What is going on with Ilya Kovalchuk?

July, 8, 2010

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."

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.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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