McKenzie: A Breakdown of the Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes

Bob McKenzie
2/3/2010 11:31:33 PM
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The Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes are now on in a big way. Or so it would seem.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell did talk to Kovalchuk today and tell him the Thrashers are now exploring their trade options, and reiterated that to Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman.

So, all things being equal, the Thrashers would like to put this all to bed in the next few days and perhaps have Kovalchuk traded before the team's next game on Friday night.

If that happens, no one should be surprised.

But while there are reports that five or six teams are “seriously” interested in Kovalchuk, the dynamic for each of the teams is different, unique if you will, and those expressions of “interest” would appear to run the gamut from tire kicking to legitimate but somewhat cautious interest.

Compounding the muddiness of the picture is what Waddell and the Thrashers expect to get in return for Kovalchuk.

Keep in mind he is a rental. At this point, Waddell is not going to allow teams to talk to Kovalchuk or his agent about a long-term contract extension because to do so would put the power into the hands of the player and his agent. It's true that a team might be willing to give the Thrashers more to acquire Kovalchuk if they knew they could sign him long term, but that would also put Waddell over a barrel to accept whatever that one team and one team only is offering. And he won't allow that to happen.

Waddell has been telling teams he can't make this a future considerations' trade, that with the Thrashers in the hunt for a playoff spot, he doesn't need to peddle hope to his fans with draft picks and kids, he needs to put bona fide NHL bodies in the lineup to make up for Kovalchuk's absence and keep the playoff dream alive.

Teams have been told Waddell wants one top six forward, one top four defenceman and a prospect or high end draft pick.

That's a steep price for a rental player, even one who scores goals like Kovalchuk.

Also keep in mind that Kovalchuk has turned down a 10-12 year offer that totals more than $100 million from the Thrashers. His agent says they are looking for the league maximum of $11.2 million per year, or a total commitment of about $120 million on a long-term deal, but others wonder if that number would drop somewhat if he lands in the city where he wants to be. And also keep in mind that as an unrestricted free agent this summer, the KHL and some really big money may also be an option for Kovalchuk.

So those are some of the dynamics at work and scary dynamics they are.

Let's take a look, alphabetically, at the teams purported to have some interest and just how legitimate it may be.

Boston: The struggling Bruins could definitely use an infusion of offence and their interest in Kovalchuk is legitimate. But the Bruins are looking at him purely as a rental. Given Kovalchuk's financial demands and expectations in free agency, Boston is not prepared to take on that salary under virtually any circumstances. So Boston's offer will reflect that and may not match up with others.

Defenceman Dennis Wideman, who is on hard times with his play this season, would be the centerpiece of anything Boston does. Because he's under contract for another two years after this season, Wideman may be an attractive piece for the Thrashers. The Bruins also have their own first-round pick, which much to their chagrin is a lot higher at this moment than they ever dreamed possible, plus Toronto's first-round pick (via the Phil Kessel trade), which is a potential top-three selection.

Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli has made it clear he isn't going to part with the Leaf pick but the Bruin pick could definitely be in play with Wideman and some other asset to sweeten the pot.

Is it enough? Only Waddell will be able to judge that once all the offers are on the table, but the conventional wisdom is it may come up shy compared to another offer from a team that is fully prepared to sign Kovalchuk to a new deal.

Chicago: There is some real question as to whether Chicago should even be included in the group of interested teams.

There is every reason to believe that general manager Stan Bowman has no interest whatsoever in disrupting the chemistry of his high-flying Cup contending Blackhawks for Kovalchuk and they're totally out of these sweepstakes. That's the word on the street.

But there are two reasons to at least still mention Chicago as an outside possibility.

One, team president John McDonough is the type of hands-on executive who lives to make a splash and has the “wants” every time a big-name player comes available. There are few bigger than Kovalchuk. McDonough is involved enough that he may try to influence proceedings, even though from a hockey perspective, the interest in Kovalchuk is limited at best.

Two, the Blackhawks know they are going to have to divest some players in the off-season for cap reasons next season. The names most often mentioned are defenceman Cam Barker and forwards Kris Versteeg and Patrick Sharp. An offer of Barker and Versteeg would be entirely in the strata of what Waddell would love to get for Kovalchuk, but given the cap situation in Chicago, Kovalchuk would be virtually impossible to sign long term. The Hawks could stock their cupboard in the off season trading those players for prospects or picks, so when you add it all up, it doesn't compute that Chicago is in hard on Kovalchuk.

Los Angeles: A lot of people believe the Kings are the most logical destination for Kovalchuk and his most likely landing spot because they have not only the wherewithal to do the deal now, they could afford and have the cap room to sign him. There was an internet report last night suggesting Kovalchuk to L.A. was all but a done deal. That was not the case last night because, to this point anyway, the Kings have not been prepared to offer the bona fide NHL players the Thrashers are seeking.

