalchuk is front and center, with many destinies intermingled with his own.

First is the future of the Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise desperate to placate its fan base by building a contender. Losing a star of Kovalchuk’s caliber could cripple a team that has averaged below 15,000 fans per game since the 2001 season. Also intertwined are the fortunes of any team seeking the goal-machine’s services should he not re-up in Atlanta. Two seasons ago, Pittsburgh acquired Marian Hossa from Atlanta and rode the offensive infusion to the Stanley Cup finals. Kovalchuk could have a similar impact on a contending roster. Finally, the Russian could boost the prospects of his homeland hockey league, joining a growing stream of stars baited by the bucks of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Quite simply, Kovalchuk’s decision whether or not to re-sign in Atlanta could have globe-spanning impact. Atlanta hopes it never gets that far.

While Kovalchuk was synonymous with scoring, Atlanta has seldom been synonymous with success.

This season could be different. Through the draft and some savvy front office moves (like claiming off waivers Rich Peverley, a 43-point producer in his 45 games in Atlanta, from Nashville), the Thrashers may have a supporting cast capable of carrying Kovy to the postseason. The Thrash enters the matchup with the Caps with a mark of 4-1-1, just a point behind Washington with two fewer games played. And that’s exactly the kind of start Atlanta needed as Kovalchuk plays out the final year of his contract.

Atlanta must resign the superstar before the trade deadline or be faced with the prospect of getting nothing in return for its best player. The sprint out of the gate works in the team’s favor, since Kovalchuk has made it clear he wants to play on a team capable of annually competing for the Stanley Cup. Working against them are any lofty salary demands the star may have.

The Thrashers are not strapped with cash, and if they were to reward Kovalchuk with an Ovechkin-esque $9 million per-year contract, they likely wouldn’t be able to bring in any talent to surround him. Teams like the Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings don’t have those types of constraints, meaning a fair fight is unlikely if Kovy reaches the open market. But they’re not just competing against the NHL’s cash- and talent-rich teams, but also the vast sums that could be thrown his way by Russia’s upstart KHL, eager for a superstar it can market like the NHL has done with Crosby and Ovechkin. And wouldn’t that last part sound nice to the oft-overlooked Kovalchuk? And there’s always the possibility that Kovy’s departure could trigger the talent-landslide the KHL has been dreaming of since its inception.

Respected by his young countrymen (he mediated the Malkin-Ovechkin feud at the All-Star game last season), a move across the Atlantic could (could) inspire similar moves from certain other Russian stars. You know, the kind who really, really want to take part in the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

To date, Kovalchuk may not have made the same impression as other billboard-friendly, marketable players, but this season, he should captivate everyone’s attention.