Category archive: Ilya Kovalchuk

At noon ET on Thursday, Ilya Kovalchuk's free-agent odyssey officially hit the seven-day mark.

Arguably the most valuable unrestricted free agent in NHL history -- especially when you account for age and talent (for years, the UFA minimum age was 32 and then 31) -- continues to remain unsigned as the second weekend of the open market approaches.

What gives?

The first red flag came in February when he turned down a pair of monster offers from the Atlanta Thrashers: $100 million over 12 years and $70 million over seven years. Kovalchuk and his agent Jay Grossman gambled that there would be a handful of teams willing to pay close to $10 million per season come July 1.

But several GMs, governors and agents told ESPN.com over the past few months that they didn't believe that any team would be willing to pay Kovalchuk $10 million a year. You can't pay anyone that amount of money and still expect to ice a competitive team around him under the salary cap. That's a popular sentiment around the league.

But perhaps more intriguing is this rumor making the circles among owners and team executives -- the league will fight for a lower salary cap (by changing the way the percentages are calculated in order to get a lower cap) in the next collective bargaining agreement two years from now (the players will likely be led into the next labor talks by the battled-tested Donald Fehr and will certainly have a say in that).

Whether the lower cap comes to fruition, the potential for it has clearly affected the way some teams are already thinking, including the Los Angeles Kings, the team with which Kovalchuk wants to sign.

Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who once again broke off talks with the Kovalchuk camp on Wednesday, is adamant that he needs a cap-friendly deal if he's going to take on Kovalchuk. He needs to be able to sign Drew Doughty and Wayne Simmonds and other youngsters over the next year or so, and he is also concerned about the next CBA and its impact. If the cap goes down by $10 million or so in the next CBA, how will teams handle their big salaries?

More to the point, I really do believe the Kings have watched, somewhat in horror, at how a wonderfully talented Chicago Blackhawks team has been dismantled this summer just weeks after winning the Stanley Cup. It's a situation the young-and-rising Kings want to avoid.

So, if Kovalchuk ever comes back to the Kings' table for a third time, he'll need to adjust his demands.

In the meantime, sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that other teams have called Grossman with one- and two-year offers, hoping to convince Kovalchuk to pull a Marian Hossa, a la Detroit in 2008-09. But a long-term deal is much more preferable since it would cover off part of the next CBA. You don't want to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012 if a CBA hasn't been ironed out yet. Remember how quiet July 2004 was?

A long-term deal is what Kovalchuk really wants. But where? If the Kings remain out, the New Jersey Devils are the likeliest destination, although Devils GM Lou Lamoriello will spend the rest of the summer trying to move bodies if he signs Kovalchuk.

Then, there's the KHL. Evgeni Nabokov signed with SKA St. Petersburg on Wednesday, so if Kovalchuk were to also go there, the club would apparently pay a hefty luxury tax. It doesn't seem like a fit at this point, although ESPN.com did receive this e-mail Thursday in response to a query made Monday to KHL president and SKA owner Alexander Medvedev:

"Dear Mr. Lebrun, in reply to your message sent July 05 to Mr. Medvedev's e-mail address we once again on behalf of Mr. Medvedev confirm that yes, it is true: SKA has offered Ilya Kovalchuk a contract."

Regards,
Julia Kolomenskaya
Secretary to General director
Alexander Medvedev

In the end, everyone I've talked to around the league believes Kovalchuk really wants to be a Los Angeles King. This is where it will get interesting with Grossman and his client. Grossman has made a lot of money for his clients over the years, most notably Nikolai Khabibulin and most recently Anton Volchenkov. The dude knows how to get big contracts. But he's in a jam here. His client wants to play in L.A., and the Kings will not budge from their cap-friendly contract demands.

How will this all play out? Don't know, but can't wait to read the book one day.

Elsewhere on Thursday:

• The Philadelphia Flyers still hadn't announced the signing of Russian winger Nikolai Zherdev. The holdup, according to a source, is that the paperwork was still being finalized on both sides of the ocean and his official player transfer from the KHL to the NHL is in the process of being approved. Once it is, and it may not come until Friday, the Flyers will announce a one-year deal with Zherdev, who was an unrestricted free agent after his one-year deal with Atlant expired. He had 13 goals and 26 assists with Atlant this past season.

