Kovalchuk camp continues to gauge market

June, 14, 2010

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.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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