The Ilya Kovalchuk, hour-long Sharkspage unrestricted free agent blog special, including interviews from LA and NJ bloggers

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, July 12, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk Los Angeles New Jersey signing

Unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk hour long free agent special Sharkspage

If unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk decides to sign with the Los Angeles Kings this week, it could become the Joe Thornton trade south for the Pacific Division. Minus the cost of three roster players, the impact of Kovalchuk in LA would alter the landscape of the Western Conference. Adding the four time 40-goal scorer and two time 50-goal scorer may change a conference that recently devolved from the Big Four (Detroit, Dallas, Colorado, San Jose) into the Big Two (Chicago, San Jose). Given significant roster changes in Chicago and San Jose, adding Kovalchuk could make Los Angeles a favorite going into 2010-11.

The drama surrounding the ‘will he sign’ or ‘won’t he sign’ coverage has been the story of the NHL this offseason, there is even a rumor of a hour-long LeBron James-esque television program to broadcast his decision in Canada. While SKA St. Petersburg and KHL president Alexander Medvedev recently told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that his team offered Kovalchuk a contract, it is expected that the 6-foot-2, 230-pound native of Tver, Russia wants to remain in the NHL. As the best pure goal scorer available via free agency, any team with available salary cap space is working hard massaging capologists and balance sheets trying to woo him.

Los Angeles and New Jersey are rumored to be the favorites in negotiations. Kovalchhuk was traded to New Jersey by Atlanta February 4th for defenseman Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first round 2010 NHL Entry Draft selection. According to the impeccable sources of the NY Post’s Larry Brooks, the Devils made a 17-year, $100M+ offer “front-loaded so that Kovalchuk would collect $100 million over the first 10 years of the deal.” This came one day after Brooks opined that the Rangers need Kovalchuk, and ostensibly that Kovalchuk needs the Rangers, after he played off-off broadway in Atlanta, and off-broadway in New Jersey.

From the media capital of the East Coast, to the media capital of the West (albeit TMZ, Inside Edition, and Perez Hilton based). The Los Angeles Kings have been playing hardball, publicly backing out of negotiations twice after reportedly making 12 year, $63 million and 13 year, $84.5 million offers according to Helene Elliott of the LA Times. According to Elliott, the Kings backed out the second time after Ilya Kovalchuk and his agent Jay Grossman did not back off an annual average salary of $10M. “We really would love to add Kovi to our team, but not at the cost of our good young players,” AEG President and Los Angeles Kings CEO Tim Leiweke told the Times.

Former San Jose Sharks GM and current Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi has described building his roster as filling a series of boxes regarding different team needs. Kovalchuk would fill several boxes on the offensive score sheet, but Lombardi has an eye towards keeping an improving young team on an upward track. After making the playoffs for the first time in 6 seasons, 7 if you include the dark lockout year, Lombardi has to be cognizant of Norris finalist defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson coming up for new contracts next year. Steadily improving Wayne Simmonds will also be a RFA, Michael Handzus and Justin Williams will be UFA’s. Captain Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, and highly regarded goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier will need new contracts down the line. Lombardi needs to fit Kovalchuk in a salary cap model he has for his team moving forward.

According to reports, Kovalchuk is in Los Angeles today to sit down with the Kings personally. “Kovalchuk is only coming here for a visit,” Kings GM Dean Lombardi told team affiliated blogger Rich Hammond at “It is a great opportunity for him to meet us and us to meet him. Reports of us announcing a signing tomorrow are utterly false.” Dean Lombardi mentioned at the NHL Draft that having the league descend on downtown Los Angeles was a good thing for the team, and a good thing for the city. Like San Jose, a lot of the entertainment and nighttime activities take place outside of downtown proper. The Sharks are a major draw for downtown San Jose. The Kings need a similar draw for downtown, and Kovalchuk may just be another step towards that, an extended playoff run and a Stanley Cup Championships being the ultimate goals.

CBC reporter extraordinaire Elliotte Friedman believes that the Kovalchuk free agency is unique, noting that with 338 goals at the age of 27 he has the potential to become one of the greatest goal scorers in NHL history. “There is no one available this year, or potentially next year, with his ability to impact a game,” Elliotte said. “LA is the one sun belt franchise where a marquee player makes a difference… Shaquille O’Neal, Manny Ramirez. LA loves that star power,” one source told Elliotte. Despite the fact that calling Los Angeles a “Sun Belt” franchise is about as wrong as calling San Jose a beachfront city (as happened on Canadian television recently), the notion is not far off the mark. Kovalchuk may make a dent for discretionary dollars in one of the deepest entertainment markets in North America. Los Angeles fans may be the definition of front runners, but Kovalchuk creates a marquee attraction at home, and 6 times a year for each Pacific Division rival.

