Devils, Kovalchuk deal imminent?

On-again-off-again Devil Ilya Kovalchuk remains a free agent, but for how much longer?

Sources confirmed to ESPN’s E.J. Hradek that Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, GM Lou Lamoriello and Kovalchuk agent Jay Grossman convened at the NHL offices in New York today.

Does that mean a contract is imminent? Not necessarily. Last week in Toronto, Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked by the media if the league would advise teams on what an acceptable structure for Kovalchuk’s contract might be. He said that the NHL would provide such a service, but would not confirm if any team had approached the league. Perhaps that’s what the Devils were doing today. Or perhaps Kovalbucks is about to cash in a new deal in a matter of minutes and hours.

Since the Devils’ original deal was voided there’s been the lingering sentiment that Kovalchuk and New Jersey will reach another accord. But the salary cap is proving a serious complication.

The Devils only have a little under $3.7 million remaining in available cap space (according to CapGeek.com). And even if they dumped a contract -- say, Dainius Zubrus and his $3.4M hit -- they’d still only free up a total of around $7M.

If they restructured the deal so Kovalchuk was playing until 40 instead of 44 -- probably the longest term the Devils could get away with -- the average cap hit spikes from $6M to $7.8M per year. Now, even if they moved Zubrus and reduced the term to a more reasonable length, the most they could offer Kovalchuk is $91M total -- which gets the deal in at $7M per. But that would mean the Russian wing would leave $11M on the table from his voided deal. The Los Angeles Kings, thought to be another serious suitor, could offer a deal to top that quite easily, if they’re so inclined. So could the spendthrift Islanders for that matter … well, if their name wasn’t always prefaced by “spendthrift.”

But even if Kovalchuk takes less money and the Devils do a deal at $7M per, the team puts itself in a bind next year when Zach Parise’s deal comes up. Based on my English major math skills, add a Parise cap hit on par with Patrick Kane’s $6.3M on top of Kovalchuk’s $7M to the team’s existing contracts and you’re looking at about $7M (give or take a few $100K) to fill half a roster in 2011-12. It’s not impossible, but it’s quite a squeeze for future years.

So could the Devils dump a contract bigger than that of Zubrus?

As tweeted by Dmitry Chesnokov, in order to afford Kovalchuk, a former Devils trainer told a Russian paper he believes the team will deal Patrik Elias. File that one under: “Bold Moves.”