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 just under $32 million on a five-year contract.

“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.”

AP-ES-10-08-05 1913EDT

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