Then there is Los Angeles itself. If you can get over traffic that is worse than every NHL combine drill combined, the city has become the caricature of itself it has always portrayed to outsiders. That being said, there are many, many options for one to find their nitch in the city of angels. Unless you visit for yourself, you never really realize that the Kings training facility at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo is less than 5 minutes from one of the top beaches in the country, Manhattan Beach. At times, a drive down Sunset through Hollywood and Beverly Hills can feel as if you are in a real life Quentin Tarantino movie. You are not going to get that in New Jersey, Atlanta or Alberta.

Elliotte Friedman also writes:

There are reports that Kings GM Dean Lombardi doesn’t really want to go in this direction; that the Kovalchuk pursuit is the brainchild of CEO Tim Leiweke. This would not be the first time Leiweke’s been accused of this. I was once told a story that Teemu Selanne was ready to sign with the Kings in 2005, only to be turned down in favour of Valeri Bure. It was claimed that Leiweke was more interested in Bure, because of wife Candace Cameron, the onetime Full House star.

Tough to comment on. The Kings offered a steadfast denial, and this would be unconscionable to post on a blog unless there were sources willing to put their name to the story. Tim Leiweke is loathed in San Jose for pressing the eject button on the MLS San Jose Earthquakes franchise. After the Earthquakes moved to Houston and won back-to-back MLS championships in their first two seasons, AEG is known in San Jose as the anti-Earthquakes group. Dean Lombardi is the source of one of the top three posts ever in the 12-year history of this blog, a simple recap of moves made during his tenure in San Jose after he was let go in 2003. If the Kings have a problem with the quote above, you have to take them at their word.

Elliotte Friedman also points to the issue of Kovalchuk being out to obtain as much money as possible, the implication being to the detriment of the team that signs him. That is not really born out by what has happened in the past. A little over a year after being named captain, Kovalchuk did not accept offers of seven years, $70M and twelve years, $101M contracts reportedly made by Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell. Kovalchuk never really capitalized on hopes to establish hockey firmly in the Atlanta market, but he was a standup member of the community and a participant in many off-ice endeavors to promote the game. Kovalchuk did not accept a rumored 3 year, $42M contract from SKA St. Petersburgh this offseason, which would have been a $14M a year average (not including extensive perks and a far lower tax rate in Russia). Elliott himself also reported a rumored 10 year, $100M offer from the New York Islanders.

If it was soley about the money, Kovalchuk could have accepted any one of those offers and retired as one of the most successful stars financially ever to play the sport. “I want to be an example on the ice,” Kovalchuk told the Atlanta Journal Constitution upon being named Thrashers captian January 11th, 2009. “I’m not going to be one of those guys who’s going to scream and yell in the locker room. When I have to say something, I will for sure.” After Bobbly Holik left for New Jersey in 2008, Kovalchuk was one of five rotating captains until all four alternates requested that he wear the lone ‘C’. Replacing an injured Alexey Morozov, Kovalchuk was also named captain of the Team Russia’s 2010 World Champion squad. When asked about being named captain, Kovalchuk said that Morozov was still the team’s leader, and that in his absence “to win the gold you must have 22 captains on the team.”

A look at Kovalchuk, how he fits with prospective LA or NJ teams, and his impact on and off the ice from local bloggers in Los Angeles and New Jersey will be posted soon. Ilya Kovalchuk’s agent Jay Grossman declined to make a statement for this post.

Q-and-A with Battle of California blogger (Los Angeles Division) Rudy Kelley:

[Q] As the best pure goal scorer available as a UFA, how will Kovalchuk fit into the Los Angeles Kings system long-term? Who do you see him playing with, what roles would he fill, how would the increased goal support help the improved goaltending?

[RK] Kovalchuk does not fit into the Kings’ system. The Kings play a tight system that relies on their left winger to pinch in low along the boards, while the right winger usually floats near the top and looks for the breakout. Kovalchuk’s not pinching in low. If anything, the Kings may just invert their system or maybe even throw Kovy on the right wing. Whatever, the guy’s a goal scorer and he’ll get opportunity to do that.

