May 27, 2010
The Crown Jewel

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- In the days before the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers contest for the greatest trophy in team sports, we turn our attention to another prize that will cause a flurry of activity in the days that will follow one team's celebration and another's disappointment.

Though Free Agent Frenzy isn't in the front of hockey fans' brains just yet, the fact that the calendar turns to June shortly is a sign that the negotiating, posturing and bidding is approaching on the horizon.

At the forefront of the chatter and speculation is the destiny of the best player to hit unrestricted free agency since the start of the salary cap era, current and most likely former New Jersey Devil, Ilya Kovalchuk.

Barring a last minute shift in strategy by Captain Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey organization, the Russian winger will deposit his massive shot and goal scoring prowess squarely into Free Agency Land. If he plays another seven years, he's a lock to score 600 goals before age 35 and he's emerged as a leader in his time with the Atlanta Trashers, er, Thrashers.

In a bad sports town that is Atlanta, this player never asked out to a more hockey savvy city and always hoped that management would improve the team to the extent where they could compete nightly with the likes of the Penguins, Capitals and Flyers. That assistance never came and when Atlanta came to the table after the season started with a big time contract, Kovalchuk's rejection told NHL executives that for him it wasn't about the money, it was about winning. Ilya could have easily signed on the line that is dotted, cashed out and continue to deal with a floundering franchise, a destiny that would have ultimately led to the same conclusion, a deal out of the land of Peaches.

So when it came time to deal a player who's averaged over 42 goals over eight seasons, the reality is that you never get back equal quality for a potential rental player. While Thrashers GM Don Waddell did well in getting Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, a 1st and a 2nd round draft pick in 2010 for the superstar, there's not a comparable talent in that package, the price one pays for going to the trade table later than sooner.

Unable to select which contender he'd be dealt to as he lacked a contractual limited movement or no-trade clause, it's unlikely that Ilya would have put New Jersey at the top of the list, middle of the list, heck it probably wasn't even ON the list. A stern-handed GM in Lamoriello and a task master coach in Jacques Lemaire (you know, the guy Marian Gaborik wanted to avoid at all costs) were waiting as Kovalchuk's plane touched down in the concrete jungle of New Jersey.

Observers thought a super stringent organizational structure and a defense-first game plan wasn't a straight line to a successful short term contract run for the Russian winger. Critics brought up his minus-85 rating coming into the season as validation that he was a one-way player, only concerning himself with the offensive side of the ice and this weakness would be exposed and perhaps even highlighted in the Devils system.

Guess again, said Ilya to the critics. He averaged a point a game over the final 27 for New Jersey, doing it at a rating of plus-9.

As the post-season approached, the main decision maker responsible for his presence showed no sign of buyers' remorse.

"I try and let the fans and the media not get in the way of doing what the right thing is," Lamoriello conveyed. "And right now our focus as a team is to be the best prepared for the playoffs and not worry about anything other than getting ready for that. I've been pleased with him from day one.

"We knew there would be adjustments. The thing I've been most pleased with is he's been a great teammate and quality individual. The interaction, he's fit right in with the group. Those are always things that are unknowns until you have a player. The bottom line is winning. We don't want anything to get in the way of that."

While the most of the Devils decided not to show up for their first round matchup with the ultimate conference champion Flyers, Kovalchuk played hard every shift until the waning seconds of the disappointing series. While there was plenty of blame to go around the locker room, Hall of Famer Lemaire made it abundantly clear that this player did all the right things.

"He works hard, he wants to win, and maybe that's why I think maybe he's a better player than I thought he was," Lemaire said. "He wants to win so much. He enjoys the game, which I didn't see that as much as when he wasn't around. He's a real player. He's a guy that he wants to improve. He wants to do well. He wants the team to win. He's not selfish; those things that you don't know when the guy's away. And then when they come in, sometimes you do get some surprises, could be negative or positive. This one was positive, big time."

