February 18, 2010
Kings fans happy with Kovalchuk decision
TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein, based in Los Angeles, explores the psyche of the Kings' fan base.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Although March 3 is the NHL trade deadline, the deal that will stand to be the biggest of this season was consummated 27 days earlier.

A few weeks ago, the hockey earth moved in the Deep South when Ilya Kovalchuk was extracted from a 7-and-a-half year sentence of hard labor in the Peach State.

While it's hard to imagine that the gritty destination of Newark, N.J. would be a safe harbor for anyone, much less one of the world's best (but not THE best) hockey players, Kovalchuk expressed happiness to join the perennial contender.

The Russian sniper's remarks about joining a first class Devils organization were more a slap at his former employer than an affirmation of how Uncle Lou Lamoriello rules the roost with an iron fist in the Garden State. The flux in Atlanta's ownership has hurt the Thrashers franchise and the lockout put a knife in the momentum in the team's popularity with attendance never being the same.

To Kovalchuk's credit, he's been the good solider; rarely missing a game, ascending to the captaincy and avoiding controversy amid the apathy in Atlanta. He never asked out and as the trade winds increasingly swirled around him his performance never waved.

When Atlanta GM Don Waddell gave his mea culpa, his first point was to address the staggering amount of money that was offered to the player. When learning that Kovalchuk passed on a contract worth over $100 million, the internet message boards lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Most fan comments were that Ilya took a wrong turn, one that had him wind up 1000 miles north and with no guaranteed money until at least July 1.

But young Ilya is no fool, nor is his sage advisor, uber agent Jay Grossman, who's received little criticism in this whole affair. They both realized they could realize the same money and maybe a smidgen more when unrestricted free agency comes calling.

Frankly, it's tough to criticize a player who would have fulfilled his contractual agreement and then exercises his right that was bargained for by his union and the NHL. Heck, the duo might sniff around the KHL and let head man Alexander Medevdev buy them caviar and champagne on an all expenses paid trip to Russia in the summer.

But make no mistake, Kovalchuk will be back in the NHL next season; his drive makes it necessary to play at the elite level not at a locale where Jiri Hudler can garner a $4 million a year salary and Alexei Yashin and Jaromir Jagr chose to rode off into the sunset.

So while Devils' fans hopes are brightened to bring home a fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, a curious response by another fan base that's known its share of disappointment occurred.

The Los Angeles Kings are having their best year in over a decade. With Terry Murray doing a job that rivals the work by Phoenix's Dave Tippett, the Kings are pace for a 100+ season, a figure that would end the seven year itch of post season-less hockey in the City of the Angels.

They've arrived even earlier than planned by GM Dean Lombardi; his thinking was that the 2010-11 season would be the breakthrough year.

With Anze Kopitar finally establishing himself as a true No. 1 center, Drew Doughty refusing to play like the 20-year-old he is and Ryan Smyth adding his grit and veteran leadership, the Kings are a mounting force in the NHL's Western Conference. Their growth hasn't been lost on their recently diminishing fan base; they've returned in droves over the past weeks including Saturday's raucous sellout crowd that witnessed Los Angeles' whitewash of the Avalanche that punctuated their pre-Olympic schedule with an exclamation point.

The Kings' fan base has suffered from a severe inferiority complex over the past decade. Few playoff appearances, refusal of big name free agent to the join the team and uninspired on ice play left most of KingsNation wondering if bright days would ever return again. When the hot start that saw the Kings sit in the uneasy position of first overall in the conference faded in late November, most of the faithful thought they had been deceived by a mirage. The Kings stabilized their ship and even threw in a franchise record nine games winning streak to boot, setting the stage for rampant speculation that Kovalchuk, a legitimate crown jewel, would be added by Lombardi before the pre-Olympic roster freeze.

But in a less than story book ending, King Dean didn't get his plunder. Although Waddell scouted the Kings in the days prior to his deal, it was the Devil(s) in the detail that got it done.

The word came down that Atlanta wanted two of three core players off the Kings varsity: Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson. Lombardi, trying on the new shoes of a buyer, not a seller at the deadline, realized that the risk involved for surrendering his core talent for a game changing one was too great, given the specter of impending free agency. So while times were better, the Kings missed out on another unique goal scoring talent.

The funny thing is... the Kings fans got it.

This time or maybe, finally.

Casually polling Los Angeles fans, none of them would have made the same deal.

To a person, they've understood that with a GM like Lombardi, it DOES take a number of years to build a reserve roster and develop talent, that there are truly no quick fixes in the NHL. While Kovalchuk would have made this team even more dangerous in the post season, the fans have become patient, willing to see if Lombardi wants to spend the money in July without having to surrender any players for the right.

Some even challenge Kovalchuk's track record: no playoff wins, no Hart Trophies and noting his inability to make players on the Atlanta roster better. Indeed, while it would be magical for these fans to see Kopitar throwing feeds to the Russian winger, they know it should be for the right price and the right time.

So the moral to the story is quite simple for an NHL general manager; to pacify a fan base, even a long suffering one, just win baby.

Our thoughts:

We've heard the Kings will be on a short list of teams willing to offer $10 million a season on July 1. You can forget the possibility of the Devils re-signing him at that price, Ilya's only a rental. While Lombardi won't flinch at the per year dollars, the challenge will be the term of the contract, Dean-O's not a 10-year contract type of GM. He might be better served to grab a guy from an organization he already knows; perhaps offering Patrick Marleau $24 million, three-year deal, a move that would make the Kings deeper and Sharks weaker. A more dramatic move that would further dial up the Southern California rivalry would be to offer Ducks winger Bobby Ryan a $30 million, five year offer sheet on July 1.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.

  Archives:
Jan. 20, 2010 The First City
Dec. 29, 2009 From Us to You
Dec. 02, 2009 Not so Quick, my friend
Nov. 16, 2009 Selling the Avalanche
Oct. 26, 2009 Sometimes reality is worse than the perception
Sept. 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup
Sept. 03, 2009 Ray to Heatley's rescue


 

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