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Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk (L) lines up his shot as Ottawa Senators' Chris Phillips plays defense during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa October 10, 2009. REUTERS/Blair Gable (CANADA SPORT ICE HOCKEY) (BLAIR GABLE)
Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk (L) lines up his shot as Ottawa Senators' Chris Phillips plays defense during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa October 10, 2009. REUTERS/Blair Gable (CANADA SPORT ICE HOCKEY) (BLAIR GABLE)

Kovalchuk interested in Leafs; Burke says nyet Add to ...

NHL free agency opens exactly 15 days from today, and as you've no doubt heard already, Ilya Kovalchuk is, if not the prize, then certainly one of the top two along with Patrick Marleau.

Yesterday, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun had a quote from Leafs GM Brian Burke basically squashing any speculation his team would be in the mix for Kovalchuk, saying simply: "We're not going to be involved in that race."

So there goes one top-six forward candidate.

What's interesting about the Kovalchuk talk is that I've been told pretty definitively that the Leafs were among the teams he was interested in. While the player (who is under contract to the Devils until July 1) and his camp remain quiet on all this, the general feeling around the league is that Toronto was at least among the teams in the running.

Now, that might seem at odds with some of the things Kovalchuk's looking for - with a winning team near the top of the list - but many still believe that Burke can, in adding pieces via free agency and trade this summer, turn things around rather quickly.

Yes, Kovalchuk is looking at a considerable contract, but with Nikolai Kulemin unsigned, Toronto has only roughly $12-million committed to their forward group, with nearly half of that going to Phil Kessel. It's highly likely Burke radically alters his salary structure in the next three weeks, moving out money on the blueline for money up front.

There's also some creative accounting that could come into play with Kovalchuk's contract. We've already seen players like Marian Hossa sign behemoth deals stretching into the sunset with a relatively modest cap hit, and I think there's a chance we see the same for Kovalchuk.

The final five years of Hossa's deal, for example, include just $8-million in salary. If the Kovalchuk camp was willing to do something similar, on say a 13- or 14-year deal that took him to age 40-plus, it's possible that he could get huge money up front, be locked up long term and have a cap hit in the $6-million or so range.

Do I think Toronto would sign a risky deal like that? Not really. But given a dire need for some quality offensive weapons to play with Kessel and Tyler Bozak, how many other options are there to boost the Leafs' offence?

There is, for one, some general skepticism around the league that Tomas Kaberle will fetch the type of player Burke is seeking, and there aren't many quality top six forwards in free agency outside of Kovalchuk and Marleau. Many of the traditionally big spending teams, meanwhile, are already in a tight spot payroll wise. Others are cutting salary altogether.

So there could be an opportunity there.

Kovalchuk may be a flawed superstar with limited playoff experience, but he has scored more goals (230) since the lockout than everyone but Ovechkin and done so with little help. He's an offensive weapon a lot of teams could use.

With Burke ruling Toronto out of the mix two weeks early, where else could Kovalchuk go?

Keeping in mind that he's spent almost all of his 621-game career in Atlanta, here's what I believe Kovalchuk's after:

1. As I said earlier, he wants to win. 2. He'd like to play out of obscurity in a market where hockey matters. 3. A long-term deal is likely (but going really long isn't a requirement). 4. Playing in the KHL isn't happening - barring an insane offer.

While Kovalchuk will go to July 1 to see what's out there, New Jersey remains a possibility - although they've got Zach Parise coming up as a very expensive RFA after this season and Brian Rolston's already eating some of their salary with his deal for more than $5-million. The Kings are likely the front-runners, with it being likely Dean Lombardi adds either Kovalchuk or Marleau to vault his young team ahead in the West.

Other clubs like Colorado and St. Louis could also be in the mix, depending on what their ownership and budget situations allow and whether or not they're seen as teams on the rise. At this point, the West in general seems a more likely destination.

That said, expect more teams to become involved as players retire, are bought out or traded in the next two weeks. Making the necessarily payroll room for one of the big free agents is going to be a major hurdle for some teams, especially if the cap doesn't go up as much as predicted, and it seems likely Kovalchuk settles for less than the massive deals Atlanta had offered.

At this point, however, the feeling is that he's hoping for a long-term home where he can win -- and not necessarily looking to pull every last dollar out of the team he signs with.

Given the landscape, and how few teams may be in the mix, he could be a bargain.

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