Future of Atlanta Thrashers is now

ATLANTA -- With every passing day, with each improbable win, with each surprising rung climbed up the NHL standings, the nervousness builds for the Atlanta Thrashers.

Will he sign?

Each passing day brings this beleaguered NHL franchise closer to a crossroads, to a truly defining moment.

Either captain Ilya Kovalchuk will sign a long-term contract extension, or he will be put on the open market and sold to the highest bidder in advance of the March 3 trade deadline.

You can talk all you want about the long-term future of the NHL here in the South, but the future for the Atlanta Thrashers is now.

Forget having to trade troubled Dany Heatley or disinterested Marian Hossa, this is a moment that will reverberate for years no matter the outcome. It is a defining moment for GM Don Waddell. It is a defining moment for Kovalchuk, whose hockey future is about to be defined, or redefined, in the coming weeks. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a defining moment for an ownership group that has done so little right since taking over here.

"I think it's fair to say that with everything that's happened with the franchise here, this is the most important thing that's happened," Waddell told ESPN.com recently. "You can't compare Ilya with any of the other players who've left here."

Unlike Hossa, who had little or no interest in signing long-term with the Thrashers and was essentially dealt to Pittsburgh for a first-round pick and Colby Armstrong (no disrespect to Erik Christensen or Angelo Esposito, spare parts in the deal), or Heatley, who was running from his own past when he begged out after the lockout, Kovalchuk is the Atlanta Thrashers.

He is a singular figure in the team's history and he is unusual in that he wants to stay. But unlike, say, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who left money on the table in signing long-term deals in Pittsburgh to give GM Ray Shero some wiggle room against the cap to keep other pieces in place, there won't be much of a hometown discount for the Thrashers in keeping their franchise player in the fold.

Kovalchuk, poised to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, is looking for something close to the maximum, which would be 20 percent of the current cap of $56.7 million.

Let's say, for argument's sake, Kovalchuk is looking at 10 years at $10 million. Even if you tacked on a couple of years at $5 million or even $3 or $4 million to drag down the cap hit, this is a big bite for ownership. Whether you can build a winner with a $10 million player in a salary-cap world is another debate entirely. A number of GMs who spoke to ESPN.com are skeptical it can be done. But it's a moot point if ownership won't ante up.

One thing that suggests ownership will actually step up to the plate is that one of the owners, Bruce Levenson, is from Washington. He was once a minority owner of the Washington Capitals and has seen firsthand that you can be a Cup contender if you have a player making close to the maximum (Alex Ovechkin signing a 13-year contract extension worth $124 million).

Now the time is at hand for him and his partners to show what the future of this franchise will look like; or at least that they have enough financial parts to move from the NHL's kiddy table to the big boys' table.

Levenson declined a request for an interview for this story. The official word from the team is he prefers Waddell to speak for the team, but Levenson is notoriously thin-skinned and has been criticized in this space for the team's long-standing failures on the ice and failures to build and maintain a strong fan base, two mutually inclusive parts of owning a team.

Waddell insisted he has laid out to ownership the commitment that comes with signing Kovalchuk. Because it's not just about committing money to one player, it's about committing money to building a winner, and that means spending much closer to the cap than they have in the past.

"I feel that I've got good support from ownership. I've laid it all out for them," Waddell said. "Our No. 1 goal is to get Kovy signed to a long-term deal."

Apart from actually coming up with a number that makes sense to both sides, Waddell has done everything he can to make a case for Kovalchuk to stay. Heading into Thursday's action, the Thrashers were in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack with the NHL's top offensive team and a surprisingly stingy defense that boasts the fourth-best penalty-killing unit in the league.

Ondrej Pavelec has emerged as a potential top-flight goalie in the place of perennially injured Kari Lehtonen and, along with veteran Johan Hedberg, gives the team the best goaltending it has ever had.

Zach Bogosian is a stud and leads all NHL defensemen with eight goals.

Evander Kane is among the top rookie point producers.

Tobias Enstrom is a solid top-four defenseman, as is Ron Hainsey.

Rich Peverley was an inspired waiver-wire pickup.

Maxim Afinogenov is a bargain-basement goal machine.

There is, for the first time in franchise history, good young talent coming through the pipeline to complement proven veterans.

Kovalchuk agreed this is as good as it's been here in Atlanta since the Thrashers made him the first overall pick in 2001. But will it be enough to get him to commit long-term?

"You know, it's a business," Kovalchuk told ESPN.com recently. "You see a lot of guys who will play on the same team, then they got traded or they sign the big contract with a lot of years and I definitely want to stay here. But you never know what's going to happen.

"Whatever happens, happens; that's life and things change. Hopefully it'll be the same, but if it's not, then we're just going to turn the page and do whatever it's going to be."

Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, acknowledged this is a seminal moment for his client and the organization.

"From Ilya's perspective, it's obviously a decision that's going to set the course for a lot of things in his life. And for the organization," Grossman told us recently. "It's definitely a meaningful situation that's going to unfold."

Kovalchuk owes the franchise nothing. He has been a good soldier, durable, dynamic and, now that he is the captain, a terrific leader. He has ridden out the Heatley-forced trade and the disappointing efforts to sell Hossa on the club's future. He has never complained about the mismatched group of centers he has played with during his tenure in Atlanta, at least not publicly.

So, who could blame him for wanting to test the free-agent market in the summer and try to land on a team that will provide a better chance at winning? Or who could blame him for wanting to be paid a king's ransom to stay and lead this team out of the wilderness?

There is also the specter of a defection to the Kontinental Hockey League, where sources say league president Alexander Medvedev is in hot pursuit of a homegrown superstar like Kovalchuk to legitimize the Russian league. Rumors of a deal that would eclipse anything the Thrashers or any other NHL team could pay Kovalchuk continue to circulate and cloud the issue.

Grossman and Waddell have never established any deadlines of when an extension must be signed, but we are already into the second third of the regular season. The Olympic break in mid-February creates a two-week gap during which no trades can be made. Waddell must know before then what direction he must follow, because one thing that is certain is this -- the GM will not roll into the March 3 deadline with the situation unresolved, one way or another.

Waddell watched last season, as the Florida Panthers waited out Jay Bouwmeester in the hope the blue-chip defenseman would sign a long-term deal and they would make the playoffs. Neither happened. The Panthers missed the playoffs in a tiebreaker and Bouwmeester walked for essentially nothing (the Panthers did receive the rights to negotiate with second-tier defenseman Jordan Leopold, whom they later signed). Barring a second-half turnaround, Florida will miss the playoffs for a ninth straight season.

Waddell cannot have that happen to the Thrashers.

"Obviously I can't live in a vacuum here," Waddell said. "[To let Kovalchuk walk], obviously that doesn't make any sense for the Thrashers. You have to make sure you keep all your options open."

That means being able to shop Kovalchuk as early as possible to get the best possible return if the two sides can't agree on an extension. There is a theory out there that the Thrashers can't afford to trade Kovalchuk even if he won't re-sign, as it will alienate the fan base in Atlanta. Never winning a single playoff game and qualifying for the postseason just once since coming into the league in 1999 has already taken care of that. Sponsors have fled, season-ticket buyers have evaporated.

Now it's an elemental question about what path this franchise is going to travel -- one with Kovalchuk or one without.

No greater question has been asked about this franchise, and it will be answered one way or another, sooner than later.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.