So it's New Jersey for Ilya Kovalchuk. Well, on one level, given Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello's ability to pull a rabbit out of the trading cap, who is really surprised? Two NHL blockbusters in one week is a record in the post-lockout NHL; that Lamoriello was able to complete the other one, after his Providence College protégé Brian Burke landed Dion Phaneuf from Calgary and J.S. Giguere from Anaheim makes you think, there must be something in the Rhode Island water that provides its residents with a gambler's instinct.
Lamoriello essentially won the Kovalchuk sweepstakes for two basic reasons: One, after all these years as one of the top GMs in the game, he has the courage of his own convictions and knows when he can afford to make a big-time play; and two, some of his younger, more inexperienced colleagues essentially chickened out at the 11th hour, afraid to give up real-world prospects for a player that would likely join them only as a rental.
Yes, you can put the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings at the top of the list - two teams that made inquiries for Kovalchuk, but balked at the asking price.
For Atlanta general manager Don Waddell, the take isn't great. Johnny Oduya and Niclas Bergfors are the only players on the Devils' active roster coming his way; Oduya is a useful regular on defence, but he is not going to produce a lot of offence for the team (four points in 40 games). Bergfors is a rookie former first-round draft choice in 2005 who had an excellent start, but has fallen off the face of the earth this past month. Also joining Atlanta: Patrice Cormier, the controversial captain of Canada's silver medal-winning world junior team who is suspended for the rest of the QMJHL season; plus a first-round draft choice in 2010 that figures to be no higher than 25th overall in a good, but not great draft.
Not much in other words, considering that Kovalchuk is one of the top talents in the NHL and gives the Devils a dimension that they lacked, beyond Zach Parise - a natural goal-scorer, someone capable of tilting the balance of power in those tight-to-the-vest games that coach Jacques Lemaire likes to play.
So let's make that question No. 1 - how will Kovalchuk get along with Lemaire, a player who had a comparable talent on his squad in the Minnesota Wild days (Marian Gaborik) and constantly stressed to him the need to play defence? Not sure Lemaire's philosophy will excite Kovalchuk who, at his freewheeling best, likes to spit out the bit and gallop to the attack.
On the other hand, the Devils made a similar move a decade ago to land Alexander Mogilny as a playoff rental and that deal paid dividends. Lamoriello gave up Brendan Morrison and Dennis Pederson to the Vancouver Canucks; New Jersey won the Stanley Cup that year (2000), even if Mogilny managed only seven paltry points in 23 playoff games. But what Kovalchuk does give the Devils is a chance to construct a second scoring line. Eventually, he'll probably play with Patrick Elias. Add in Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner to Parise and Brian Rolston and that's not a bad complement of forwards to go into battle against the likes of the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Presumably, with goaltender Martin Brodeur in the midst of another excellent season, the Devils figured the time to make a push for playoff success was now (after consecutive first-round exits under former coach Brent Sutter).
As for the Bruins, you'd have to think that they've looked at the rest of the competition in the East and understand that as currently built, they simply don't match up.
Patience can be an elusive virtue at the NHL level, but GM Peter Chiarelli seems to possess it in large quantities. Even though Chiarelli was uniquely positioned with draft choices galore to make a push for Kovalchuk (and reunite him with fellow ex-Thrasher Marc Savard), he just couldn't bring himself to meet Atlanta's asking price.
Understandable if the price was Milan Lucic, who despite a tough time of it this season, remains a commodity that a team can build around; or the No. 1 draft choice they received from Toronto in the Phil Kessel deal, which could be top three.
After that, though, it would seem a defensible risk to pick up Kovalchuk, if only to sell him on the merits of the city and the organization over the final months of the season and into the playoffs. Boston's scoring woes aren't going away - a primary reason why they were 0-6-2 in their past eight and with only a single victory in the past 12 games going into Thursday's action. That's not good enough in a conference that boasts two of the hottest teams in the NHL, Washington and Ottawa, plus the defending champion Penguins.
Meanwhile, the Kings weren't prepared to give up Wayne Simmonds as part of a deal for Kovalchuk; curious since Simmonds is playing fewer than 15 minutes per night for Los Angeles. Eventually, you do have to give up something for a player of Kovalchuk's stature.
The Devils were already the second-best team in the Eastern Conference even without Kovalchuk - and even as they've hit a 3-6-1 bump in the road. With him, they should theoretically be prepared to compete with anyone. Boston? Not so much.
