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Kovalchuk picked the wrong year for a free agent power play

It's pretty clear, especially if you've been reading the excellent reporting by Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, that Kings GM Dean Lombardi wants Ilya Kovalchuk ... but only at a price point that the market will bear.

Lombardi has now twice driven that home in a way that both the talented Russian winger and agent Jay Grossman can't help but understand. It's a fascinating scenario because in past years players -- especially those of Kovalchuk's caliber -- got nearly whatever they wanted. Not so now.

Truth is, the Kings can use Kovalchuk, but they can also move forward without him. There are few, if any, other serious bidders. Maybe the New Jersey Devils, but the New York Islanders? Come on. So the market is what the market will bear, and in today's NHL, the market is not $100 million over 12 years. That's the "final" offer by the Atlanta Thrashers that Kovalchuk turned down prior to his trade to New Jersey last February. This market is not even close.

That has to be humbling for the Kovalchuk camp, which on Monday put out a notice that he would decide his fate by late that afternoon, only to revise it on Tuesday to "the choices have been narrowed down" and "details are to be finalized." Now Camp Kovalchuk simply isn't saying anything.

As I write this, it's Thursday afternoon and my fingers have nothing new to report. It's hardly a given that any of those supposed "details" will be finalized on Friday, especially if the Kings truly are out of the picture again and the so-called front-running Devils have the market pretty much to themselves and the KHL.

Having grossly misread the market, Kovalchuk's options now appear to be:

1. Accept what the market will bear. (The Kings reportedly offered as much as $84.5 million over 13 years.)

2. Play in Russia if the offer is truly there.

3. Continue waiting for Godot, Brian Burke, or someone else to structure a deal that works for them and, at the very least, gives Kovalchuk an opportunity to save face in what is fast becoming a failed power play.

It was the same tough going, albeit on a lesser scale, for Evgeni Nabokov -- who just signed with the KHL for a reported $24 million over four years. The reasons are obvious.

Nabokov, considered the best goaltender on the market, waited a week after being let go by the San Jose Sharks and finally opted for a deal in Russia. The decision didn't come easy, but given what was on the table -- a possible low-ball offer from the Philadelphia Flyers and, perhaps, an even lower-ball offer to re-sign with the Sharks and share playing time with the lesser-priced (and less experienced) Antero Niittymaki -- he chose Mother Russia.

For now.

Bluffs come from all directions in the free agent market, and while Nabokov undoubtedly has come to terms with SKA St. Petersburg, nothing is a given. Players have been known to jump contracts or agreements on both sides of the NHL-KHL divide, and even though the two leagues claim to have reached some compromises in accepting each other's deals with players, their agreement has never been tested in court.

It's not likely that Nabokov will back out now or at any point this summer, but the option is likely still there. Despite arguments to the contrary, the KHL doesn't provide the same kind of lifestyle one finds in the NHL and especially in San Jose. Nabokov isn't just moving on his own. If he goes, he has to take his family or leave them behind for an entire season or more. That doesn't sit well with a lot of players, especially when their families have been settled in one place for a very long time. (Nabokov played for the Sharks for 10 years.)

Nabokov is an excellent goalie -- better than many starters in the NHL today -- but he, too, has been caught in a price squeeze. His is a "signing" that bears watching.

If Nabokov does honor his KHL agreement, it would seem that Marty Turco benefits to some degree. Turco acknowledged at the start of the signing period that it was "scary" leaving Dallas (a franchise that no longer wants or can afford him) and going on the open market at an age when retirement is easier to foresee than a two-year contract. However, the Sharks could use him for his remaining talents and knowledge of Western Conference shooters. Having him as a mentor to Niittymaki isn't a bad idea, either.

Despite the spin that San Jose gave his signing, Nittymaki is not a proven playoff performer. He's not even a proven No.1 in regular season play. The Sharks haven't broken up their team with an eye to rebuilding, they are still attempting to go farther than they did in last spring's playoffs and will need some help in net to realize their goal. More than a few teams can say the same. Turco can fit that bill.

Remember a few years back when the NBA took its All-Star Game to Las Vegas and, after a weekend that some described as both decadent and depraved, the Mayor asked the league not to return? Ever.

I do, and it got me wondering. The NHL isn't always in the forefront of cutting edge thinking, but it did borrow the NBA idea of going "off campus," so to speak, when it hooked up with Sin City to bring the annual awards show there. Sure, it was off the Strip and the celebrities made Gary Busey and the 23rd Baldwin brother from the Who Wants a Fat Celebrity TV series look high end, but the truth is, it worked -- as my colleague Allan Muirpointed out after witnessing it first-hand.

So imagine the NHL next borrowing a page from the LeBron James "mebook" and opening its free agent season to prime time TV -- in Las Vegas. It might just put some real juice into otherwise sleepy proceedings like this year's.

