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Kovalchuk trade no deal for Atlanta

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Thrashers have traded away their star player for a handful of beans.

Of course you have. That story's as familiar in Atlanta as the "Wait 'til next year!" cry heard annually the first week in April.

Fair to say, though, that it's never sounded quite as bad as this.

Just two years after cutting ties with Marian Hossa at the deadline, the team sealed its reputation as the Montreal Expos of the NHL by sending superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk and farmhand Anssi Salmela to the New Jersey Devils for Johnny Oduya, Niklas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first-rounder. The teams also agreed to flip second-round picks this summer.

Once again, the smart look smarter. And the Thrashers? Well, this is exactly the sort of asset management that eventually led to the demise of Les Expos, a franchise that evolved into a glorified farm team for the rest of baseball because it simply could not hold onto its talent.

Oh, there'll be plenty of people lining up to defend Atlanta GM Don Waddell. Especially after Waddell launched a PR volley Wednesday by confirming that Kovalchuk had rejected a 12-year deal worth more than $101 million, as well as a seven-year deal at $10 million per season. That's crazy money, even for a player who has scored the most goals in the NHL since the 2001-02 season.

So this clearly wasn't an issue of respect for the impending free agent. The Thrashers opened the vault, backed up the Brink's truck, turned their backs and told him to help himself. But even that wasn't enough to convince Kovalchuk to commit to the hapless squad that drafted him first overall in 2001.

And that should tell you all you need to know about the miserable state of this franchise, a disaster that's been guided by Waddell since Day One. He's not alone in creating this mess -- that Hatfields and McCoys ownership situation hasn't helped -- but with just one playoff appearance in team history (and that, a four-game sweep), he's failed to create anything close to a winning atmosphere.

Who can blame Kovalchuk for wanting out?

So while he heads to sunnier professional pastures, if only for the next few months, the Thrashers are left to figure out how to move forward without their leading scorer. The standard asking price for high-end, late-season rentals has been a roster player, a top prospect, and a first-round pick, so in that sense Waddell came out slightly ahead of expectations. But no one should count on these players to make a significant contribution to what's likely to be another failed playoff drive. And they certainly won't help move what's sure to become an even easier ticket to their remaining home games.

Oduya's no household name, but he's more than a warm body. The 28-year-old has struggled this season to recapture the offensive edge that helped earn him a three-year, $10.5 million extension last summer, but his defensive game is reliable enough that he earned a spot on Sweden's Olympic team ahead of Atlanta's Toby Enstrom. He's a legitimate top-four who can pick up the burden that's weighing down promising rookie Zach Bogosian. A reliable presence to be sure, but when he's the prize in the swap for your franchise player, well, good luck selling this one to the fans.

Bergfors is tougher to gauge. A 2005 first-rounder, he's in his rookie NHL campaign after spending four years in the AHL. He's small (listed generously at 5-11, 185), but brings a solid two-way game with the potential -- that bedeviling word -- to mature into a top-six role. He's hit a wall over the last month, but his 13 goals still rank third among freshmen. He excelled on the power play while Patrik Elias was sidelined, and his eight goals are tied with John Tavares for the top rookie total. Promising, but no sure thing.

Cormier's public image has taken a hit lately, first with his undisciplined play at the World Juniors and then the vicious elbowing incident that earned him a season-long suspension from the QMJHL. (The Thrashers could call him up to the NHL, but expect them to respect the suspension.) He projects as a gritty depth forward who'll do his best work on the penalty kill and who can bring a reliable presence to the faceoff circle -- if he gets his act together. Waddell said he expects the former third-rounder to earn a spot in Atlanta next season. That seems a bit ambitious at the moment.

The pick? Well, it's better to have an extra first-rounder than not, but it is what it is: a long-term lottery ticket. Give us a call when Daulton Leveille makes his mark.

The Devils, on the other hand, simply build on a reputation for savvy moves. If they weren't already recognized as a legitimate Cup contender, this deal puts them firmly in the mix with Pittsburgh and Washington as the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference.

In exchange for his spare parts, the wily Lou Lamoriello adds a player who leaves Atlanta as the franchise's all-time leading scorer. In nearly eight full seasons, he has 328 goals and 287 assists for 615 points in 594 games and is on pace to tab 40 goals for the sixth consecutive season. That's exactly the element that New Jersey, saddled with the league's 23rd rated offense, needed heading into the postseason.

It's an unusually bold move at this time of year for Lamoriello, but he clearly recognized a closing window. Martin Brodeur, at 37, can't play at this level forever, but for the moment he has the Devils at the top of the defensive charts. Now, with Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, they boast a tandem up front that matches up well with Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. With some time to mess with the chemistry, Jacques Lemaire has all the tools he needs to make a deep run.

And that's really the only issue at hand. There are bound to be questions about whether the Devils can re-sign Kovalchuk before July 1, but those are better asked another day. The guessing here is that a taste of winning will bring those salary demands down to a more manageable level. If so, this deal could end up as one of the most lopsided in years.

If not? Well, the Devils' faithful can take some solace from the fact that they support a franchise that not only knows how to build a winner, but actually goes out and does it.

Atlanta's disheartened fans can only imagine what that feels like.

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