Friday, 21 July 2017

The Free Agent Pipe Dream

I'm not sure if he just likes seeing his name in the news or if he's somewhat serious, but it sounds as though the 2017-18 season will be Ilya Kovalchuk's last in the KHL as he's planning to return to the NHL in 2018-19 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. While this may catch the attention of some NHL GMs, you have to think that Ray Shero's comments about not having the opportunity to turn down deals for Kovalchuk this summer should be a cautionary flag for the Kovalchuk camp in the NHL's desire to see Kovalchuk return to North American rinks.

The fact that Kovalchuk will be a free agent means that a few GMs will kick the tires on what will be a 35 year-old winger. The issue that presents itself is that contracts given to 35 year-old players are fully guaranteed as per the CBA. For a player who reportedly has lost a step in the KHL as age has begun to catch up to him, I'm going to doubt that many teams will show up with bundles of money to sign the aging star when he's been out of the league for nearly six seasons.

That's not to say there won't be interest, though. For a guy who scored 32 goals and 78 points in helping SKA St. Petersburg win the Gagarin Cup, he has shown that he can still pull the trigger in the KHL and his play-making abilities are still there on the big ice. The critics, however, will point to the KHL and state that the game play is more akin to what you'd see in the AHL, so make of that what you will. There will be a few GMs who could offer a short-term deal who would want to see the sniper bag 25-or-more goals just as he did in nine of ten full NHL seasons.

As stated above, a few GMs called Shero about the availability of Kovalchuk via a trade earlier this summer, but Shero told Andrew Gross of he never received a trade proposal from any team.

"It was, 'I talked to this team, that team, do you mind following up?' Which I did, and like I said, I never had an offer I turned down," Shero told Gross. "He had to get a deal somewhere. That was step one. Nothing happens with him. That never happened, at least to bring to me for me to consider anything. So again whatever happened in that process, I don't know. It wasn't my business, it was theirs. I was ready for point B but never got there."

Now it would seem like Shero left it up to Kovalchuk to make a deal with another team which is find for Shero to do, but Shero also added in the Gross interview that he was under the understanding that Kovalchuk would become a free agent in 2018. "Yes," he stated, "that's been the understanding all along. Won't have to go through this again."

In hearing that, I could see why Shero fielded zero offers on Kovalchuk. If a team can wait one season until he becomes a free agent, there's no sense in dealing players or picks for a guy who may want to play elsewhere anyway once he hits unrestricted free agency. But even if he had found a deal and some team traded for Kovalchuk, you still have to do the due diligence and find out what you're getting prior to making the deal and possibly signing Kovalchuk beyond 2018-19. With teams having scouts everywhere across the world now, it might more prudent than ever to really know what you're getting when you see who Kovalchuk's linemates were last season as well.

Look, this isn't a debate about whether Kovalchuk is coming back to the NHL. He is, and that much we can be sure of from his statements today. What the debate is about is signing a point-per-game player in the KHL to a guaranteed contract in the NHL for some term. Anything more than three years is ludicrous when you consider the number of 38 year-old players in the NHL today, but you'd have to expect that at 35 years of age Kovalchuk would want three years to make it worth his while. And term will most likely dictate what he's paid as well since that contract is guaranteed whether he plays, retires (again), or simply sits in the press box watching.

If your GM is a cautious man, I could see him trying to buy low on this one for a shorter term with the promise that the next deal, if Kovalchuk can bring in good returns, would make up the difference. If your GM is gambling man, I could see someone plunking down a three-year deal for $4 million in the hopes that Kovalchuk immediately brings results.

If you're Kovalchuk, though, there may only be five or six teams you're willing to even listen to when it comes to trying to win a Stanley Cup. Those teams are usually near the cap as it is, so Kovalchuk may be forced to take less in order to win. Whatever the answer is, we'll know Ilya Kovalchuk's strategy next summer on July 1. Until then, there is an NHL season to play and a KHL season to play, and anything can happen between now and then.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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