Of course, by now most people -- including, and perhaps especially, basketball fans -- are sick of the whole where-will-he-go, when-will he-tell-us LeBron scenario that culminated in a tedious TV "special." But that doesn't mean there isn't at least a McNugget of potential that the NHL could oink on.

I can see it all now. The camera is tight on green felt. As it pulls back, we see a poker room and the Vegas scene is set. In one seat is the King -- Dean Lombardi. To his far right, in placement and philosophy, is Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. To their far left, wearing a cowboy hat, wrap-around shades and a t-shirt that reads "Go Leafs Go" on the front with "And Take Phil Kessel With You" on the back, is an unidentified GM who looks strangely familiar but refuses to be identified or even acknowledge that he's at that table.

Across from them all is Kovalchuk, tricked out as the top prize in the kind of free-agent frenzy normally reserved for the family section of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ("Take it, take it, no leave it, leave it!") His handler/agent Grossman is next to him. Behind them him are a bunch of guys from Russia bearing invitations to a party suite that is considerably farther off the Strip.

Longtime broadcaster Mike Emrick welcomes everyone to the first-ever Texas Hold'em Hostage Hockey Showdown and sets the scene: "There can only be one winner," he intones. "The player could make a big score, but he could also lose the millions he left on the table when he walked away from that final offer from the Thrashers.

"But he's not the only one at risk. So is his agent. If Bob Goodenow were still in charge of the NHLPA, he'd be leaning on Mr. Grossman so hard to use tonight's game to drive salaries higher that Grossman would welcome the second coming of Bugsy Seigel just to get the union boss off his back. As it is, Mr. Kovalchuk could be upset if this doesn't go his way. If he indeed has to go with that bunch of Russian guys who wear sun glasses indoors, well, he just may have to bite a bullet that is sure to upset his stomach as much as his wallet.

"If that's not enough drama, the winning bidder is also at risk. His franchise is surely playing with money it doesn't have, at least not for the length of term that Mr. Kovalchuk is demanding. The prospect of the salary cap dropping is very real. The winning GM could lose big if Mr. Kovalchuk gets hurt or his new contract upsets the team's salary structure, its ability to sign future free agents, or pay its rising stars. Now...let the bidding begin!"

Now, tell me that's not a high-stakes game and I'll tell you that you've obviously never been in Vegas. This is clearly a scenario that would bring in the coveted 18-34 year-old demographic of sports fans looking to place on-line bets at Hockey Loves Poker.com. And that would only be Day One.

Subsequent shows could see players and GMs leaving the Palmhimoff Room as the camera crew moves to, say, Circus Circus where stationed among the animal acts, aerial artists and short-track roller coaster fans we find Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco shooting craps. There are no 11s in their game and a better than even chance that the two former No. 1s won't roll anything approaching seven (million), but it would be fun to see who really gets an offer from the KHL.

Truth be told, it would be fun to figure out who actually is the winner in this showdown: the one who gets to play in Russia or the one who doesn't. Heck, Marty Biron (who signed with the Rangers for a "paltry" $875,000 per over two seasons) or Patrick Lalime (who this week signed to again back up Ryan Miller in Buffalo for an almost-free one year at $600,000) would likely debit their limited bank accounts just to see it all as a pay-per-view on the NHL Network.

So, thanks, NBA. Your version of The Bachelor doesn't exactly leave you smelling like a rose, but it's hard to imagine that the NHL couldn't improve on it even if the league doesn't have a team in Vegas or even downtown Miami.

Jarome Iginla, the captain and face of the Flames, this week came out with a hearty endorsement of management's signing of free agents Jokinen and Alex Tanguay. Iginla was lavish in his praise and he predicted great things for the team and the two former Flames who re-upped (and for less money) under a storm of protest from fans and certain segments of the media (your humble correspondent included).

"Being able to pick up two free agents like that at reasonable prices in the market, I think, is going to be huge for our team," Iginla said.

It was a nice gesture on Iginla's part, but it would have had a whole lot more meaning if the captain had ever gone on record against some of the management moves that have made the Flames' present and future so obviously bleak.

It's not an easy thing to publically go against management, especially in Calgary, but seemingly every time the Flames make a controversial move, they drag out Iginla to either endorse it or go on record as having lobbied for it. Old school management says that managers manage and players play, and the Flames are definitely old school except when it comes to having Iginla take the heat off them.

If the Flames were true to the old school ways, they would have Iginla and the other key components of the team speak honestly behind closed doors and leave it at that. Setting up a player who never says no -- at least not in public -- does neither Iginla nor the Flames any good.

Then again "huge" doesn't necessarily mean "good." Maybe there's a message there after all.

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