New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk will be a central figure in the 2012 Stanley Cup final. Two years ago, he almost became a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
The operative word there is almost. The two NHL organizations got into a frantic bidding war for the services of the dynamic Russian sniper, and by the time negotiations were over, the Devils had offered so much money ($102-million U.S.) over so long a term (17 years) that the NHL ultimately rejected the contract, on the grounds that it contravened the salary cap.
The two sides eventually worked out a lower, revised deal but now, with this most unlikely of finals about to begin, you can't help but wonder, what if Kovalchuk had ended up in Los Angeles instead of New Jersey? How might history have changed?
The Kings pushed hard to sign Kovalchuk two years ago, and they did the same for Brad Richards last summer, believing they needed to fill in the talent gaps around their emerging core of homegrown players (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick). Unable to sign either, the Kings eventually committed those dollars to acquiring Mike Richards and Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets respectively.
The Kings are on a 12-2 run heading into the final, so it is difficult to argue with the results.
"Everything always works out for a reason," explained Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive officer of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Kings' parent company. "We were wounded [by the Kovalchuk negotiations] but it was a good life lesson. We said we'll get better at this the next time."
That process started last June, when the first pieces of the revamped organizational puzzle started falling into place. As the Kings were preparing an offer for soon-to-be free agent Brad Richards, an unexpected opportunity arose – the chance to trade for Flyers captain Mike Richards.
Many of the key decision makers in Los Angeles – general manager Dean Lombardi, assistant GM Ron Hextall and assistant coach John Stevens – all had strong ties to the Philadelphia organization and advised Leiweke to get Richards, at all costs, because of his winning pedigree.
"It was hard for me," Leiweke said. "I admit, I was probably the most hesitant to give up Wayne Simmonds, a good young player, a draft pick and Brayden Schenn, who was a guy we were telling our fan base for years was our future. But they were adamant. I trusted them and they made the deal.
"Then the question was, do we still go after Brad [Richards]or not?" Leiweke said. "We looked at our cap and we figured we could probably pull it off. We were aggressive because Dean really believed we needed one more top-six forward. As it turned out, after we didn't get him and went through the first part of the year, Dean was right.
"Then, Jeff Carter fell into our laps."
Yes, Carter, who was struggling and unhappy in Columbus. The Blue Jackets were ready to flip him at the NHL's trading deadline and the Kings were willing to roll the dice, even though Carter's reputation had taken a beating this past year.
"We were aware of all the chatter," Leiweke said, "but we made the deal, because Dean truly believed that was the piece of the puzzle that really freed up the first line. So everything that's happening now, I'll give Dean Lombardi a lot of credit. He called it. He really believed in it."
In all, the total value of the contracts for all four players – Kovalchuk, Brad Richards, Mike Richards and Carter – is a cool $287-million. This past year, Brad Richards made $12-million on a nine-year deal worth $60-million. Kovalchuk earned $6-million, but jumps to $11-million next year on the restructured 15-year, $100-million contract. Mike Richards made $6.6-million (12 years, $69-million) and Carter made $6-million on an 11-year, $58-million deal.
Because the dollars involved were so big, Leiweke said he needed to run them all past the Kings' elusive, reclusive owner Phillip Anschutz.
"The amazing thing, after going through the Kovalchuk situation and going through the Brad Richards situation, was how quick the yeses were on Mike Richards and especially on Jeff Carter," Leiweke said. "And I mean, it was a two-minute conversation and maybe a five-second answer.
"Now, if you come back to us and say, 'If you could have had it the other way and you could have gotten Kovalchuk or you could have gotten Richards,' or you could have stuck with what you did, I think you could it worked out just fine for all sides."