Come to think of it, there has not been a player entering the free agency bigger than Ilya Kovalchuk in the "new" salary cap NHL. Some arguments may be made about players like Marian Hossa(notes) or Brian Campbell(notes). But they are just not on the same level.
A few things will come into play when Kovalchuk makes his career choice this summer: He is looking for commitment, which means there will be no 1-year deals for a chance at the Cup. He wants the team he chooses to be a contender throughout his stay there. Compensation is also very important. And the city is important -- Kovalchuk has three children.
What about the money? How could he have turned down $100 million with the Atlanta Thrashers? And how much is he looking to get?
First of all, all that talk about the KHL is just lunacy. There is no chance he is going back to Russia, regardless of how many oil dollars they try to throw at him.
So if Kovalchuk is staying in the NHL, what is he worth? Is he a risky investment or a superstar to build a champion around? And who can afford him?
To truly understand the value of Kovalchuk, one has to go at least a year back, when Kovalchuk came back to Atlanta after winning his second World Championship in a row with Team Russia, becoming the MVP of the tournament. There was a "feel good" factor about Kovalchuk and the new season. But it all changed with just about half-a-dozen games into the new season, when the star forward called his agent to say something was amiss. The frustration with the direction the club had been heading set in.
But Kovalchuk decided to sleep on it. The Thrashers did make a commitment to Kovalchuk after his entry level contract signing him to a five year deal that paid him $7.5 million per year in his last two years. And Kovalchuk stuck with the team.
In the beginning of the 2009-1010 season the Thrashers tried to seriously negotiate with the player. But Kovalchuk decided that his future is with another organization.
He was a franchise player in Atlanta. But the management never really built a team around him. They wanted to emulate Ted Leonsis' success with the Washington Capitals, but just never could. The team made the playoffs only once with Kovalchuk there. But it will be unfair to blame him. In his rookie year Kovalchuk scored "only" 29 goals.
"Only" because from the 2003-2004 season he never scored less than 40. That's 6 years of consistent production with two 50-plus goals seasons. The perception of Kovalchuk not playing defense may be colored by his "plus/minus" stats, but good players on bad teams usually have some of the worst "plus/minus" stats because they want to try to score when their team is down by a couple of goals.
Naming Kovalchuk the team captain was a credit to his skills and leadership with the Thrashers. And when he was traded, regardless of what you may hear, it was like a death in the family for the team.
In New Jersey, Kovalchuk went well beyond of what was expected of him to fit in with the club. One Eastern Conference team coach said that he was "amazed how easy Ilya fit in the New Jersey system." Sometimes he even tried too much when Kovalchuk tried to pass too much when he should have taken a shot.
Could he have got a better endorsement than the one from Lou Lamoriello himself?
"I've been pleased with him from day one. We knew there would be adjustments. The thing I've been most pleased with is he's been a great teammate and quality individual. The interaction, he's fit right in with the group. Those are always things that are unknowns until you have a player. The bottom line is winning. We don't want anything to get in the way of that."
"He works hard, he wants to win, and maybe that's why I think maybe he's a better player than I thought he was. He wants to win so much. He enjoys the game, which I didn't see that as much as when he wasn't around," the veteran coach and Hall of Fame player said. "He's a real player. He's a guy that he wants to improve. He wants to do well. He wants the team to win. He's not selfish; those things that you don't know when the guy's away. And then when they come in, sometimes you do get some surprises, could be negative or positive. This one was positive, big time."
Wherever Kovalchuk played, he always was a leader. He had to overcome a lot of adversity in Quebec when he played for Team Russia at the World Championships. After all the criticism Kovalchuk, led by example when he scored a game-tying goal in the final and then the game-winner in overtime to give Russia its first gold medal in 15 years. He had enough in him to stand up and say that it was an embarrassment for the team to be knocked out of the playoffs this year; and it wasn't because of Kovalchuk's 6 points in 5 games that the Devils didn't get through.As for the new contract, in the new NHL teams know when to lock up their best guys to long term deals. Free agents of Kovalchuk's caliber are just not available. Nicklas Backstrom(notes) just signed a long term deal. Players like Duncan Keith(notes), Alex Ovechkin(notes), Mike Richards(notes) and a lot of others did the same.
The biggest problem the Thrashers faced, by their own admission -- and the same problems other teams will face come July 1 -- is that how to put a price tag on a player when you have no one to compare him to?
Gaborik? No way.
Let's look at Lecavalier's contract. He is making $10 million per year from 2009 through 2016 (!). Only then will the tail "dip." Eric Staal is the fourth-highest player in the NHL after Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin right now. Lecavalier makes $70M through the first 7 years. His cap hit is $7.727 million. Staal is just a straight 7-year contract with a cap hit of $8.25 million. Lecavalier's contract kicked in this year only. So, we have a 30 year old making $10 million per year in his first year.
Kovalchuk is 27. He is three years "ahead" of Lecavalier. He may probably only be compared to Crosby and Ovechkin -- Kovalchuk has been consistent throughout his career.
Moreover, when Lecavalier signed his mega deal he was 0.86 points per game. Staal was 0.87 points per game. Coming into this free agency, Kovalchuk is over a point per game. He has been a consistent performer.
He has not won the Cup. That will always be a point when comparing him to Staal and Lecavalier. But I don't think Kovalchuk ever played with the same caliber players like Lecavalier, for example.
But how could he turn down $100 million? That is not the question, really. How can Eric's Staal's cap hit be within $500,000 of Crosby's, with all due respect?
One thing is certain -- signing a long term deal won't affect Kovalchuk's productivity.
For a lot of players it is psychological after they sign a long term deal. Some of them lose motivation. I am not saying that Tim Thomas(notes) did, but he hasn't been the same. Others, like Ovechkin, work even harder. Kovalchuk made a lot of money already. He made more money on his entry level contract than any player in the history of the NHL because bonuses counted differently under the old CBA. Overall in his career in the NHL he has made around $50 million. He is rich enough. Therefore, signing a big money long term deal won't change his attitude. There is virtually no risk that he will be a bust signing.
But who could afford him? There is only one day in a year when GMs can make their teams better. And that's July 1. The game has changed, and most teams are now "top heavy" in terms of money committed to their top players. Teams always pay for value, and they always will. And Kovalchuk is as big a value as there is when it comes to free agent signing.
The Devils own the rights to negotiate with Kovalchuk until July 1. And reports suggest that this is exactly what they are doing. But Kovalchuk will most likely wait until July 1 to see what is available to him. There are more teams that can afford him than you may think.
Among them is the Toronto Maple Leafs who, despite Brian Burke's tough stance and a "North American-centric" attitude desperately needs improvement. The team gave up too much for Kessel. And Kessel is not Kovalchuk. So why wouldn't the Leafs sign him?
But the balance of power may shift with a number of Western Conference team joining in. The Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues are also serious contenders for Kovalchuk. So are the Colorado Avalanche, the Anaheim Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks. The Devils are obviously the team that may land him.
Kovalchuk has not found the same success in the NHL that he has on the international stage. Yet. Kovalchuk won the World Junior Championships (who could forget his fist pump before he scored the empty netter against Canada in the final?). He won two World Championships becoming the MVP of the 2009 tournament.
He is due for winning in the NHL. And he will do so with his next club.
- Ilya Kovalchuk