My colleague Darren Dreger of TSN tweeted Thursday that the Zherdev signing was being delayed until the Flyers could move Simon Gagne. Certainly plausible.

• Sticking with the Flyers/Gagne situation, he raised eyebrows Thursday when he told media in his native Quebec that contrary to reports out of Philadelphia last week, he has not agreed to waive his no-trade clause.

"I have a no-trade clause and I haven't removed it," Gagne said in French on RDS (the French sister network of TSN). "But certainly the Flyers have cap issues and I'm a player with one year left on my deal ... The next few days will maybe help us find out what's going to happen in my case."

It might just be semantics here. Once the Flyers go to Gagne with a trade, and it's a team he is OK with, he'll surely waive it. The Kings might have some interest if they determine once and for all they're not signing Kovalchuk. Gagne has one year left on his deal at $5.25 million.

I laugh every time. The most common question I get from nonhockey people at this time of year is, "So, are you off now for the summer?"

Yeah, I wish.

Nope, this is when it actually starts to get busy. Between trades at the NHL draft on June 25-26 in Los Angeles and the free-agency market opening July 1, many players will switch uniforms during the next month or so.

It's the NHL's crazy season.

Check my blog out every day during this period. I will try to find out what's going on, who's going where and why it happened.

We start today with the big dog, Ilya Kovalchuk. He is easily the headliner for an unrestricted free-agent class that isn't quite as deep in high-end talent as in recent years. All those restricted free agents signing long-term deals since the lockout are beginning to have an impact on the UFA list.

On the surface, Kovalchuk didn't help himself too much when his new team, the second-seeded New Jersey Devils, was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. (But he didn't play badly, putting up two goals and four assists in five games.)

I don't think the short postseason will have any impact on his market value. You know what you're getting in the 27-year-old Russian: a goal machine just entering his prime. He already has 338 goals in 621 career regular-season NHL games.

There is continued dialogue between the Devils and Kovalchuk's camp, but because the sniper has come this far, I think he wants to see what will be out there July 1. Can't blame him, not after he turned down $101 million over 12 years ($8.4 million average salary) and $70 million over seven years ($10 million average salary) from his former team in Atlanta before the trade deadline.

"It's an ongoing process," Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk's agent, told ESPN.com on Monday. "And obviously, Ilya and I have discussed it and continue to discuss it with respect to what we have to deal with up to July 1."

Grossman would not comment on the reports out of Russia, where KHL president Alexander Medvedev has made it clear he wants to bring the star winger back home. But Medvedev will also have to wait until July 1 for an answer from the Kovalchuk camp. The Russian winger wants to lay out all his options that day before making the biggest decision of his career.

Unless Kovalchuk gets lowballed on the NHL market July 1, which I doubt, I predict he stays in the NHL and politely turns down Medvedev's generosity.

I view the Los Angeles Kings as a prime landing spot for him. They have the cap space to accommodate his salary, they're a team on the rise, and there are people high up in the organization who view him as the missing piece in terms of star appeal.

A year ago, the rising Chicago Blackhawks added Marian Hossa to an already-stocked roster. This would be a similar move by a Kings team poised to take that next step toward Stanley Cup contention.

The thing is, I believe Kings GM Dean Lombardi also has an interest in Patrick Marleau should the veteran forward not re-sign in San Jose. (I think the Sharks want to keep Marleau if the money is right.)

One team you likely can rule out of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes is the deep-pocketed Toronto Maple Leafs.

"We're not going to be involved in that race," Leafs GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Monday when asked about Kovalchuk.

Toronto needs offense but will try to acquire a top-six forward via a trade of Tomas Kaberle. Burke reiterated Monday that he's not desperate to move the star defenseman but will continue to listen to offers as the draft approaches. The number of teams inquiring about Kaberle has reached double digits, but there are no serious offers at this point. That will change once we reach the draft.

