LOS ANGELES — With unrestricted free agency looming just a little over 24 hours from the time of this writing, it is no secret that the big prize in this year’s free agency frenzy is superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk has averaged more than a point per game throughout his National Hockey League career, which began in the 2001-02 season after he was selected first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers.
That first season, the 6-2. 225-pound native of Tver, Russia scored 29 goals and added 22 assists for 51 points in 65 regular season games.
After scoring 38 goals and contributing 29 assists for 67 points in 81 games the next season, Kovalchuk’s NHL career really took off, as he scored at least 41 goals in each of the next six seasons, including 52 goals in the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons.
Last season, after scoring 31 goals and tallying 27 assists for 58 points in 49 games with the Thrashers, Kovalchuk, who is in the final year of his contract, was traded on February 4, 2010 to the New Jersey Devils, where he finished the season with ten goals and 17 assists for 27 points in 27 regular season games, along with two goals and four assists for six points in five playoff games.
In 621 NHL regular season games, Kovalchuk has scored 338 goals and has added 304 assists for 642 points with 437 penalty minutes.
A prolific goal scorer and just 27 years old, Kovalchuk, who earned $7.5 million this past season, is just hitting his prime, and is about to hit the jackpot in terms of a far more lucrative contract.
Indeed, Kovalchuk is a virtual lock to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and when the dust settles—that could happen just minutes after the free agency period begins or drag on all summer—he will move right near the top of the NHL’s salary ladder.
One factor that will keep the price for Kovalchuk high is the Kontinental Hockey League, which is rumored to be offering him somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million tax free to play in Russia.
But Kovalchuk is rumored to want to stay in the NHL, which begs the question:
What teams can afford to pay him the salary and term of contract he will demand and can fit that amount under the salary cap?
One such team is the Los Angeles Kings, who many expect to go after Kovalchuk in a big way come July 1.
“…if the right guy is there next week we’re going to fill a hole,” said Kings Governor Tim Leiweke at a brunch held prior to the start of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft on June 25, as reported by Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, the Kings are thought by many to be the front-runner for Kovalchuk’s services. But what if he stands firm on a demand for a double-digit salary over 8-10 years?
In that case, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi will likely wish Kovalchuk good luck with another team or in the KHL. After all, he still needs to re-sign emerging superstar defenseman Drew Doughty to a new contract—Lombardi needs something left to re-sign his core players.
But Lombardi’s history in terms of acquiring top unrestricted free agents is not good, as his emphasis with the Kings and with the San Jose Sharks, where he was also the general manager, has been to build his team through the draft.
“You guys know how I feel about free agency,” said Lombardi. “My first couple of years [with the Kings], we were signing all these free agents, I was shaking my head while people were getting excited. That’s not the way to build a team, but we [had] to get some players out there.”
But now, the iron is hot enough to strike.
“Our [current] nucleus of young players—I was pretty impressed with what I saw the second half of the year,” Lombardi noted. “So this is the first year where I think we can use free agency or trades properly. But it has to be the right player at the right price.”
“It’s been different for me that a lot of energy has gone into saying, ‘OK, we’ve got a pretty good nucleus, now let’s get the right piece here,’” Lombardi added. “Then, obviously, that’s a huge step for [Kings owner Philip] Anschutz and Tim [Leiweke] when you start looking at things.”
As it has been since the Kings hired him, it appears that Anschutz and Leiweke are on board with Lombardi’s plan.
“We spent time with them Monday and Tuesday outlining a game plan in terms of what we’re going to do,” Lombardi explained. “[Unrestricted free agency] is a different step in our franchise’s development. Usually, you’re totally focused on the draft, because free agency, to me, wasn’t all that important [in the earlier stages of the Kings’ rebuilding/building process].”
“I don’t feel free to talk about it now, but let’s just say that Mr. Anschutz and Tim were supportive of what I believe, that it has to be done properly,” Lombardi elaborated. “In terms of the overall concept and what I see and where the team is at, as a general manager, I can’t question that they’re behind me.”
“Every organization goes through those critical moments and it starts at the top. They’ve been very supportive of scouting and development. As a general manager, I certainly can’t complain. So we’ll see.”
Leiweke’s pledge that the Kings will be big-time players in the unrestricted free agency market if the right player is there is one bit of evidence pointing towards the Kings making a major push to sign Kovalchuk. Further evidence comes from what the Kings did during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, selecting a couple of players who could be characterized as a bit risky (see LA Kings Take Some Risks In 2010 NHL Entry Draft).
“[Dean Lombardi] talks about a culture change,” said Kings Co-Director of Scouting Michael Futa. “We feel we’ve brought enough guys in, like last year in Kyle Clifford and Brayden Schenn, those culture-changing kind of players are in the system with the young guys. Now you can take a kid who’s maybe a little edgy.”
“You have a strong enough core group—there’s some good leadership with your young guys there,” added Futa. “If there’s a guy who’s a little off the track, you’re not worried that he’s going to [take others off the track, too].
With the Kings now comfortable with the leadership and character present at the NHL level, as well as at lower levels of their system, to understand what they intend to do on July 1, just read between the lines.
Indeed, Lombardi’s talk about free agency being a “…different step in our franchise’s development” is almost totally transparent. After all, the Kings have signed unrestricted free agents under his watch, but none who are big stars in the prime of their careers who can take a team to the next level. Therefore, it stands to reason that he is referring to something quite different—the pursuit of a game-breaking, top-tier unrestricted free agent.
The only one who falls into that category this summer is Kovalchuk.
“It has to all fit,” said Lombardi.
If Kovalchuk is willing to accept a salary below the $9 million-plus that the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are earning, along with a term of eight years or less, he will fit nicely, and chances are very good that this will all come to fruition.
Indeed, Ilya Kovalchuk is very likely to be introduced at a press conference in El Segundo, California in the near future where he will don a Kings jersey and give them the elite game-breaker they need to take them to the next level and beyond.
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