While New Jersey could use his marquee value to sell tickets deep inside Essex County, NJ at the Prudential Center, it's just not this GM's modus operandi to sign huge deals. Though new ownership may put heat on Lamoriello to broker a deal at the 11th hour, it's a long shot at best. So with game changing scoring ability and having proved he can both fit in and flourish in a the most structured of environments, just where would the bidding start on such a unique talent?

And therein is where the mystery starts, as we're on a cusp of a situation that has no comparables in the history of NHL unrestricted free agency. While people want to compare the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby to the compensation that Kovalchuk should receive, none of these players' new deals were done in free agency. Smart management in Pittsburgh just gave Malkin the same yearly salary as Sid the Kid, no capologist necessary, thank you. Washington had no bargaining chip as owner Ted Leonsis knew the consequences if AO8 were ever allowed to leave the district.

The players with long term deals that do compare favorably to Kovalchuk are Columbus' Rick Nash, Carolina's Eric Staal, and to a lesser extent, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.

Nash's deal averages $ 7.8 million per for eight years, while Staal will garner $ 8.25 million per over the next seven. Lecavalier's deal averages even more, $ 9.6 million over the first eight years of an 11-year deal but drops significantly over the final years. Nash has only seen the playoffs once and never hit the 50 goal plateau, something Ilya's done twice. When Staal was surrounded with a strong team, he raised the Stanley Cup but when the organization let things slip, the Hurricanes careened to 11th, even below the Kovalchuk-less Thrashers. Lecavalier has won the big prize as well, but the rudderless Tampa organization couldn't get the right deal to ship him out of town. In these cases as well, none had the X factor of unrestricted free agency to impact the numbers. With no precedent, it's not unreasonable for Kovalchuk to ask for a contract that hits maximum numbers.

As with any commodity, a market is created when two or more parties want one asset. So who might be tendering applications for the Kovy sweepstakes as the July 1 starting date approaches?

For those San Jose Sharks fans pleading and begging for a change, would you be happy with unplugging Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov and plugging in Ilya? The writing was on the wall after last season's first round elimination by the Anaheim Ducks and became stone-like when the Sharks got swept out of the Conference Finals by the bigger, tough Blackhawks. If you want bigger and tougher on the wing, you've got it in Ilya at 6-foot-2, 230-pounds. Sharks GM Doug Wilson made one significant in the roster during the last off season and certainly can't afford to do likewise this summer if he brings back Marleau. While Dany Heatley was a winning risk in the regular season, he's shown for a second time his failure to produce in a big spot, undisclosed injury or not. The biggest thing that stands in the way of a possible deal in the South Bay is its greatest strength, the overall success of the franchise. The Sharks aren't hurting to sell season tickets despite all the playoff failures; I'd say it's actually fun to witness routine 100-point seasons and they really DO sell tickets. It's unlikely the presence of Kovalchuk or frankly, the subtraction of a Marleau, Heatley or Nabokov would move the attendance needle appreciably.

So how about a rising team with a lot of cap room that fashioned a 100-point season in the highly competitive Western Conference? Actually, you've got two of those, one a pretender, one a contender. While the Phoenix Coyotes have oodles of cap space and possibly more if Matthew Lombardi and Lee Stempniak step to teams with real cash and not just cap space, it's inconceivable that Executive of the Year GM Don Maloney would make a run at a player who could be the central focus of all things hockey in the Arizona desert for the better part of the next decade; like most things in the dry vastness of the arid Southwest, this scenario is purely a mirage.

So we've danced around the team that's the not-so-secret best fit for Kovalchuk's toolbox. The Los Angeles Kings come off the heels of a breakthrough 100-point playoff season. They gave the Vancouver Canucks a good run for their money in their first round playoff ouster and both Kings management's and fans' attention are now drawn to how to make this team better in the off season. Kings GM Dean Lombardi readily admits that he's patterning the Kings after the Blackhawks, a tip of the cap to his father-in-law, Bob Pulford, long time Chicago GM.

The Kings have finally hit respectability this season by going retro, drafting wisely and instituting a player development system, a not-so-novel concept that had never been introduced by the varying former regimes in Hockeywood.