If Atlanta is going to do a deal with Los Angeles, the Thrashers want defenceman Jack Johnson as part of the package. Thus far, the Kings have rejected that notion entirely. The conventional wisdom is that the Kings could trade Johnson, centre Alexander Frolov and a prospect such as Ted Purcell (or one of their many other young prospects) for Kovalchuk and the deal would be done in the snap of the fingers.

But as determined as the Kings are to a) make the playoffs, and b) make some noise in the playoffs, there may be a sense there that they are still a year or two away from challenging the elite teams such as Chicago and San Jose and that while adding Kovalchuk's gun would be huge, the benefits would be mitigated by losing Frolov and Johnson.

Therefore, to this point, the Kings want to do this deal primarily on the back of their prospects. As long as that is the case, the fit isn't right.

But if the Kings' hockey hierarchy switches gears, or ownership in L.A. invokes pressure to make a splash and deviate from the hockey department blueprint, the Kings could easily vault to the front of the pack.

That's the issue facing the Kings. That, and whether they want to sign Kovalchuk long term at huge money.

New Jersey: The Devils are the stealth bombers on this list. They only were mentioned in the last few days and like most things out of New Jersey, it's shrouded in secrecy and mystery. If anyone knows precisely what Lou Lamoriello is interested in offering, or if he's actually serious in making an offer, step to the front of the line because you're a better man than me.

But if you peruse the Devils' lineup and see what established players they have who “might” be available under the right circumstances, the two names that jump out are Brian Rolston and Dainus Zubrus. But honestly, it's a lot more guesswork than anything else where the Devils are concerned.

Enough said.

New York Rangers: There is no question the Thrashers want the Rangers involved because Waddell would love to get one or two of defenceman Marc Staal or forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan. And while the Rangers traditionally have the “wants” as bad as any team when it comes to marquee talent such as Kovalchuk, this time it looks like Glen Sather may actually be considering some restraint.

Really, the Rangers' primary need is not for a Kovalchuk type scorer. They already have Marian Gaborik on the wing. They have a building block in Henrik Lundqvist in net. They have Staal on the blueline. The missing piece of the puzzle is a centre. Trading Dubinsky would devastate the Rangers. In a perfect world, the Rangers would be much more interested in, say, Vinny Lecavalier than Kovalchuk, but the former isn't available right now and the latter is.

So the Rangers, as they are wont to do, will explore their options and Waddell will encourage that because he sees assets he would dearly love, but it doesn't look like the right fit, unless Sather decides to take a walk on the wild side.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers are another team that likes to chase the big game, but their cap situation is extremely tight and there's a real legitimate question whether they have the desire or the cap space going forward to sign Kovalchuk to an extension. Still, Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren has been talking a lot to Waddell. The names that keep popping up out of Philadelphia are forward Scott Hartnell and defenceman Matt Carle, both of whom are under contract for three years and two years, respectively, but Philadelphia would have to off-load more salary than that to make it work.

So there is obviously some interest from Philadelphia but it doesn't “feel” like really intense interest.

Maybe there's another team out there in the weeds that we don't know about, but if you look at it logically, it's difficult to come up with one outside of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York Rangers and Philadelphia. That said, sources say there is most definitely a “wild card” team, which has yet to be mentioned as a candidate, with legitimate interest.

Anaheim? It's difficult to believe they would bring a player making that much more than Ryan Getzlaf and threaten salary structure on the Ducks.

Buffalo? The profile doesn't fit on any level, but wouldn't it be something if the Sabres, realizing they have as good a chance as anyone in the Eastern Conference to be playing for the Stanley Cup, stepped outside themselves to make a pitch.

Calgary? For the longest time, it looked as though the Flames were positioning themselves for a run at Kovalchuk, but sources in both Atlanta and Calgary say it simply is not happening.

Montreal? Minnesota? Colorado? Ottawa? Pittsburgh? St. Louis? The truth is we could guess all night.

The race is awfully difficult to handicap for all the reasons listed above, although if L.A. is prepared to alter its philosophy on trading roster players the Kings could be easily crowned leading candidate. But that's a big if. And every other scenario appears to have as many question marks as exclamation points.

It may be that Waddell has to alter his expectations along the way and take more in futures than he would like. Or maybe he's got a deal up his sleeve that is going to blow us all away. The sense seems to be that he will be sure to get more than he was able to get (Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick) for Marian Hossa, when he was forced to go through a similar exercise two years ago.

It's going to be interesting.

Bob McKenzie


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