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.
JUST ONE OF THOSE YEARS: For the Philadelphia Flyers' Jeff Carter, who missed eight games towards the end of the regular season recovering from a broken left foot and then broke his right foot Tuesday night when he was hit by a Chris Pronger slap shot on a five-on-three power play. The carom went off Carter into the net, a pivotal goal in the Flyers' Game 4 victory over the New Jersey Devils, a night in which they also lost a second top-six forward, Simon Gagne, also with a broken right foot. Both were scheduled for surgery Friday; and Carter's - described by general manager Paul Holmgren as the more complex of the two - was expected to be on crutches for about six weeks, meaning he is effectively out for the season, no matter how deep the Flyers go. Gagne is expected to miss about three weeks, so he could be available if Philadelphia advances to the third round, which will likely necessitate them defeating the Washington Capitals next round.
THE OIL WATCH: Not sure if it's just a marketing ploy or the Edmonton Oilers really truly believe demand for season tickets will stay as strong as ever, despite the team finishing 30th overall, but this past week, the NHL team announced that it was increasing the number of tickets available to season ticket holders by 500. Previously, the Oilers capped their season-ticket base at 13,000, making the rest available in game packs and on a game-by-game basis. For next year, an extra 500 will be up for grabs. Presumably, the Oilers are counting on the presence of either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin in the lineup to coax the more wary subscribers back ...The conundrum for the Oilers' scouting staff: Hall is probably the more NHL ready of the two, but many believe Seguin's long-term upside may be greater. As one NHL GM put it to me recently: It's a hard thing to do to select the player that will mean more to you three years down the road, knowing that you'll almost certainly be subject to a season of second guessing in their respective rookie years. But Seguin's bonafides - plays centre and is a right-handed shot - make him attractive for a team that can think big-picture thoughts ...
MORE OILER NEWS: One long-time member of the Oilers' front office, assistant GM Kevin Prendergast, won't be sitting at the draft table this year. After 20 years in the organization, Prendergast was relieved of his duties by general manager Steve Tambellini. Under Prendergast's watch, the Oilers did some good things (Ales Hemsky, 13th overall in 2001, was probably his most astute pick), but also wasted first-rounders on Alexei Mikhonov (17th overall in 2000) and Jesse Niinimaki (15th in 2002). Brooks Orpik, Alexander Frolov, Anton Volchenkov, Brad Boyes, Steve Ott, Justin Williams, Niklas Kronwall were all still on the board after the Mikhonov pick. The 2002 draft class didn't yield a lot of gold, but Duncan Keith was still available in the second round. Arguably, that exceptional 2003 draft class represented the Oilers' biggest miss. They took Marc-Antoine Pouliot at 22; Ryan Kesler (Vancouver) went next at 23 and then Mike Richards (to Philadelphia) was the 24th player selected. Either would look awfully good in an Oilers' uniform right about now.
MISLEY WAITING IN THE WINGS? If the Oilers replace Prendergast, one of the names they may consider is Johnny Misley, a former vice-president of Hockey Canada who resigned after the Olympics. Misley and Oilers' GM Steve Tambellini worked together on a number of Hockey Canada projects, including the 2002 men's Olympic hockey team, which won gold in Salt Lake City ...
WILD MAN GONE: The Minnesota Wild also parted ways with a long-time employee, Tom Thompson, who was one of former general manager Doug Risebrough's key people, from the early expansion days. Thompson was planning to leave anyway, even before the Wild announced that his contract wouldn't be renewed, but could resurface in the NHL if Risebrough gets the Tampa Bay Lightning job as expected. The GM's position has been open since new owner Jeff Vinik cleaned house, firing both GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet at season's end.
THE TAMPA OPPORTUNITY AWAITS: Is there a better opportunity for a prospective GM than the one in Tampa, where the presence of Steve Stamkos and Viktor Hedman, selected in back-to-back drafts, gives the Lightning an impressive starting point on their road back to respectability. The fact that Martin St. Louis remains a premier forward after all these years doesn't hurt - nor does the presence of Vincent Lecavalier, who had an okay year for the Lightning and would represent an interesting bit of trade bait if the new man determines that he needs to get out from under his hefty contract. With the correct adjustments, in the comparatively thin Eastern Conference, Tampa should be a playoff team again next year.