Kovy will most likely play with Anze Kopitar and probably Justin Williams on the top line. Kovy and Kopitar should work well together; Kopitar’s developed his goal scoring and his play off the puck in recent years so they could both potentially be 40-40 threats every season. Kovy’s 27, Kopitar’s 23. They’ll play together for a long time.

[Q] Speculation about contract negotiations has been constant. The LA Times reported recent offers of 12 years, $63 million ($5.25M cap hit) and 13 years, $84.5 million ($6.5M cap hit), after which the Kings allegedly backed out of negotiations a second time. There were rumored 17 year, $100M and 7 year, $60M offers from New Jersey. Kovalchuk allegedly turned down 12-year, $101 million and seven-year, $70 million contracts to stay in Atlanta. Who knows what SKA St. Petersburg may offer in the KHL.

With Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds coming up for new contracts next season, and Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier needing new deals down the line, what could Los Angeles feasibly offer Kovalchuk and keep the rising team together in your opinion? Already publically backing out twice, how do you think LA is handling the negotiation process so far?

[RK] I think the Kings could feasibly get as high as $7 million and still afford someone of Kovalchuk’s caliber. They’d lose someone but I think we all know that they can’t keep everyone. It’s a fool’s errand to try. The Kings’ core would be Ilya Kovalchuk, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar; I think
that’s a core that stands up to anyone else’s. It’d be nice to keep everyone else but only if they fit. The Kings would probably lose someone like Jack Johnson or Jonathan Quick or (God forbid) Wayne Simmonds, but… oh well? That’s why you have a farm system.

[Q] A 4-time 40-goal scorer, and 2-time 50-goal scorer, what kind of marquee value would Kovalchuk bring to downtown Los Angeles. LA likes winners, likes a spectacle, likes a bandwagon or an event. What kind of impact would he have with the media in the media capital of the West Coast?

[RK] Honestly? Probably not as much impact as you’d think. He’s a great hockey player, but he’s still a hockey player. The Kings will draw more fans by winning than they will by having a guy like Kovalchuk. The real superstar on the team will be Drew Doughty, anyway.

[Q] Last question, what kind of impact do you think Kovalchuk would have on the Pacific Division. On the ice, it makes the Kings that much more competitive in an already tight division. Off the ice, he possibly adds a marquee attraction at home and on the road 6 times a year for each Pac Division team.

[RK] The Kings are probably considered the 2nd best team in the Pacific Division without Kovalchuk. With Kovalchuk, I think they start to give San Jose a run for their money. The Kings would have a better defense, a more settled goaltending situation, and Kovalchuk would (match) the Sharks’ firepower. The Kings’ best shot for a while is next season; after they lose Michal Handzus and re-sign Doughty, Johnson and Simmonds they’ll take a small step back. But only a small one. If the Kings sign Kovalchuk, they’ll be contenders for a very long time. For me, it’d be a dream come true.

Q-and-A with New Jersey Devils blogger at In Lou We Trust John Fischer:

[Q] What did you see from Kovalchuk in his brief regular season and playoff tenure in New Jersey that would lead Lou Lamoriello to lock him up for the rest of his career. How will he fit into the Devils system long-term?

[JF] What I saw from Kovalchuk was a player who doesn’t deserve all of the bad rap he has. The common criticisms is that he can’t backcheck, he’s too selfish, he hasn’t won anything, etc. No doubt the move in conjunction with a poor Olympics, while awaiting the birth of his third child, affected his game somewhat. Who wouldn’t be bothered by such big events at the same time? On top of that, his incredible 17% shooting percentage from Atlanta dropped to reality in a harsh way, all the way down to 9% – leading to a season shooting percentage closer to his career average (~14%). He wasn’t the goal scoring machine he was as a Thrasher and he didn’t make the power play immediately better.

Yet, in spite all of this, he still managed to put up a point per game pace, he was clearly noticeable all over the ice, and he even was put out in empty net situations defending 1 goal leads at the end of games. He wasn’t the sieve or the floater people claimed. He didn’t get into the corners on defense, he stayed more at the point and the circle; but again, that’s where you want your all-world sniper with crazy speed up to be anyway on counter attacks. As far as the lack of “big games,” he was one of the few bright spots of the 2010 Devils Playoff “run.”