Kaberle has one more season on a deal that pays him $4.25 million; that's incredibly cheap for a two-way, puck-moving blueliner of his caliber.

Speaking of star defensemen, the Penguins would like to keep their premier puck mover, 36-year-old Sergei Gonchar, who is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Pens GM Ray Shero and Gonchar's agent, J.P. Barry, have spoken a few times since Pittsburgh's season ended, including one lengthy session at the draft combine in Toronto, but there is still no deal.

"I've got every expectation that I will talk to Ray again pretty soon," Barry told ESPN.com on Monday. "We've had several meetings, and he wasn't able to commence negotiations until he got more certainty on the salary cap."

Shero needs to know exactly how much cap room he has before moving ahead on any big contract. The NHL will announce the 2010-11 cap figure June 30; it is expected to increase around $2 million from the current $56.8 million.

Term continues to be the big hurdle in the Gonchar talks. The 35-and-over rule in the collective bargaining agreement, one that stipulates that the entirety of the contract signed counts against a team's salary cap regardless of whether a player retires before the end of that deal, is making Pittsburgh wary about giving Gonchar more than one year. Gonchar's camp wants three years. Will two years be the compromise? We'll find out soon enough.

Martin Brodeur's cell phone was on overload Thursday night.

It seemed the whole world wanted him to know his New Jersey Devils had just acquired the most talented offensive player on this season's NHL trade market. And he was pumped about the news.

Turns out the NHL's all-time winningest goalie won't have to pitch shutouts for the Devils to win playoff games in the spring. Two-time 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk has been parachuted in from the Atlanta Thrashers thanks to one of Lou Lamoriello's most aggressive moves in his storied history as Devils GM.

"We just got ourselves a top scorer," Brodeur texted me. "I'm happy of the commitment from the organization toward our team. He will bring a different look to our team."

Uh, yeah.

When you consider the Devils have never produced a 50-goal scorer in their franchise history, I think you can say Kovalchuk brings a different look to this team. Even if it might be for just a few months.

If you're the 37-year-old Brodeur, it's about the here and now. So that's why he was ecstatic Thursday night. The Devils have a shot this season, so why not go for it?

Lamoriello saw his team dip to 21st in the NHL in goals per game, the lowest of the top 10 teams in the NHL standings. Of course, the Devils are first as usual in goals against, but I think the team's lack of a deep run in the postseason since the lockout convinced Lamoriello that defense isn't the only thing he needs.

What's more interesting to me is Lamoriello decided he needed this fix only recently after his Devils began to sputter. It's usually unlike him to act so fast on something of this magnitude, but that's exactly what happened.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell was in New Jersey on Sunday scouting the Los Angeles Kings for the potential Kovalchuk deal. The Devils had never called him at that point.

"The next day, I got a call from Lou just exploring where I was in the process and what I was looking for," Waddell said Thursday night. "So with New Jersey, it just started this week. Lou is a very determined person; he knows what he wants to do and he knows what he can afford to give up, so the process with them moved very quickly."

Imagine that. You've got Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, among others, dutifully working on this thing for weeks, and the Devils come in from the backstretch and win the race. Good ol' Lou.

Will the move be good enough? I like it even better if Paul Martin is the Paul Martin of old when he finally returns. An offense now led by Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner is pretty good. It still doesn't rank with Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, but then again, those teams don't have Brodeur in goal.

Kovalchuk has zero career playoff victories, so we really don't know how he'll react on this kind of stage or to the first time coach Jacques Lemaire tells him there is indeed something called the defensive zone. But if he embraces playoff hockey with the Devils the way he embraced winning gold medals for Russia at the past two world championships, Devils fans just might be in for a treat come April.

As for Atlanta, I doubt Waddell could have done better under the circumstances. Kovalchuk was going to walk as an unrestricted free agent on July 1; the Thrashers had to not only get something in return for their most important asset but also do it while not pulling the plug on their chase for a playoff spot. That's a balancing act, and acquiring a top-four blueliner in Johnny Oduya and a decent second-line winger in Niclas Bergfors to help the team right now was paramount.

"It was important for us to make sure we added two assets to our roster right now," Waddell said.

