Monday, July 5, 2010

Kovalchuk tearing apart the Atlantic

Ilya Kovalchuk is an intriguing figure. I can't remember a UFA with the stats being available at his age. It has caused a ripple effect through the NHL, and especially his latest team, the New Jersey Devils.

If Kovalchuk wants to join his polar opposite fellow Russian Anton Volchenkov is New Jersey, they are going to need to make cap room available. Note that they can sign him and be over the cap to the tune of 10%, so they could sign Kovy and then figure out who is going to go. A couple of obvious players with prominent contracts are Dainius Zubrus, the only Lithuanian currently in the NHL, Brian Rolston, who's '35+' contract should scare off everyone short of Darryl Sutter, and franchise winger Patrik Elias.

I think its going to be Elias for a few reasons; one, nobody is going to take Rolston. The attempts to turn back the clock by returning to the Devils worked roughly as well as the year the Avalanche brought back Forsberg and Adam Foote. There are a lot of things that make a player untradeable, but the biggest red flag is the dreaded 35+ contract.

Zubrus is a bit of a mystery, always has been. He's a giant man with great hands and keeps himself in peak physical form. His numbers are those of a fringe top-six forward, but he is also the kind of player who can have an 8-point game. Very interesting for teams who are starved for skilled forwards.

Elias, on the other hand, can justify his contract with is 'model of consistency' style which has survived constant turnover since the 2001 season. It really never mattered who he played with. He was part of the best line in hockey with Arnott/Sykora at one point, but then there were times when he still produced with the likes of... it pains even me to write this... Tom Chorske. If he is traded, NJ fans will be gutted until Kovalchuk and co. win the Atlantic in 2011, capped with Kovalchuk being the first Devil to crack 100 points in a season.

Also in the mix apparently were the Kings. This never made sense to me since they have what will soon be the very best Defense in the NHL all in either entry or RFA contracts. They are going to need all the cap flexibility they can manage going forward, and even then they will need even more cap room to deal for forwards. It does not at this point seem that a deal between LA and Kovalchuk is likely. Enter the would be vulture:

What has happened as a result of the Kings' part of the equation is that somehow Philadelphia though that if a team lost the Kovalchuk war, a good consolation prize would be winger Simon Gagne, 30. He has already been approached about and has apparently agreed to waive his No Trade Clause, thereby ruining the relationship he had with management.

Giving a player a No Trade says "we are committed to you. We are going to spare you the speculation and critique that goes along with not having a NTC; you are part of our integral core, and represent the franchise, etc etc". Being asked to waive it causes all those warm sentimental things to evaporate. This pleases me because it is Philadelphia. They have attempted for a long time to replicate the NY Ranger business model, and it turns out that their fortunes are roughly the same. This isn't quite the same as when the Rangers shipped Brian Leetch to Toronto in 2004, but it is similarly vile from the standpoint of denying a player their loyalties despite a contract. The Flyers, going forward, appear only to be loyal to players currently under contract in Nashville.

Garth Snow and the New York Islanders were also 'in on' the Kovalchuk thing. I don't understand them since they are still paying Alexie Yashin. Garth pioneered the extreme long term contract with Rick DiPietro, and that didn't work out either. No, nothing they do seems to work out. They need some more contracts to reach the cap floor, but if they went with Kovalchuk, it would be for all the wrong reasons - which is precisely why they were in on it. The Isles also drafted spiraling Russian talent Kiril Kabanov, a player who needs to be in a system capable of developing a player into an NHL player, something the Islanders cannot do, as is evident in their recent decline to tender RFA qualifying offers to Bergenheim and Tambellini. To summarize: NY Islanders need contracts to reach cap floor. Bergenheim and Tambellini were RFA, and could have been useful if only to reach said floor, but, were so poorly developed that they were let go. Massive offer made for Kovalchuk, who probably needed several tissues to wipe the tears off of his face. Garth Snow currently 3/4 of the way through a double meatball hero sandwich.

The Rangers have about 7.9M in cap space to figure out how they can trade everyone they have signed in the past 2-3 seasons and replace them with newer-smelling bad signings. They have a bad defense complete with a couple of the worst contracts in the history of the NHL in Redden and Rozsival, with limited No Trades. That may be the good news as the other 2 roster defensemen, Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy, should be developing in the minors, not getting hung out to dry under the very harsh NY lights. Marc Staal is apparently holding out, but it isn't as if they weren't going to trade him for a player some other team has developed anyway. To NY, the other teams exist only to draft and develop players so that they may one day become fine Rangers. That is what the NHL is to them; teams who have players deemed good enough to be a Ranger, and the teams who are in direct competition to sign them. It is good to see it not working out.

Finally in the division, Pittsburgh. They will show up in October with 3 Selke-caliber centers, a couple of perennial MVP candidates, a Championship goalie who is 25, and a recently assembled core of defenders, none of whom are 30 yet, that look like they aren't going to play nice. The quality at the wing position.. it would be generous to call it average, but a team has to have weakness somewhere, and wing is it if you're building a team from scratch (do you understand that yet, Washington?). Their ~2M in cap space is nothing. The Penguins can't even sign Paul Kariya. Still, even though the Penguins cannot sign Ilya Kovalchuk, the destruction he has caused to the other teams who have tied their fates in one way or another to him could work in their favor.

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