July 8, 2010
The Crown with Big Time Thorns

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- It's June 30, 2010, you're a Los Angeles Kings fan and you're feeling REALLY good. Your team is coming off a 100-point season, you've get a once in a generation defensive talent in Norris nominee Drew Doughty, and the organization has made great strides to end its 43 year old Stanley Cup scoreless streak.

As you put your head on the pillow this night, sleep will come easy knowing that your team in the odds on favorite to grab the biggest prize in the free agent pool, Ilya Kovalchuk. Your home standing team has the cap space and the money to bring the one element that team sorely lacks, a game changer to the shores of the Pacific.

And the Ducks missed the playoffs with Scott Niedermayer retiring. Life is grand.

Now eight days into l'affair de Kovalchuk, the twist and turns of this story have transcended simple contract negotiations for a Top 5 NHL talent. This saga touches aspects of how news is reported and the impact of social media on the sports landscape in general and the NHL in particular. Not only has a player with unprecedented skills hit free agency for the first time but the way we’ve come to learn about the process of where he lands has changed forever.

A central character in this play is Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, and he’s probably none too pleased about it.

At the start of 2010, the TFP team had a sit down with Jay and his crew in New York - the genesis of the relationship between our two organizations. For those who don’t know agents as they do their favorite left wingers, Mr. Grossman is a well respected player in the game. He’s represented greatness in the likes of Brian Leetch and taken Pekke Rinne and Anton Volchenkov from obscurity to wealth beyond their dreams. Moreover, he’s been honest in his communication and while always taking his client’s side, he’s fair in his assessment of both his player’s needs and how they measure up against market conditions.

Where Grossman and his firm, Puck Agency, have broke new ground is the manner in which news, or truth be told, the lack there of, has been communicated to the media.

In the ultimate show of fairness and equality, all communication for the Kovalchuk camp has been through the use of Grossman’s Twitter account. They’ve been steadfast in their "no comment" stance on negotiations until they reach their conclusion. So while writers like Pierre LeBrun and Damien Cox may grouse about the even playing field, it eliminates the effect of greater resources and deeper contacts of more established reporters in the hockey world.

You’d think that outlets like ours might be cheered by the circumstance of having an even playing field with TSN and ESPN on this story, but there’s little room for celebration. With the inability to confirm negotiations from the player’s side, it’s unearthed a level of inaccurate and frankly, bad reporting, upon the hockey world. Most of my time, the past week has been spent refuting bad rumors that have passed my desk or left on my voicemail. The great thing about technology is that news gets to you instantaneously; the bad news (and what hockey fans need to drill in their head) is that 97% is pure conjecture.

But here in the City of Angels, where does it leave the fans of the Kings, if the latest go around that saw team governor Tim Leiweke say no to a reportedly exotic contract offer from the Kovalchuk side on Thursday morning?

From the small sampling we’ve taken, not many appear to be soap opera fans, they want finality. But on July 8, can anyone expect it?

There’s really no motivation from the Kings or the player’s side to present or declare a final, best offer because while free agency starting on July 1, there’s no time limit jeopardy attached. That fan in who loyally sits in Section 117 of Staples Center has every right to have self esteem issues in this free agency go-around; their team appears to be bridesmaids on Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis and the biggest fish in the free agency ocean both this year and last (Marian Hossa).

Part of the challenge for Los Angeles may lie in the fact that players are more resistant to moving from the Eastern Conference to the West, primarily because of travel issues. Those who disavow that claim can point to players like Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton that have come West and done well for their teams, but the reality is that only one superstar, the aforementioned Niedermayer, came of his our volition and only because his brother was with the Anaheim Ducks. So indeed, there is validity to the assertion that the stress of the West (including the fact that the level of play is significantly higher) could be a contributor to the Kings’ consistent runner-up status.

So while the Kings fans' empathy for GM Dean Lombardi’s stance is refreshing and admirable given the LA’s lack of success over the past half century, it’s time to explore the reality of how the 2010-11 model of the Kings will hit the streets.

The other side of the coin is that given the evidence, Lombardi doesn’t really feel this player is the final piece of the puzzle, not the game changer than I and others feel he is. At the NHL draft, he stood in front of the barrier that separated him from the LA and national media and proclaimed, "We're at a point where we can seriously look at free agency or a trade to take this team to the next level."

The cap space is there -- plenty of it -- and the money would appear to be there, although I don’t have billionaire owner Phillip Anschutz’s banking information.

This marks the third time that Lombardi has deferred on a direct shot at Kovalchuk; he didn’t want to deal young core players at the trade deadline to Atlanta, thinking that his prime competitor in this race, President/GM/Master-of-all-Things-Jersey Lou Lamoriello of the Devils was the bigger fool in surrendering assets to support what would up to be a five game New Jersey playoff run.