Looking ahead, the Thrashers are real high on Patrice Cormier, the captain of Canada's world juniors team last month whose vicious elbow got him suspended for the rest of the season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Keep in mind Atlanta's associate GM is Rick Dudley, whose scouting acumen is right up there with that of anybody in the game. He helped build the Chicago Blackhawks you're seeing tear up the NHL these days. If Dudley says Cormier is a keeper, that's good enough for me.

"We had asked for Cormier, and they were really resilient about that; they wanted to talk about other prospects," Waddell said. "I said to Lou, 'This is an important piece for us, and it has to be in the deal.' Once we got past that point, we were able to get it done."

Listen, the Thrashers are not as good a team today without Kovalchuk. Not even close. But you can't blame Waddell for balking at giving a player the maximum allowed under the salary cap this year, $11.35 million a year. He confirmed Thursday night that amount is what Kovalchuk wanted in a long-term deal.

I don't blame Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman for asking. If Kovy hits the unrestricted free-agent market in July, he'll be the youngest superstar in that position. But I agree with Waddell: You can't build a championship team with a player accounting for 20 percent of your payroll. They're not paying anyone 20 percent of the cap in Pittsburgh or Detroit, the past two Stanley Cup-champion teams, so I'm not sure why any other team should, either.

With each passing day, the chances of Ilya Kovalchuk finishing the season in Atlanta grow smaller and smaller, and it will be a sad day for the Thrashers' franchise if and when the captain exits.

So let's freeze time for a second and recognize a beautiful moment for what it was. There hasn't been a bigger victory in the Atlanta Thrashers' season than Thursday night's comeback affair in Philadelphia.

"I'm proud of the guys," Atlanta GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com after the game.

Hey, let's face it, with everyone in hockey knowing Kovalchuk's days are probably numbered, give credit to the rest of the team. No one would criticize these guys for folding up the tent with the impending trade of their superstar.

Instead, they've rallied this week with wins over Anaheim and Philly, and they went to bed Thursday night in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, looking down at an eight-team logjam that's separated by only two points.

"It's only our second regulation win here in Philadelphia in 10 years, and the other time I was coaching the team," Waddell said with a laugh. "But it's a big win tonight. Especially these head-to-head games, these are the teams you're fighting with. We were one point behind Philly coming in; if you lose [in regulation], suddenly you're three behind. This vaults us into a spot now where we need to be. We just have to keep on picking up points and we'll be good."

The man under the microscope, Kovalchuk, started the comeback with a goal just 29 seconds into the third period, his team-leading 31st of the season. Rookie Evander Kane (Atlanta's future franchise player?) had a big night as well.

"Evander Kane used his speed on his two assists tonight, and he went to the net," Waddell said.

Don't forget the old goat in goal, Johan "The Moose" Hedberg, who stood tall again with 34 saves.

"I can't say enough good things about Hedberg," Waddell said. "His last three games, he gave up one goal in each of them, but we won only one of them. He didn't have much to show for it, so that was nice tonight."

But hovering above everything is the situation with Kovalchuk. It's what Waddell wanted to avoid, and that's why he began to court his captain last summer. But with no extension signed, it's become the NHL story this season.

Waddell said his players have been able to not let it affect them too much so far.

"I talked to some of the guys, and it's really not something that's in the room," Waddell said. "Kovy has done a good job of keeping it out of the room from his end. I have the pulse of the room. So, as long as it doesn't become a distraction in there ... and obviously a game like tonight proves that it's not a distraction. We'll just keep going along here. We've got 5-6 games before the Olympic break, and we'll see what happens."

Everyone by now knows the super-talented Russian is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Waddell can't let him walk away this summer and get nothing in return. So, despite the fact Atlanta is sitting in a playoff spot, if there's no contract extension soon, Kovalchuk is likely a goner.

"Nothing new; it's just ongoing," Waddell said when I asked for an update. "We have a [contract] offer on the table that's there. Obviously, more time that goes by, it doesn't bode well and it's not encouraging, but I'm still holding out hope that we can get him signed."

But at least for one night, hockey was a game again ... and the Thrashers had some fun.