The Atlanta Thrashers signed star winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a five-year, $32 million contract on Saturday.
The deal averages out to $6.4 million a season, making him the highest-paid Thrasher ahead of winger Marian Hossa, whose contract averages out at $6 million. Kovalchuk will be paid $6.5 million this season, $5 million next season, $5.5 million in 2007-08 and $7.5 million in each of the last two years.
The deal will leave the Thrashers only $275,000 short of the $39 million salary cap, although the team could demote a player to create more room. Thrashers GM Don Waddell and Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman began to make progress in talks late Thursday night before Waddell traveled to New York on Friday and spent all day completing the deal.
Kovalchuk, a restricted free agent, had threatened to play the season in his native Russia if he didn't reach a deal by Sunday. Kovalchuk was in New York visiting his girlfriend and their new child, a girl delivered last week. He was scheduled to head back to Russia on Saturday to get his equipment and tie up loose ends in his homeland. The earliest he could play with the Thrashers would be Wednesday.
Talks appeared headed nowhere before the two sides finally broke ground Thursday. The Thrashers originally offered $5 million a year while Kovalchuk and Grossman countered with $7 million -- Jarome Iginla's salary in Calgary.
In the last season before the lockout, Kovalchuk tied Iginla and Columbus' Rick Nash for the NHL lead with 41 goals and totalled 87 points -- 32 ahead of Atlanta's second-highest scorer. If Kovalchuk had returned to play in Russia he would have been lost to Atlanta for the entire season. According to NHL rules, a player who plays in Europe after the NHL season starts must clear waivers to return to his NHL team. That means any of 29 teams could have claimed Kovalchuk. Before the start of the NHL season, Kovalchuk played 11 games for Khimik Voskresensk of the Russian Super League, Sporting News reports.