Kovalchuk intriguing, but at what cost?

The word around the NHL this morning is that Atlanta Thrashers forward Ilya Kovalchuk has been told by general manager Don Waddell to expect a trade to another team. It could happen within hours or a few days.

The 26-year-old Kovalchuk, of course, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. In eight years and 594 games with the Thrashers, he's scored 328 goals and 615 points, including a career-high 52 goals in 2007-08 and a share of the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2003-04, when he scored a league-leading 41 goals.

Among the teams who have allegedly expressed interest in Kovalchuk are the Blackhawks, Bruins, Flyers, Flames, Devils, Rangers and, yes, the Kings.

In a recent conversation with Kings GM Dean Lombardi, I knew -- duh -- that he wouldn't tell me if he was interested in Kovalchuk. Instead, I asked him the exact opposite: if, a la Brian Burke, his counterpart in Toronto, Lombardi would eliminate Kovalchuk as a possibility for his team because the price was too high. Burke announced recently that because Kovalchuk had turned down a 10-year, $85 million offer from the Thrashers, the Leafs would not be a buyer.

Lombardi had an interesting response.

"What do you want me to say? That I'm not touching him because he wants $85 million? Well, $85 million over what? Ten years? $85 million might be a lot but if he's taking a 12-year deal, that's not a lot in today's game, so I don't know how to answer that."

Not exactly a definitive no from the Kings' GM, is it?

Lombardi added that no one is really sure what the true asking price is. And he made specific reference to the same figures -- $85 million over 10 years -- which Burke used for his rationale last week.

"That's not what I heard," said Lombardi. "I heard on the street it was 13 years, so I don't know who to believe. I've heard $85 million. I've heard $120 million. To me it's irrelevant at this stage because Atlanta said nobody is going to do a sign-and-trade, which I understand because they don't want the agent driving the bus.

"I guess Burkie's definitely out of it," he added, smiling, clearly suggesting that Lombardi isn't.

But that's no big scoop. There are 28 other managers who feel the same way Lombardi does. And who knows if Burke isn't one of them too, just playing games with the media?

But Lombardi was emphatic as far as being very careful about paying the price it would take to acquire a player of Kovalchuk's caliber for his team.

"We're the youngest core team in the league -- by far," he said. "It's one thing to be young, it's another thing to have young players like [Anze] Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, [Jack] Johnson, [Jonathan] Quick, [Dustin] Brown. So there's upside. I've got six picks in the first three rounds, we've obviously stacked our system. We're one of the youngest teams in the league in Manchester and we're winning down there, so I have the horses and I got cap space, so I've got the mechanisms to make sure we keep getting better.

"I'm a buyer," he said, smacking his hand on the armrest of his chair, "and I will try and improve this team if the right guy is there. But, it's got to be the right player and I'd like it to fit in the future."

Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk

#17 LW
Atlanta Thrashers

2010 STATS

  • GM49
  • G31

  • A27

  • PTS58

  • +/-1

  • PIM45

But not, he quickly added, at the expense of that core.

"I'm not going to watch Doughty walk out of here on an offer sheet," he said, "or Kopitar or Johnson or Quick and these guys. No way. We've come too far to let that happen. I want this core to stay together and keep the machine going. So it's get the right guy, not only because I want him to fit in there and help the team get to another level, but I want to make sure this group stays together. What the hell is the sense of going through this if they're going to walk out the door? No way! Everything we do is to make sure that we keep this core together and be like Detroit eventually and put them on the right long-term deals."

Lombardi likens the construction of his team -- and its ultimate goal -- to the way certain baseball teams are put together.

"We're building like the Twins and the Oakland A's," he said, "but I want to keep them like the Yankees. I said that from day one: I didn't come here to be the Oakland A's. Screw that. Be somebody else's minor league system? No thanks. But like the Yankees, until [Derek] Jeter and those other guys came through their system, they didn't win nothing. And that's what's happening in there -- you build those winners that come through your system."

The rebuilding process

Lombardi says there are four key phases to building a team.

"You got the draft, then you got to develop them into NHL players," he said, ticking off the first and second stages. "Then you got to teach them to play in the league and then you have to win in the league."

Right now, Lombardi figures his charges are somewhere between stages three and four.

"They're competing," he said. "They went from hope. They're already into 'I think we can win' and they're in that transition from starting to learn to walking out there and thinking 'we're going to win tonight.' You watch your players' self-esteem, you watch how they conduct themselves, it's a new look in the eye, the way their chest comes out.

Lombardi I see a team that's clearly competing, but the object of the game is to become a champion. They're learning how to win, learning mental toughness. If you really want to win, like Detroit or the Yankees, you're expected to win and you get out there and do it. And I'm sorry, that takes a lot of building, not only physically, but mentally.

-- Kings GM Dean Lombardi on his team

"I see a team that's clearly competing, but the object of the game is to become a champion. They're learning how to win, learning mental toughness. If you really want to win, like Detroit or the Yankees, you're expected to win and you get out there and do it. And I'm sorry, that takes a lot of building, not only physically, but mentally. They're in that stage where they are competing and they've gotten there a lot quicker than I thought."

This and that

We covered some other areas in our chat, including what I suggested was a key turning point for the Kings during their seven-game homestand -- the finale against Buffalo, a dramatic, up-and-down 4-3 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres that propelled them into the recently completed, unprecedented five-game road winning streak.

Lombardi agreed that was an important win, but not as significant as the first game the Kings played on the road trip -- against the Red Wings.

"I've been in that building too many times when things have gone wrong," he said. "We came out and we were ready to play. We played really well and we're down 2-0 and usually you're in Detroit, against that team ... and they were on a power play too. Usually a team without any spine would say, screw it, we're already down 2-0, let's get outta here and get to Toronto. And we came out -- we didn't deserve to be down 2-0 -- and we got through that penalty and I thought we played solid for 60 minutes and we worked our bag off and we scored hard goals.

"We had a goal called back and we had that one on the goal line and we didn't give up. And then we come back and win that. And I remember thinking we still have a long way to go, but that showed me something. They're starting to build character, they're starting to believe in themselves. To go into Detroit and do that. And I know Detroit's struggling at times and they're not healthy yet and still not the same team, but mentally that showed me a lot. So I'd cite that game as that type of step. Just loved the fact that we were in that building, down 2-0, and we didn't quit. And it wasn't easy the way we came back. It was a battle every shift. That's when you say you have all these young kids and I'm proud of these guys. That was a helluva effort.

"There's critical weeks, critical games and it comes down to critical periods, critical shifts," Lombardi concluded. "Usually in the building process, there's games where your group gains a little more, you know, they show you something as a group, that as a team the progress that they're making manifests itself. There's always little signs of progress when you have a young group like this. And the game where I saw something was Detroit."

And of course the Kings moved from Detroit to Toronto, Columbus, Boston and New Jersey and won them all. They won again against the Rangers on Tuesday night and take a seven-game winning streak into tonight's game at Staples against the Ducks.

It is a big game for both teams, the first of a home-and-home (they play again in Anaheim on Monday). With the three-week Olympic break looming at the end of next weekend, wins down the stretch are essential.

The Kings can even more firmly establish themselves as a genuine playoff contender for the first time in eight years.

As for the Ducks, it's a matter of continuing to stay alive in the race. With 61 points, they're just three points out of a playoff spot and going into the break with some momentum -- and as many two-point nights as possible -- is absolutely essential for them to be in position to make a stretch run once the season resumes after the Olympics.

Tom Murray covers hockey for ESPNLosAngeles.com