I think his talents can definitely fit in NJ. With a new head coach in John MacLean, I’m sure he’ll try to manage Kovalchuk better than Jacques Lemaire, who gave him an essentially “free role” on offense (not a bad thing to try given the Devils need for offense at the time) and especially on the PP. As a Devil, whatever defensive shortcomings he has can be improved by playing with responsible teammates (take your pick on NJ) and his own work ethic is certainly Devils-quality. The larger issue with Kovalchuk has more to do with how much cap space he may take up and what you do on the roster given that he’s a left wing and the Devils already have two top-end LWs in Zach Parise and Patrik Elias. Those are the long-term obstacles in the way as opposed to what Kovalchuk does on the ice.

[Q] Many in the Western Conference still see New Jersey as playing a defense first, trapping, shot blocking system with solid goaltending. While there has been adjustments, the Devils still allowed the fewest goals against in the league (191), and the fewest NJ goals against in 5 seasons. Are those assumptions about a conservative, trapping, defense first system, even with the additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder, still accurate?

[JF] I think this is about as accurate as people who claim San Jose always chokes in the playoffs. That is, it’s not fully true, but it’s a meme that will persist. Do the Devils stress defensive responsibility? Certainly. Do the Devils have the personnel on the backend to play up tempo all the time? Not really. Do the Devils have a legendary goaltender? You bet, his name is Martin Brodeur.

Yet, the Devils have not trapped any more than any other team I’ve seen play since the lockout. Jacques Lemaire and Brent Sutter before him had the Devils be more aggressive on offense (both at even strength and on the power play), with defensemen being encouraged to jump up on the play when able and PP units featuring 4 or 5 forwards in a non-desperate situation. That the Devils signed Volchenkov and Tallinder would indicate that the defense certainly won’t be more offensive, however, this will not mean the Devils are going to revert to playing like they did in 1995 – much to the dismay of critics.

[Q] In the current salary cap situation, what kind of Kovalchuk contract offer do you think is healthy for the team, and what kind of figure do you think might handicap the team moving forward? If he is signed, which players might have to be moved to get back to 59.4M?

[JF] Well, in a perfect world, Kovalchuk would do what Kariya did for a season and sign a really low contract for one year and hope it takes him to the promised land. But seriously, the Devils have roughly 4 million in cap space; Rod Pelley was signed, but contract details haven’t come out yet, so it’s less than the 4.7 million listed on CapGeek. The bonus cushion allows the Devils to go up to 9.9 million but they need to dump players regardless. So Kovalchuk signing just at the same salary as he made on his last contract would put the Devils in a difficult spot.

The most likely guys to be dumped in a trade would be Bryce Salvador and Dainius Zubrus. As useful as they are, they each make a solid amount of money more than what they have done: 2.9 for Salvador, 3.8 for Zubrus. While Devils fans would happily flip over Brian Rolston being moved, he’s got a NTC and 2 more years on his $5 million, 35+ year signed contract that won’t go away. Moving him would be incredibly difficult to pull off without the Devils giving away important assets. Ergo, Salvador and Zubrus could be the first choices as players who are moved to make space for Kovalchuk or other players.

[Q] What are the Devils’ needs this offseason?

[JF] The Devils needs positionally would be a two-way/offensive defenseman who’s good on the puck and can make a good first pass and a third line-caliber center who can play the checking role. There are a lot of wingers both at the NHL and AHL level, so there’s not a lot of room unless it’s a winger prospect with some serious offensive skills. Scoring is always a need, but again, if the Devils are able to cram Kovalchuk under the cap, then it may not be so big of an issue.

This blog special was not sponsored by LeBron James.

[Update] Behind the Net Hockey’s Gabriel Desjardins broke down the play of UFA Ilya Kovalchuk by 5-on-5 time on ice, quality of competition, zone starts and CORSI. The comparisons to Vincent Lecavalier, himself struggling under the weight of a milestone contract, are not favorable. One area where Kovalchuk excels according to Desjardins is shooting percentage and PDO, consistently exceeding the league average. In a poll of BTN readers, a salary range of 6-7 million was voted most acceptable for a UFA Kovalchuk.

[Update2] Kovalchuk, Kings taking smart approach to NHL marriage – Eric Duhatschek for the Globe and Mail.

[Update3] Is Ilya Kovalchuk moving closer to signing with Los Angeles Kings? – Rich Chere for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

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