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New Jersey Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk grins as he comes to the bench after the Devils scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Newark, New Jersey, February 5, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (RAY STUBBLEBINE)
New Jersey Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk grins as he comes to the bench after the Devils scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Newark, New Jersey, February 5, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (RAY STUBBLEBINE)

Eric Duhatschek

Kovalchuk, Kings taking smart approach to NHL marriage Add to ...

How many times now have the Los Angeles Kings entered and exited the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes? Twice? Three times? Eleventy-two (as Lucy Van Pelt famously once said to Charlie Brown).

It sure seems like a lot of hemming and hawing and it sure seems to be creating a lot of stress for people; those who figure that 12 days after he officially became eligible for unrestricted free agency, Kovalchuk should do us all a favour, make his decision and let everybody get on with their summers.

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Me? I'm not stressed at all (a couple of days on the chuckwagon beat will do wonders for clearing your mind).

On the contrary, I applaud the fact that both player and NHL team are taking their time and trying to get the deal right.

However this plays out, Kovalchuk's next deal will likely be his last one, a lifetime commitment to his next city and team of employ.

It will be, in effect, a marriage, for better or for worse, which will play out over the long haul, with much at stake - not just the dollars on Kovalchuk's contract but the dollars on every contract the Kings negotiate in the second decade of the 21st century.

So the fact that it's taken them a few extra days to work it out is a good thing; and the fact that Kovalchuk is on site, in Los Angeles, Monday to talk face-to-face makes so much sense that you wonder why more teams don't bother doing it when so much is at stake.

This, by the way, is not to be confused with the Lebron James sideshow, where King James essentially sat on his throne and, like a scene out of the Tudors, watched as half-a-dozen teams made their various presentations for his services. The New York Knicks made their pitch around finances, and how James could theoretically reach billionaire status if he chose the Big Apple. The Los Angeles Clippers came equipped with a video, in effect, a travelogue that extolled the virtues of the City of Angels. Both their pitches fell on deaf ears.

At a certain level of ability, for a hockey player or a basketball player, the money is going to be astonishing, more than Kovalchuk or James could ever spend in their lifetimes.

So then, there needs to be something more, a proper fit - and this is what I like about the Kings' slow-go approach in these negotiations.

They have gotten to this stage of their development by scrupulously sticking to a well-thought-out rebuilding process. They didn't try to fast track it in any meaningful way. They took their lumps and built through the draft and now, have an Anze Kopitar, a Drew Doughty and other young assets to show for their troubles.

As the Chicago Blackhawks have learned to their chagrin, once you have all these good young players, the next trick is keeping them. Chicago is doing that, in the summer of their Stanley Cup victory, by shedding virtually every player on the edges of the team that made a contribution to winning. They will be shaking hands and introducing themselves to one another in the fall, when training camps open, and who knows if the 2010-11 version of the Blackhawks can find the same chemistry as the previous version did?

L.A. isn't at that point yet.

As a hockey team, they are a piece or two of the puzzle away; and maybe a year or two of maturity as well. Once goaltender Jonathan Bernier establishes himself as a legitimate NHL netminder, I'm interested in seeing where the Kings are, and how far they might go.

But to throw it all out - the planning, the painstaking building, just to add Kovachuk now? No. He could be a nice piece of the puzzle, but like a lot of players in his category - Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa last year, just to name two - they help, but they cannot single-handedly make the difference.

Again, this isn't basketball, where if you're the Miami Heat and you throw all your money at three position players, well, at least that's 60 per cent of your starting line-up and if you manage their minutes correctly they can be on the court for the vast majority of the game.

Kovalchuk averaged 22 minutes and 14 seconds in 49 games for the Atlanta Thrashers last year; slightly less (21:40) in 27 games for the New Jersey Devils. Not many NHL players can produce 41 goals (sixth highest) in what was something of an off year for him as a goal-scorer. Kovalchuk would give the Kings something they don't currently have - a legitimate sniper. Kopitar led the team in goals last season with 34. Next highest was Dustin Brown at 24, then Ryan Smyth at 22, then Michael Handzus at 20. Not enough, if you want to go where the Blackhawks went last year and win it all.

So there is a compelling reason, beyond the marketing value of signing Kovalchuk, to work out a deal, but not a deal at all costs and not a deal that would immediately box you into a corner and undermine all future attempts to keep your good young team together.

So, Ilya, take your time. And you, general manager Dean Lombardi, stick to your guns and make sure it works out for your team, long and short term.

Think of it this way.

If this flirtation between player and team can be seen as the prelude to the marriage, then what they're negotiating now is just the pre-nuptial agreement - standard fare in the 21st century when the dollars get this big. So no rush gentlemen. Take all summer if you need it.

After all, training camps don't open for two months and with the depressed state of the L.A. real-estate market, Kovalchuk can surely find a Beverley Hills mansion available for quick possession, even if he takes until the fall to sign on the dotted line.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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