MORE KOVALCHUK: Hours before pulling the trigger on the Kovalchuk deal, Waddell went public with the offers that couldn't get a contract extension done - a 12-year, $101-million (all currency U.S.) deal that would have amounted to the lifetime contract Kovalchuk sought; or a seven-year, $70 million option that would have leapt him past Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin into top spot among NHL earning leaders. It was a calculated move, but a completely understandable one, too. Coming out of the lockout, Kovalchuk used the threat of staying home to play in Russia to extract his current deal out of the Thrashers - Atlanta ownership eventually succumbed to the pressure because it didn't feel it could afford to lose its marquee star. Now, some four-and-a-half years later, it was not about to cede to the same pressure again.
What makes things even more complicated for Atlanta is that as a mid-market team in the southern United States, they really can't afford to spend to the salary-cap limit, or risk losing out on the NHL's revenue-sharing revenue. Accordingly, if Kovalchuk wanted the maximum allowed under the CBA - 20 per cent of the salary cap - he would effectively gobble up between 25 and 27 per cent of the actual Atlanta payroll because they are not going to go to $56.8-million under any circumstance.
For one player out of 23 to eat up a quarter of the payroll makes little sense, if the goal is to win as a team. Kovalchuk and his agent Jay Grossman forced Waddell's hand. Even as Kovalchuk kept insisting that his goal was to stay in Atlanta, there was little chance of that happening unless he was prepared to give a little on his salary demands.
"In a cap world, you have to make all the pieces fit," said Waddell. "If you have one player take up that much of your cap, it makes it hard to fit all those other pieces in there. As our younger players get better, they're going to demand bigger contracts - and you've got to look at that moving forward."
The Devils didn't enter the fray for Kovalchuk until this past weekend, when Waddell was taking in Sunday's game between New Jersey and the Los Angeles Kings. Lamoriello made an initial offer; when he finally included Cormier's name in the deal, that essentially tipped the scales in the Devils' favour.
So the Devils have Kovalchuk for now and presumably will make a push to sign him in the off-season, if the marriage between player and team works out. And if not, and if the goal is to, at all costs, maximize the dollars that he'll earn, then Kovalchuk may need to look homeward and sign with the Russian-based Continental Hockey League (KHL). Because the odds seem long that he'll earn more elsewhere in the NHL than what the Thrashers had on the table as negotiations broke down.
ONE FINAL KOVALCHUK THOUGHT: Waddell held a conference call in the immediate aftermath of the deal, and provided a fair bit of insight into the process. When I asked him if there were any formal offers beyond the Devils' proposal that gave him pause, he answered no:
"There were a couple of other teams that were interested, but nothing with the assets this package provided. In some of the other cases, teams wanted to get rid of some bad contracts. We didn't feel we in a position where we needed to take any bad contracts back and help somebody else out of a situation, so … We looked at several other deals really closely, but at the end of the day, this was the best deal for us - currently and moving forward."
As for Waddell's semi-controversial decision to spill all about the contract negotiations, he did so with the blessing of the team's ownership: "It was important for us to share those numbers and let people know we tried to sign him."
WHAT'S THE HITCH? The Columbus Blue Jackets took a comfortable and relatively safe path after parting ways with coach Ken Hitchcock this week, promoting Claude Noel to the job on an interim basis. It's similar to the strategy adopted by the St. Louis Blues with Davis Payne - giving a comparative unknown with defensible credentials a chance to show if he can get the players to buy into his approach over the final third of the season. The recent success of Cory Clouston in Ottawa and Bruce Boudreau in Washington - currently manning the benches of the two hottest teams in the league - have given other clubs the courage to try out their own fresh faces behind the bench, rather than recycling the tried and true. The only real difference is that the Blues are in a position to make the playoffs with a strong finish, whereas Columbus is not. If Noel doesn't get the nod on a permanent basis, it'll be because the Blue Jackets will also want to look at Kevin Dineen, one of their former players, who is currently coaching in the Buffalo Sabres' organization. … Hitchcock is under contract through the end of the 2011-12 season at $1.3-million a season, meaning that he'll get paid in full for two more years after this if he doesn't pursue - or land - another NHL opportunity. Chances are, he'll take his time before jumping at the next job, if and when an offer comes.
