Commentary

A feel of the surreal in Atlanta

Updated: February 4, 2010, 4:59 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DULUTH, Ga. -- Just another day in the bizarro world of the Atlanta Thrashers.

Despite the fact GM Don Waddell, having run aground in his efforts to sign his biggest star to a long-term extension, is actively shopping Ilya Kovalchuk, there was the big winger doing his stuff during the team's practice.

La-de-da.

Kovalchuk worked on the power-play drills. He skated with linemates Nik Antropov and Bryan Little. He joked around with players.

Just another day at the office, even if there is a distinct possibility this might have marked the last time the franchise's most important player ever steps on the ice with his Atlanta teammates.

Kovalchuk seemed nonplussed by all the fuss.

"You never know when I'm going to step up for this team the last time," Kovalchuk said. "I asked him [Waddell] if I'm playing. He said yes, so I have to come here to do my job and go on road trip."

The Thrashers were to board a plane Thursday afternoon to head to Washington, where they will face the NHL's hottest team Friday night. With a win, they'll be back in the playoff bracket.

If he's still a member of the Thrashers, Kovalchuk said he fully expects to play in that game. So does his coach, John Anderson.

"As we speak, he's a part of our team, a big part of our team," Anderson said. "He commands a lot of ice time, and as long as he's in my roster, he's going to get a lot of ice time."

None of which makes any sense, of course.

If -- and we have no reason to believe this is not the case -- Waddell believes he has no chance to sign Kovalchuk after offering him a variety of packages, including an eight-year deal that would have paid him $10 million annually, then having him on the ice at all is crazy.

What if Kovalchuk took a puck in the face Thursday morning and went on the disabled list and couldn't be traded? Where will the franchise be then? What if he plays Friday night and hurts his knee colliding with pal and fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin?

For the sake of a point or two in the standings, the team might be forced to keep Kovalchuk for the rest of the season and then watch their biggest asset walk away July 1 for nothing. Thanks for coming out. Might as well back up the moving trucks to Philips Arena right now.

Don't think it could happen? Ask the Edmonton Oilers if they wish they had handled Sheldon Souray differently. The big defenseman agreed to discuss waiving his no-trade clause, but got in a fight with Jarome Iginla on Saturday and is now looking at surgery to repair his broken hand. Could the Oilers have dealt Souray? Maybe, maybe not. But now it's a moot point, and the team has squandered an opportunity to acquire important assets.

Calgary GM Darryl Sutter kept Olli Jokinen in the Flames' lineup for a game even though a deal to move the forward to the New York Rangers was all but consummated. The Flames, predictably, lost to Philadelphia, and Sutter was merely fortunate all he lost was two points.

And let's be clear: Kovalchuk's value is that of 10 Olli Jokinens or 10 Sheldon Sourays. And yes, Kovalchuk could get hurt playing with his kids or changing a light bulb or stepping off a curb. But why expose yourself to additional risk if you really and truly are determined to move the player?

Which brings us to another possibility. What if Waddell was trying to exert pressure on Kovalchuk to sign an extension by playing the "you're on your way out of Dodge" card? Kovalchuk initially pooh-poohed the notion, saying Waddell has always been straight-up with him and they have a great relationship.

"If that's the deal, that's not going to work," he said.

Later, though, Kovalchuk acknowledged the team might try anything to get what it wants, which might be the reason behind Waddell's warning that he was going to try to move Kovalchuk right away.

"You never know why he says that because they try to do their job. They were very clear they want to sign me, so they can use all the weapons," Kovalchuk acknowledged. "So I'm just focusing on the game."

We don't believe that was Waddell's intention when he had his little heart-to-heart with Kovalchuk on Wednesday. That's not his style. If Kovalchuk had a change of heart, fine, but we believe firmly Waddell is focused on moving the Russian star as quickly as possible.

Still, from Kovalchuk to Anderson, there was a definite feel of the surreal in Duluth on Thursday -- as if by downplaying what appears to be obvious, it denies that it is so.

Kovalchuk continued to float the now-tattered notion he might actually end up signing here after all. He likes the city, the franchise and his teammates. Blah, blah, blah.

"Yeah, why not? You never know," he said of what now appears to be the remotest of possibilities.

The problem is he does know. For all of his "you should talk to my agent about that" bafflegab, Kovalchuk is the man in charge here. If he wants to stay in Atlanta, he can; all he has to do is call agent Jay Grossman and say, "Get it done," and it would get done. In a heartbeat.

Right, Ilya? If you like it so much here, why not just sign?

"But it should be a good deal for everybody, not just for one side," he explained.

Ah, and so the merry-go-round continues to revolve while the hockey world awaits what would be the biggest deal of the season. Or not.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE