By Allan Muir
July 09, 2010

While the world anxiously awaits Ilya Kovalchuk's fateful "decision", let's dip into the mailbag and address some of your questions and concerns.

I'm surprised that the defection (is that even the right word?) of Evgeni Nabokov back to Russia is being underplayed like it is. This sure feels like a significant, even groundbreaking, moment for the KHL. Has there ever been a bigger star to return home to play in that league?-- Lance Gilkeyson, Manitoba

Sure, it's a coup for the Russian league to repatriate a player who has probably ranked among the top five stoppers in the NHL over the last decade. Having him in St. Petersburg, where he's likely to spend the next four years, adds something to the legitimacy of the circuit, so no arguing that it's a big deal overseas.

Here? Well, maybe more would have been made of this signing if not for one element: desire. It's not that Nabokov chose the KHL over the NHL. It's that he had no practical options in North America. Going home was essentially a last resort. A very highly paid last resort, but it's impossible to paint it as anything else. If Philadelphia or Washington or Tampa Bay had the desire to sign the 35-year-old long term, there's absolutely no doubt that he would have stayed. When those teams passed, Nabokov had to be pragmatic. It's hard to look at that kind of decision as groundbreaking.

What's going on in Philadelphia? I read earlier this week that Simon Gagne waived his no-trade clause. Then I read [Thursday] that he disputed that claim. What's the story? If he was moved, what could the Flyers get in return?-- Axel Porter, Quebec

Tough to say. My read on the situation is that he was approached by the Flyers to at least consider waiving his NTC for a certain number of teams. When the story leaked, it grew into a tale of his agreeing to simply waive it. Easy to see how that could happen, but when Gagne himself says, as he did on Thursday, that he hasn't agreed to forego that right, I think it's reasonable to take him at his word.

That said, I think it's clear that he's in play. The most likely destination? Los least, if the Kings are unable to land their top priority: Kovalchuk. (As of this writing, that appears unlikely, though it could change at any moment.) Blessed with a surplus of defensemen, the Kings might be willing to move Thomas Hickey, who was the fourth overall pick in 2007. That'd be a nice piece for Philly to add, considering that top defenders Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are both 35. Still, the word is that the Flyers are considering replacing Gagne with Russian defector Nikolai Zherdev, a move that is, frankly, hard to fathom.

No doubt Zherdev has the talent to assume a top-six role, but unless he benefitted from a heart transplant while playing in Russia last season, it's hard to imagine him bringing honor to the black and orange. Nothing wrong with a bold move -- and bringing in Zherdev would quality -- especially if it's motivated by salary cap concerns. But Gagne's a warrior. For a team that has options, this seems like a questionable direction.

From the Kings perspective? It would be tough to give up on Hickey, but that's still a lot more palatable than spending money on streaky free agent "solutions" like Alexei Ponikarovsky or Lee Stempniak.

What do you make of the Flames signing Jay Feaster? Does this shorten the leash on GM Darryl Sutter?-- Carlton Reed, Alberta

I think if I'm a Flames fan, I'm more excited by this acquisition than anything the team has added to the on-ice product in some time. Feaster built a Stanley Cup champion in Tampa Bay and likely would still be there were it not for the silliness that ensued after Oren Koules and Len Barrie bought the club. He's a smart, well-respected thinker within hockey circles. I'm not sure you can say the same right now for Sutter, who seems almost self-destructive with moves like re-signing Olli Jokinen and taking on garbage contracts like Ales Kotalik.

Of course, what remains to be seen is whether Feaster will be allowed to bring full value to the role as assistant GM and how loud his voice will be within the organization. You'd have to believe that he wouldn't have been brought in -- nor would he have accepted the gig -- if not to bring about some kind of sea change in the front office. But if things don't work out that way, well, it wouldn't be the first time that such plans went awry.

As for Sutter's tenure, it's safe to say that the end is in sight. Feaster is not only capable of manning the post, he probably has some assurances that his chance will come at some point. When that is may depend on Sutter's own interest in continuing...or whenever ownership tires of icing this product, whichever comes first.

