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Ilya Kovalchu, seen celebrating a goal in an October 22 game, has been speaking with the Atlanta Thrashers about a long-term contract. (Kevin C. Cox/2009 Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchu, seen celebrating a goal in an October 22 game, has been speaking with the Atlanta Thrashers about a long-term contract. (Kevin C. Cox/2009 Getty Images)

NHL Notebook

Kovalchuk unlikely to head home Add to ...

When Alexander Medvedev, president of Russia's Continental Hockey League, says his league can offer Ilya Kovalchuk better terms than his NHL employer, the Atlanta Thrashers - as he did this past week - he's correct of course. Disingenuous, but correct.

Because its costs far outstripped its meagre revenues last season, the KHL introduced a thoroughly malleable salary cap - limiting the amount it pays its rank-and-file players but permitting teams to overpay desperately needed marquee players.

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So far, the best the KHL could do was outbid the Edmonton Oilers to lure the aging and mercurial Czech great Jaromir Jagr to rejoin the team for which he played in the lockout, Avangard Omsk. Other recruiting efforts proved less successful.

Even if Jiri Hudler, for example was a useful player for the Detroit Red Wings last season, his absence - because of an offer he couldn't refuse from Moscow Dynamo - did not exactly sent tremors through the NHL. No one stopped buying tickets at the Joe Louis Arena because of Hudler's defection. If Pavel Datsyuk had gone home, that'd be a different story.

But thus far, the Russian players who've returned to play in the KHL are mostly those nearing the ends of their NHL careers, or ones who'd flat run out of North American options. Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Zubov left following last season; Alexei Yashin has been gone a couple of years now after the New York Islanders finally cut their losses and bought him out of a ridiculously high contract.

Kovalchuk's acquisition would represent a far greater coup than repatriating any of the aforementioned trio.

His absence would be keenly felt, first in Atlanta, where the Thrashers have evolved into a respectable, entertaining team this season with Kovalchuk leading the charge. One could convincingly argue that Kovalchuk - who returned to the Thrashers lineup Thursday with a three-point night after missing three weeks with a broken foot - is one of the top five Russian talents in the world, at or near the level of his contemporaries Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) or Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) for sheer offensive virtuosity.

The problem for the KHL - and what Medvedev doesn't say - is that the recent history of Russian players in Kovalchuk's sphere is that they are not primarily motivated by chasing top dollar or necessarily selling their services to the highest bidder.

Ovechkin, Malkin and Datsyuk all inked long-term contracts with their respective NHL teams largely because they want to play in the NHL, the best league in the world - and it's not as if they don't make gazillions here anyway. Ovechkin is, on average, the league's highest-paid player at $9.538-million (all currency U.S.) annually. Malkin makes $8.7-million per year, or the same as Sidney Crosby, tied for second overall, while Datsyuk is 22nd at $6.7-million.

Even if the Thrashers are struggling at the box office and operating deeply in the red, general manager Don Waddell has reiterated over and over that his team is prepared to offer Kovalchuk fair-market value for his services, on what would be a lifetime contract if he signs.

Enough, in other words, for Kovalchuk to make his decision based on lifestyle choices; and on the team's prospects of winning, which have never seemed better. The money, no matter who pays it, will be enough for Kovalchuk to live well for the rest of his life.

Medvedev, who met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in Washington this past Wednesday in the hopes of ending the Cold War between the warring leagues, is deputy chief of oil giant Gazprom and one of Russia's wealthiest men.

How rich then that Medvedev would be playing the capitalist card - crossing his fingers that Kovalchuk's choice of where to play next year when he becomes an unrestricted free agent will be motivated purely by economic factors.

My, how the political and economic times can change. Bob Dylan would be proud.

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