Lombardi's guidance has forged an excellent core of leadership in the room with the combination of young stars like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown combined with veterans like Ryan Smyth and Matt Greene.

Indeed, Lombardi conveyed he had the opportunity to bring in Heatley last summer: "I couldn't take the risk of bringing in a player with that reputation given how young the core of the team was." (An admission he made to me early this season; an affirmation that the team lacked a game changing talent, but showing a steadfast unwillingness to do it at all costs.)

While the cost last season would have been at least one, possibly two coveted assets in the Kings organization (certainly a deal that would have bettered what Ottawa GM Brian Murray extracted from Sharks GM Wilson) this summer it will only be cash, albeit numerous wheel barrels full.

If you're a Kings fan, you're probably pleased that Lombardi stepped away from the high stakes poker game of deadline day and went with the smaller deals to get Jeff Halpern and Fredrik Modin. If you're observing the Blackhawks at any distance, you know re-signing those two won't bring you within striking distance of the rising Midwest powerhouse.

I made a point during a season-ending Kings media roundtable on KingsCast.net that the biggest barrier to seeing Kovalchuk in a Kings sweater is the thing that makes Lombardi so smart: his conservative approach to deal making. He's never made a blockbuster trade and routinely doesn't dish out those massive long-term deals that a Henrik Zetterberg or Johan Franzen received in Detroit.

While Lombardi's mindset may be gradually changing with the Kopitar and Brown extensions (who knows what the summer will have in store for Doughty), he's never won a free agent battle of this financial magnitude.

What might help the Kovy camp is the entertainment value requirement of the Los Angeles sports market; while Lombardi still goes old school by saying, 'if you build a winner, they will come,' there were still too many nights where a couple of thousand seats went begging even with a up and coming exciting team skating at Staples Center. While one would think watching Doughty for 41 games plus would be enough of an allure for Southern California hockey fans, the additional tickets sales that the combination of Kopitar to Kovalchuk would garner would assuredly recoup some of the cost of the contract. Potential season ticket holders and those on the fence about renewals couldn't be sent a more clear sign that the Kings are going for it all in 2010-11, something the fan base has waited a decade to hear.

Smart business organizations like Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Kings' ownership group), know how to differentiate an investment from an expense and in this case, a Kovalchuk deal certainly fits in to the former category. The reality is that when any GM tells his fan base he's been fiscally responsible by not doing a big money deal, whether in unrestricted free agency or not, he's not relevant. The reality is that the cap creates holes in every team's roster and the best strategy is to create as many strengths as you can with the resources you possess -- these days there are half a dozen big dollar deals on every roster with foot soldiers divvying up the rest.

Do the Kings need Kovalchuk? Depends on who you ask. They can continue to develop and draft wisely, perhaps trade up for a scorer with all the assets they've accumulated in this year’s draft, which they host (cue dramatic music, please); they can hope to cull another 100 point season without any first line scoring wings as well.

Or, will they do like their not-too-distant Chicago cousins and use a single (and a better) bullet to make them much more dangerous for next season and beyond?

One would only have to go just a little south and east of Chicago to find the downside of not striking while the iron is hot. The Columbus Blue Jackets wrote a similar story a year ago, they got to the playoffs after seven years of futility, didn't make any appreciable moves to leverage their success and plummeted back to next to last in the conference.

Given all the goodwill the Kings organization garnered this season, can they risk the same falloff as Columbus? Does the organization want to be in the same sentence in 2011 as the Blackhawks or the Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues?

It took five seasons for the fans to flock back to downtown Los Angeles and while there are no guarantees in hockey, or life, the time is right to add the Jewel to the Kings' Crown.

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

  Archives:
Apr. 22, 2010 The ME in Team
Mar. 04, 2010 Trading Places: Kings and Ducks make moves
Feb. 18, 2010 Kings fans happy with Kovalchuk decision
Jan. 20, 2010 The First City
Dec. 29, 2009 From Us to You
Dec. 02, 2009 Not so Quick, my friend


 

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