When there appeared to be no negotiation traction for Lamoriello as the days grew closer to July 1, Lombardi had no interest in acquiring the player’s right for a unfettered few days to get a deal done. And now, with an eye towards future contract negotiations with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson for the 2011-12 season, Lombardi doesn’t want to give an unprecedented deal to a unique talent who would spur ticket sales coming off a 100 point season.

While it’s great to have future cap space, in today’s game the teams that are serious Stanley Cup contenders are the one that are up against the salary cap. The deconstruction of the Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks started just hours after they were sweeping the confetti off of Michigan Avenue. The Flyers are looking to deal one of their weighty, long term contracts to get maneuverability this season with names like Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter on a lot of lists. Fans of the future Stanley Cup champions should get used to the Chicago scenario, you make a run to the Finals, hope you win it and then lose two or more important parts. That’s where drafting and development is crucial for continuing success in the NHL, they’ll always be a constant need for cheaper talent in support of the half dozen superstar salaries and the Kings have that pipeline.

But pipelines don’t win Cups this year.

The Kings have a significant deficiency at left wing and that’s why Kovalchuk appeared to be a layup on July 1. As the roster stands, they have one (1) legitimate left winger, 34-year-old Ryan Smyth. Although a gamer, an influencer in the locker room and a needed component, he’s truly a second line wing.

Anze Kopitar realized his potential this season through maturity and improved conditioning, but with no first line talent to pass the puck to, this team won’t vault San Jose or Phoenix, teams well within striking distance and arguably weaker after free agent departures.

While the GM will continue his mantra of 'we need cap space' to the Kings fan’s base, if they take a gander at the Penguins roster, they’ll see Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at $9 million a season, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek added at $9 million combined and Marc-Andre Fleury at $ 5.5 million. With players like Wayne Simmonds, Johnson and Doughty still on entry level contracts, Lombardi could easily be the high bidder with the best team for Kovalchuk’s services. Before last season started, Lombardi told me he couldn’t bring in Dany Heatley, not because of the money or a fit on the ice, but over concerns of the personality of the player and its effect on the team’s young core players. With a player of equal skill and no character issues in Kovalchuk and a team with more mature leadership after a playoff appearance, there would be no apparent barriers to a marriage.

Unless the GM really doesn’t want the player.

Maybe he settles for Paul Kariya or Simon Gagne for a year and looks for a better solution after next season. A significant gamble for an executive who no one would classify a ‘riverboat gambler’ and facing a reality that unless some offensive talent is added before training camp, this isn’t a 100 point team.

So while the Cup thirsty fans in Los Angeles are resigned and apparently satisfied to let another superstar land in another market, what is exactly left for this player?

The Kovalchuk camp has learned one thing over the past eight days, NHL GM’s are unlike their NBA brethren. Ain’t no max contracts in the offing in this league, they’ll leave that to managers who think Joe Johnson and Rashard Lewis are worth $20 million a season.

It may be that the agent has significantly overestimated the market or is still holding out for the perfect combination of team and price. Clearly, the Kings are the best suitor of the bunch, and if Kovalchuk is about ‘winning time’, they’d be the choice not the Devils.

New Jersey’s curious deal for the aging Jason Arnott gummed up the works significantly; I can’t think Lamoriello would pull such a deal holding contracts of Dainius Zubrus and 37-year-old Brian Rolston (2 years left at $5 million per with a no trade clause, virtually unmovable) and putting Volchenkov on the books thinking he’d still be in the Kovalchuk horse race.

The Devils do have one small advantage in that Volchenkov signed on the line that is dotted in Newark and he assisting in the recruitment efforts for a return to the Rock. For those that thought that Florida (where Kovalchuk resides) or the Islanders were a destination were far off course, two non-contenders in a bad market and a terrible building is not the goal Kovalchuk set out to achieve when he spurned Atlanta’s well publicized nine digit deal, which seems light years ago.

As the hours linger, it appears that the numbers are drifting south not north for Ilya, you can forget the Crosby/Malkin per year numbers and incredibly, Patrick Marleau’s $6.9 per year number may be closer to the target.

What move would I make? It wouldn’t be the Kontinental Hockey League, where Alexander Medvedev conveyed any team signing the star would be subject to a baseball-like luxury tax (maybe their slogan should be ‘we’re cap free and tax free’). As the coming days will show, first line hockey talent will be migrating back to the NHL as Jiri Hudler and others have. The league’s level of play lands somewhere between NHL and AHL level and it’s facilities are nowhere near NHL caliber. But it’s tax free! It’s short money that Evgeni Nabokov won’t complete his contract term over there, too many desperate NHL GM’s down the line will be looking for goaltending help. If Ilya Kovalchuk is serious about his legacy, his career won’t continue in Mother Russia.

There’s one final call that could conclude the festivities and it wouldn’t come from a GM or an agent but from the player. Perhaps it’s time for Ilya Kovalchuk to call Marian Hossa and ask him about the pros and cons of doing a one-year deal with a contending team. At the end of the day, Hossa is the only person to know what it’s like to stand in Ilya’s shoes.

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.

May 27, 2010 The Crown Jewel
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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