Now that the New Jersey Devils have made their annual first-round exit, the Ilya Kovalchuk guessing games can begin in earnest.
Kovalchuk wasn't coming back to New Jersey, even before the Devils won the race with the Ottawa Senators to see who could be the first team eliminated from the playoffs. GM Lou Lamoriello always characterized him as a rental and Kovalchuk played like one too. He was okay - not the worst Devil by any means, but he didn't exactly engage the way you have to in the playoffs, especially against a wounded team such as the Philadelphia Flyers that didn't want to give the New Jersey-ites any life. For the Devils to lose their final game of the season, at home, in a shutout to the Flyers' No. 3 goalie Brian Boucher, well, it doesn't get much uglier than that.
So what does Kovalchuk do and where does he go to play next? Kovalchuk has completed eight NHL seasons now, made the playoffs twice in that span and is 1-8 in post-season play. Given that record, it's hard to imagine any team thinks he can take them over the top or that he should become the highest paid player in the league next year.
For top dollar, Kovalchuk will need to go to Russia and play in the KHL, which would be a coup for the upstart league that is trying to repatriate its biggest names. Kovalchuk left $102-million on the table - the amount the Atlanta Thrashers were prepared to pony up to sign him at different times this year. But the negotiations were always a moving target and though you can accuse general manager Don Waddell of a lot of things, you cannot fault him for making the best deal he could for Kovalchuk's rights when it was clear he wasn't going to stay on, no matter what the Thrashers offered.
Nor can I imagine that there's another team in the league that thinks Kovalchuk should be its highest player, even if he does come as an unrestricted free agent and doesn't require a team to give up an asset in return.
The reality is, someone of his talent and scoring touch usually commands dollars in the $7.5-million range - Marian Gaborik numbers in other words; and Gaborik is a rough comparable given that he too eschewed the overtures of the Minnesota Wild all of last year before signing on with the New York Rangers as an unrestricted free agent. Gaborik was a productive enough player for the Rangers last season, but his presence wasn't enough to get them into the playoffs either.
Kovalchuk will come with the same 'buyer beware' caveat attached. He'd be a nice enough addition to be sure, but at what price? Ultimately, Kovalchuk will need to decide what's more important - dollars, in which case it'll be so long Ilya; or the chance to win a championship, in which case he'll absorb a financial hit to stay and play in the best league in the world.
I know if I were running the Los Angeles Kings - everybody's favourite landing spot for Kovalchuk - my interest in him will have waned over the last fortnight, based on what I saw - and didn't see - from the time he spent in a Devils' uniform.
AROUND THE RINKS
Nice to see Brian Campbell get back into the Chicago Blackhawks' lineup for Thursday's shutout victory over the Nashville Predators, about two weeks ahead of schedule. Campbell was clobbered by Alex Ovechkin in mid-March and wasn't expected to return until the end of the month, recovering from a broken rib and clavicle. Now, it remains to be seen when, or if, Marc Savard can get back in the Bruins' lineup. What once looked certainly like a season-ending concussion may not be that after all for Savard, who was infamously clocked by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke in a regular-season game back in March, prompting the NHL to adopt an in-season rule change to protect vulnerable players from hits to the head. Savard skated on his own Wednesday, after passing his baseline concussion tests the day before - the first two steps towards returning to the Bruins' line-up. And while no return date is set, with Boston poised to advance to the second round, Savard could potentially get back playing next series, which is shaping up as a meeting with - you guessed it, those wily Penguins and the villainous Cooke. Could be fireworks either way; moreso if Savard actually does get back playing again this season.