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Kovalchuk-gate ends: Winger signs with Thrashers

ATLANTA -- Ilya Kovalchuk agreed to a new contract Saturday
with the Atlanta Thrashers, ending his threat to play this season
in his native Russia.

General manager Don Waddell made significant progress on the
deal during negotiations Friday in New York with Jay Grossman,
Kovalchuk's agent. Waddell said they signed Kovalchuk to a five-year contract.

The contract is worth $6.5 million the first year, then $5 million, $5.5 million, $7.5 million and $7.5 million in the final year, Grossman told ESPN.com.

The contract brings the Thrashers close to the $39 million salary cap, but just how close will be determined by roster moves.

"Ilya is an important part of our franchise and we share in our
fans' excitement that he is back with us for many seasons to come,"
Waddell said. "He is one of the league's elite players and will
play a pivotal role in our success."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Kovalchuk tied Columbus' Rick Nash for
the NHL lead with 41 goals in the last season before the lockout.
He also had 46 assists, finishing 32 points ahead of Atlanta's
second-highest scorer.

If Kovalchuk had played a game in Russia after Wednesday's start
of the NHL season, he would have needed to clear waivers to play in
Atlanta -- an impossibility for a player of his caliber.

The Thrashers split the first two games on the road and were
playing their home opener against the Washington Capitols Saturday
night.

"I'm excited to return to Atlanta and look forward to getting
back on the ice and helping my teammates," Kovalchuk said in a
statement. "We have a lot of offensive talent and I can't wait to
contribute and help lead this team to the next level."

Waddell said the winger will return to Atlanta on Monday and
practice the next day. He's hopeful that Kovalchuk will have his
U.S. work permit resolved in time to play in Wednesday's home game
against the Montreal Canadiens.

"Just think, we're going to have this player for the next five years," Waddell said.

After the long layoff, Waddell bulked up the front line by
trading for Marian Hossa and signing Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra.
With the addition of Kovalchuk, Waddell believes the Thrashers
could be one of the top offensive teams in the NHL.

"We've put a lot pieces in place this summer," Waddell said.
"The franchise is in position to take the next big step. Ilya
gives us a better chance to take that step to go even further."

Kovalchuk was in New York visiting his girlfriend and their new
child, a baby girl delivered last week. He had planned to return to
Russia on Sunday.

Now, that's not the case.

"In the back of my mind I said, 'why call a bluff?' " Waddell
said. "Let's do everything we can to sign him and we did."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.