A slow free-agent market heated up on Monday as Ilya Kovalchuk's agent said the star of the market will decide his future on Monday, a future which could include the New Jersey Devils.
"Ilya Kovalchuk looking to make decision on his future today," Jay Grossman said in a Twitter message on Monday morning.
While the New York Post reported the Devils are close to re-signing Kovalchuk, 27, to a seven-year $60-million (all currency U.S.) contract, that could not be immediately confirmed. New York Islander general manager Garth Snow said on the weekend he spoke to Grossman but would not say anything more.
Kovalchuk scored 41 goals last season and turned down a 12-year, $101-million contract (all currency U.S.) from the Atlanta Thrashers before he was traded to the New Jersey Devils and became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He has scored at least 41 goals in his last six NHL seasons.
Last week, the front-runner was thought to be the Los Angeles Kings but Kovalchuk turned down the team's best offer on Sunday. "We took our best shot to meet his needs and our team's," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times.
There were weekend reports Islander owner Charles Wang made an offer of $100-million over 10 years to Kovalchuk but that, too, could not be confirmed.
If Kovalchuk does stay with the Devils it will be quite a coup for team president and GM Lou Lamoriello. On Feb. 4, Lamoriello traded a first-round and second-round draft pick, forward Niclas Bergfors, defenceman Johnny Oduya and prospect Patrice Cormier to the Thrashers for Kovalchuk, the Thrashers' second-round pick and defenceman Anssi Selmela. The trade was made not only to boost the Devils' offence for the 2010 playoffs (they lost in the first round) but also in the hopes of signing Kovalchuk to a long-term contract.
But after the Devils' early exit from the playoffs, it appeared Kovalchuk was lost, too. He became a free agent and until Monday there was no indication the Devils were the front-runners. But now it appears Lamoriello's patience will be rewarded, although he will have to move some veterans over the summer to make room for Kovalchuk's estimated $8.57-million annual salary cap hit because the Devils only have room for $4.75-million at present.
By Monday, a lot of big names on the list of unrestricted free agents remained without contracts. In addition to Kovalchuk, goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore were unsigned, along with forwards Bill Guerin, Paul Kariya and Maxim Agfinogenov.
However, according to calculations done by The Globe and Mail's James Mirtle, there is still lots of cash left for those free agents. While the salary cap for this coming season will be $59.4-million, the average NHL team has spent only $47.9-million so far.
That spending includes performance bonus overages for last season, which are taken off a team's cap room for the 2010-11 season.
This is the situation the Toronto Maple Leafs are in, as they went $1.4-million over last season's cap due to bonuses, according to the NHL salary website capgeek.com. It appears the majority of the bonuses responsible for the overage were for centre Tyler Bozak and goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who both signed as free agents.
This means the Leafs will have a roughly $58-million limit on next season's salary cap.
However, team sources say this is not an issue as the overage will be accounted for in general manager Brian Burke's moves this summer. Since Burke is still looking for an experienced defenceman - presuming he will be able to trade veteran Tomas Kaberle - and a first-line centre, an expensive veteran like defenceman Jeff Finger, who has two years left on his contract at $3.5-million a year, will likely be waived and end up playing for the Toronto Marlies next season.
Centre Mikhail Grabovski, who has a $2.9-million cap hit, could also be playing elsewhere.