THE NEW-LOOK FLAMES: One of the reasons that Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter went ahead and acquired high-priced, under-achieving Ales Kotalik in that four-player trade with the New York Rangers was that Kotalik came recommended by two old friends from his Lethbridge days, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier. Kotalik was the odd man out in Buffalo, largely for financial reasons, but he did produce a 62-point season for the Sabres in the first year coming out of the NHL lockout. Ever since, however, his numbers have fallen way off. Kotalik started his Calgary career playing alongside fellow ex-Ranger Chris Higgins on the second line with Daymond Langkow. Two ex-Leafs, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman, were getting first-line duty on the Jarome Iginla line. Not sure what that says about Calgary's secondary scoring - or if the Flames believe that more ice time will do for their newcomers what an enhanced role did for Guillaume Latendresse in Minnesota. Kotalik, upon his arrival in Calgary, after waiving his no-trade contract said, "I want to prove mostly to myself I could have been better and I will be better."
BLACKHAWK UP: As expected, the Chicago Blackhawks got centre Dave Bolland back from injury earlier this week, bumping Colin Fraser to the press box. That came Wednesday in a loss to the St. Louis Blues - and the expectation is that, as Bolland's conditioning improves, he'll move from the fourth line to the second line and play with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
DUCKS ON THE RISE: Anaheim waited until the final three weeks last season to make its playoff push; after defeating Detroit the other night, the Ducks improved to 11-4-0 in their past 15 and no one would be surprised if they surged into the top eight by the end of the season. One team that's suddenly vulnerable: the Nashville Predators, just 4-6 in their last 10. … A sign that the Red Wings are starting to get healthy again: Defenceman Jonathan Ericsson was held out of Tuesday's game against the Sharks, in which Detroit battled back for a big come-from-behind win after spotting San Jose an early lead. … Jason Blake essentially returned to his NHL roots this past week, landing in Anaheim as the third piece of the J.S. Giguere-Vesa Toskala deal. Blake turned pro with the Kings in 1998-99, signing as a free agent after a monster college career at North Dakota. By joining the Ducks, he became the 20th player in history to play for both of the southern California NHL franchises. … Rumours persist that the Dallas Stars might part with Mike Ribeiro, if the right offer came along: Ribeiro earns $5-million a season; in his absence, rookie Jamie Benn has done a credible job filling in for him on the line with Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott. Dallas isn't exactly knee-deep in centres, given that this could be Mike Modano's final year, but if it determines Benn can play there, then moving Ribeiro might give it a better chance of signing Ott, an upcoming unrestricted free agent, to a contract extension.
BOOTH RETURNS: The Florida Panthers' David Booth is back playing, but still having a difficult time adjusting to the pace of the NHL game, after missing 45 games with a concussion, the result of a hit to his cranium by the Flyers' Mike Richards. The U.S. Olympic team replaced two injured defencemen Tuesday (Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason in for Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin). If there's an injury up front, Booth is a candidate to play in Vancouver. ... The Islanders put long-time, hard-rock defenceman Brendan Witt on waivers this past week. Witt received a little notoriety earlier this year, when he was hit by an SUV earlier this season leaving the hotel in Philadelphia - but brushed it off and played that night against the Flyers. A knee injury has slowed him this season; it remains to be seen if the intangibles he brings will make him a candidate to move at the trade deadline again. That happened to Witt once earlier in his career - back in 2006, when the Washington Capitals were in salary-dumping mode. Nashville gave up a first rounder to rent Witt for 17 games; the Capitals turned that draft choice into goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
AND FINALLY: Pittsburgh will likely wait until the 11th hour to make its roster tweaks, in part so that it can get a clearer idea of how much - or how little - it will get out of two players - Chris Kunitz and Max Talbot - who made big impacts in last year's playoffs. Kunitz was scheduled to return to the line-up this week, perhaps even Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, after recovering from abdominal surgery. Kunitz has 20 points in the 30 games he's played, and will likely go back and play left wing with Sidney Crosby. Talbot, meanwhile, has been in and out of the line-up and has just five points (and one goal) to show for his 28 NHL appearances. Talbot starred in last year's playoffs on Evgeni Malkin's line and appears to be struggling with a groin injury, after missing the start of the season recovering from surgery. In theory, the Penguins could keep Talbot out until after the Olympic break, just to ensure everything heals properly. Talbot had 19 points in 24 playoff games last season and was a major force in the Penguins' championship drive. If healthy, both are top-six forwards in Pittsburgh's scheme of things. If not, then general manager Ray Shero may have more work to do.