Arthur Staple's analysis: Why Kovalchuk won't be playing in tri-state area
The slow-speed chase for Ilya Kovalchuk appears to be winding down, with reports that the Kings are closing in on a contract with the coveted free agent.
So that would end a very strange trip through free agency for the 27-year-old scorer, whose name was attached at some point to all three teams in the tri-state area before Los Angeles, which had the salary cap space, the surrounding talent necessary to add Kovalchuk and wanted him most, finally appeared to land him.
Here's how it shook out for the locals:
Didn't want to be a Devil
Devils president Lou Lamoriello snagged several very good free agents in the opening days, including Anton Volchenkov and Johan Hedberg, perhaps the first legitimate backup that Marty Brodeur has had in ages. But Lamoriello held out hope that the player he gave up a very good top-four defenseman (Johnny Oduya), a promising young forward (Niclas Bergfors) and a first-round draft pick for in February wanted to stay in Jersey. It was more wishful thinking than negotiating all along, since the Devils owned Kovalchuk's rights going into July 1 and there wasn't even a sniff of a deal.
The Thrashers are vastly improved since Kovalchuk spurned their offers and forced a trade. The Devils need to focus on their homegrown star, Zach Parise, who becomes a restricted free agent after next season. They may have lost Kovalchuk, but they picked up enough to be their usual strong selves going into the season.
Wanted to be a Ranger
Sources have told Newsday at various times over the last three weeks that Kovalchuk did want to be in New York, but there's no way it could have happened. Even if Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk's sharp, understated agent, had gone to Glen Sather at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 and said, "Let's make it happen," it probably would not have.
The Rangers have too much money tied up in too few players and need to keep their younger guys around to afford Kovalchuk, who is also considered too similar to Marian Gaborik in style. The Rangers need a playmaking center.
Isles weren't right fit
The Islanders would've loved to have added Kovalchuk - on their terms.
Sources said that Isles GM Garth Snow never lost interest in signing Kovalchuk, but it would have been a one-year, $10-million deal, something that didn't make sense for the player. Kovalchuk, with a 1-8 career playoff record, wasn't interested in taking a flier on a short-term deal with such a young team; the Kings are young, too, but farther along the rebuilding process.
So it appears Kovalchuk, after a mere 17 days on the market - it felt like six months, given the high-speed nature of hockey free agency - is closing in on a new home.
What's next for locals?
The best news for the Rangers and Islanders? That new home for Kovalchuk is far, far away from here. Look for trades, not signings, by locals.
Snow is a tremendous bargain shopper in July and the Isles have tons of room under the cap to add players. The Rangers, who will get restricted free agent Marc Staal signed sometime before training camp, will have almost no room to maneuver under the cap.
But both teams are perusing the trade market to add prominent players - the Isles could use a top-four defenseman, the Rangers need a center.
That is where most of the talent is right now, and the market will become more active as the season draws closer. Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, with one year left on his deal, could be expendable; Stars center Brad Richards, also with one year left and a favorite of John Tortorella's, could and should be a Ranger target, especially with Dallas being in bankruptcy.
There is also the matter of a new collective bargaining agreement coming up for negotiation before the 2012-13 season. Teams will be jockeying to move players who could be up for big paydays around then, especially ones whose bottom lines aren't getting much better.