ATLANTA — The Atlanta Thrashers have a new captain. Next question: Can they keep him in Atlanta?
Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers’ career scoring leader and biggest star, can become a free agent after the 2009-10 season, and general manager Don Waddell said Monday he intends to re-sign the newly named captain as soon as this summer.
"We legally can talk to the player as of July 1 as he enters the last year of his contract," Waddell said. "When that day comes we’ll be fully prepared to engage in contract negotiations. Hopefully the feeling is the same from the other side, and if it is I’d be very confident we’d be able to reach a deal."
The 25-year-old Kovalchuk began the season as one of five alternate captains, a role he also held last season. He was announced as team captain at a function for fans on Sunday night.
Waddell said the other alternate captains pushed for Kovalchuk to have the captain’s "C" on his jersey when the Thrashers play Ottawa on Wednesday night in Atlanta.
"It just makes too much sense," Waddell said. "We had a meeting with assistant captains last week. They brought it to me and we talked about it with the coaching staff. We all feel good about the decision.
"He’s the face of our franchise. He’s told me he wants to take this franchise to the next level. Our team goes as Kovi goes."
The left wing leads the last-place Thrashers with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) through 42 games this season.
There already has been speculation Waddell might have to trade Kovalchuk if it became clear he would not be able to agree on a new deal. Waddell traded another All-Star, forward Marian Hossa, to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season when Hossa was on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Kovalchuk could not be reached for comment on Monday, when the team was off. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday night he hopes to remain in Atlanta.
"It’s business, and you never know what’s going to happen, but today I’m happy and I hope I’m going to stay here for as long as I’m going to play," Kovalchuk told the paper. "I love the city. My family loves the city. And I feel very comfortable around that group of guys."
Kovalchuk was named to his third NHL All-Star team earlier this month.
Kovalchuk, a native of Tver, Russia, was the first overall pick in the 2001 NHL draft. He is the franchise’s all-team leader in most major statistical categories, including points (508), goals (269), assists (239) and games played (508).
Kovalchuk shared the NHL lead with 41 goals in the 2003-04 season. He set his career high with 52 goals in 2005-06 and matched the total in 2007-08.
The team’s other alternate captains are Colby Armstrong, Niclas Havelid, Slava Kozlov and Mathieu Schneider.