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Ilya Kovalchuk the lone big fish in a thin bowl of free agent gruel



Nice of you to drop by today. It's been getting lonely back here in the hockey section, off the front page of the Web site. No hyped photo galleries. No blinking trackers or "watches" with V-E Day-sized headlines. We know and appreciate where the NHL fits in the free-agency firmament.

Type the phrases "free agent" and "July 1" into your MacBook Pro, and you expect to see LeBron James or, at the very least, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh pop up. They play the other, slower, winter sport, of course, but even we here in hockey central have the urge to keep posting "LeBron James" -- LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James -- because that will generate hits, and we have been led to believe that the merits of modern journalism are judged by the number of times finger meets mouse in the worldwide click-o-sphere.

Anyway, compared to the fuss over The King and His Court, the NHL, whose free agency period also starts July 1, is Page D-7. To put it in another context, we haven't seen President Obama weigh in on the future of Evgeni Nabokov, or Detroit mayor Dave Bing do a recruiting video for Paul Martin.

That's fair.

Basically, a wading pool of talent will be going to NHL market this summer. The free-agent gruel is so thin that even Oliver Twist would turn up his nose at another bowl. There is only one hockey player who could conceivably move the sports needle, who might yank your unflagging attention away from a basketballer who is apparently closer to ruling the world than winning the NBA championship.

His name is Ilya Kovalchuk -- the only 2010 NHL free agent who comes with a wow factor.

Free Agent Tracker: Who Signed | Cap space

Now this could be "wow" as in "Wow, here is a potential 50-goal scorer who could fill seats and make an impact for a team with designs on a championship!" Or it could be "wow" as in "Wow, can you believe that a team squandered one-seventh of its salary cap room on a winger who has played in a mere nine NHL playoff games during his eight-season career and been on the winning team just once?"

This is a decent argument, so let's start with the attractive side of Kovalchuk.

He's scored 338 goals by the age of 27, which points him toward 700 if he stays healthy and in the NHL for another eight seasons. (More on this later.) He's also scored 52 in a season twice, with at least 40 in each of the past six. He is not a poor defensive forward, just sometimes an indifferent one because his focus is on the other team's net. He turned down contracts with Atlanta of $101 million for 12 years and $70 million for 10 last season because he has a desire to win a championship, something he couldn't see happening with the Thrashers. So, he is motivated.

Yes, Kovalchuk was the square peg in New Jersey's round hole after the Thrashers traded him prior to the 2010 deadline, but he still managed 10 goals and a point-per-game in 27 matches with the Devils and, despite being pilloried, had two goals and four assists in their quick playoff exit against Philadelphia. He is among the most explosive and entertaining forwards of his generation, a real do-it-yourself-er.

In Kovalchuk's short time in New Jersey, former coach Jacques Lemaire never seemed to find the right center to blend with him. Wherever Kovalchuk winds up, his new team needs a center that can get him the puck -- in both zones -- and allow him his space. Nik Antropov in Atlanta wasn't a bad fit.

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"When things aren't going well, (Kovalchuk) tends to want to do too much," one NHL team executive says. "He still needs to use his teammates better, but that's part of the maturity factor."

Now consider the other Kovalchuk, who we'll call the unattractive Kovy.

Not a lot here, only price point, which is hardly irrelevant in a world ruled by a salary cap. Otherwise there really isn't much downside to having an explosive goal-scoring winger, albeit one who is a career minus-75. Kovalchuk isn't anywhere near a max-cap player -- which is 20 per cent of the payroll. (The cap for 2010-11 is just over $59 million.) The big question: Is he worth $8 million a year over the medium or long term?

As the team executive said, "I don't think he'll get even half of what Atlanta was offering in terms of total dollars. Maybe $50 million. Something like [$8 million] over six. Maybe some team with the cap space will give him $8.5 [million], but there aren't many out there in that position."

So who might take the plunge?

The chatter, of course, says the Los Angeles Kings, who tried to trade for him last winter. Two problems with that. First, L.A., a developing playoff team that wants to jump the queue, needs a center to play behind, or ahead of, Anze Kopitar more than it needs a winger. (Patrick Marleau, the natural center-turned-left-winger who re-upped in San Jose, would have been ideal if he had tested free agency.) Second, the Kings have some entry-level contracts coming off the books next season, notably Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty. Any overindulgence on a Kovalchuk contract will remove cap flexibility.

No one will ever say this, but if you dusted the scene, the Kings' fascination with Kovalchuk probably has Tim Leiweke's fingerprints all over it. General manager Dean Lombardi is the most measured and methodical of men, but he works for Leiweke, who is the Kings' governor and point man for the Anschutz sports group, and Leiweke probably thinks he needs a star to market in a star-driven town. Like the Washington Capitals' ill-fated trade for Jaromir Jagr -- a Ted Leonsis move for which GM George McPhee took the hit -- the impetus for any Kovalchuk deal likely comes from the rarified aeries of the front office.

(Note to Leiweke: Other than Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, no hockey player could be a crossover star in Los Angeles. Sure, Wayne Gretzky did it more than two decades ago, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, we saw Wayne Gretzky, and Ilya Kovalchuk is no Wayne Gretzky.)

So beyond Los Angeles, who?

Well, a stealth possibility is the St. Louis Blues, the team that went down to the wire with the Devils in the quest to acquire Kovalchuk last spring. (Despite what you might have read, the Kings and the Flyers were out of it at the end.) There are ownership issues in St. Louis, but the Blues have Paul Kariya's $6 million coming off the books and Kovalchuk represents an upgrade at left wing. Despite taking a step back last season, the Blues have a plethora of young talent -- their depth is superior to the Kings -- that might have a certain charm and promise.

But ignore the Toronto Maple Leafs at your peril. General manager Brian Burke does not make small gestures, and there would be no greater statement to an itchy fan base than signing Kovalchuk. (You think people in Toronto will be talking about how Tyler Seguin ended up as a Boston Bruin if Burke nails the hottest free agent?)

Kovalchuk, according to a person who knows him well, would enjoy being suffused in a hockey city after biding his time in Atlanta, the place that pucks forgot. The Leafs will make the salary cap room, certainly, if they want him. The major impediment is that Toronto doesn't have a just-add-water Stanley Cup contender. If Kovalchuk sees the Leafs' talent as Thrashers North, the appeal would be lost.

The wild card, of course, is the KHL. If Kovalchuk is a last-dollar guy -- and he reputedly does live large -- he could go to the Russian league, which is on record as wanting him as the centerpiece. There are no artificial limits on salary in the KHL. (There are also not many Four Seasons or tricked-out charters.) Kovalchuk could, however, dunk his entire head in a money trough at a low, low tax rate.

So thanks for keeping us company these few minutes. Exciting player. Sex appeal. A name. The only thing we know for sure is on July 1, Kovalchuk will not be signing with the Cleveland Barons.