I think the fact that the Detroit Red Wings have an interest in Mike Modano shows how wrong the Stars were in deciding not to re-sign him. I'm a lifelong Stars fan, but I'll be rooting for Mike to kick their butts every time he plays against them. We'll miss you, Mike!-- Karen Morris, Plano, Texas

Tap the brakes, Karen. The Wings apparently have some interest in Modano, but he hasn't signed yet. And even if he does, there's no guarantee that he'll be kicking anyone's butt, let alone that of the Stars.

If he does sign in Detroit, it would be smart not to second guess the decision from Detroit's perspective. The Wings have excelled at squeezing the last few drops of talent out of aging warriors like Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille and Modano's running buddy, Brett Hull, by fitting them into specific roles for which they're ideally suited. So if GM Ken Holland believes that Modano can play the third line center slot, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

So why am I still skeptical? To my eyes there were too many shifts, and too many nights, over the past two seasons when it looked like Modano had slapped a stamp on it. It's easy to get sucked in by those wheels and think he can still bring it, but I don't believe he's had the heart for 82 nights of battle.

Could that change now? Maybe. Being told you're not wanted has a way of motivating a player. His pride was stung by the way his departure from Dallas was handled and that, more than any return home, might inspire him to dig deep enough to make a contribution early if the Wings situation works out. But given Detroit's depth down the middle, I think they have better options as the season wears on. This just feels like it could turn into a situation like the one Hull experienced in Phoenix: a sad coda to his career

I was wondering who you thought were the biggest steals of the draft. Seems like a lot of heavily-hyped players who slipped, like Kirill Kabanov and Maxim Kitsyn, could prove to be a great value down the road.-- Scott Bellamy, Etobicoke, Ontario

I'll admit that I can get kind of caught up in the whole draft steals thing just like anyone else, but the reality is that you're as likely to pick six in the lotto tonight as you are to find a sure-fire NHLer who slipped into the third or fourth round.

The easy thing to do is point out as "steals" the guys who received any degree of hype before the draft and then fell out of the first round. But it's not like scouts simply forgot to call these names when their turn came. There are reasons why teams repeatedly passed on name players like Kabanov or Kitsyn or why they leapt at the chance to nab Jeff Skinner or Jared Knight ahead of where they were widely projected to go. Five years from now, those reasons may look ridiculous, but based on the here and now, the scoring potential of Skinner and Knight and the concerns over the commitment levels of the two Russians surely had an impact on how they were perceived on draft day.

Kabanov and Kitsyn simply dropped until a team thought their value relative to their position in the draft made them impossible to pass up again. But they may have been the only teams willing to take them even at that point. As one scout told me in LA, you never really know what teams are thinking until they lay their cards on the table, and that's why the hype at times doesn't jibe with when a player is selected.

It's a sure thing that a prospect or two that slipped into the middle or late rounds will emerge as a solid contributor in the league, but it'll take three or four years before we really know who beat the odds. We can talk then about the real steals of this draft.

Everyone's talking about the Brett Lebda signing in Toronto as a sure sign that Tomas Kaberle will be traded. I'm more concerned about what it means for Keith Aulie. I really hoped he could crack the lineup this year. I think he's a better fit for the Burke model than either Lebda or Kaberle, anyway. What do you think happens to him?-- J.J. Johanson, Kingston, Ontario

After just half a season in the AHL, it's likely that the 6-5, 210-pound defender is destined for some more developmental time with the Marlies. Even if Aulie is ready, it's unlikely he will earn a job in camp. Forget Kaberle or Lebda for a moment. The Leafs have six proven defenders ahead of Aulie on the depth chart. Add one or both of those two guys to the equation and he's buried. Still, Aulie is probably closer to an NHL job than any of the team's defensive prospects, so a trade and/or an injury or two means he could get a taste of life at the ACC sometime this season. Just don't expect him to be a significant contributor for another season or two.

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