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Zipay: Expect Rangers interest if Kovalchuk is available

Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk (17) celebrates his go-ahead

Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk (17) celebrates his go-ahead goal during the third period of a game against the Carolina Hurricane. (January 16, 2010) Credit: AP

The Atlanta Thrashers haven't officially acknowledged that they cannot reach a long-term deal with Ilya Kovalchuk. If they do make him available, league sources expect the Rangers to be in the hunt.

In the past four years, the Russian superstar - the No. 1 pick in the 2001 entry draft who is to become an unrestricted free agent this summer - has averaged 47 goals and has fired in 30 this season. He could lift a bubble team in the East or West into the playoffs, and perhaps carry them deep into the postseason.

Like the Rangers, the Thrashers are on that Eastern bubble. They hope to retain Kovalchuk, 26, and have not allowed teams to talk contract with his agent. The Thrashers will have to decide before the March 3 trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing.

Do the Rangers have the right assets to offer and are they willing to part with them? Maybe not.

The price will be steep. Atlanta can command immediate help, a top prospect and a high draft pick. Think Brandon Dubinsky, either Chris Higgins or Ales Kotalik, a prospect such as Bobby Sanguinetti and maybe a No. 2 pick. The Flyers, Bruins, Canucks, Flames, Kings and Blackhawks could put together even more attractive packages.

To rent Kovalchuk, the Rangers, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday, would have to clear about $3 million in cap space. A long-term deal, presumably worth $8 million or more per year, could wait until July, when a decision on moving Wade Redden or Michal Rozsival would have to be made.

Acquiring Kovalchuk could help in several areas. The club desperately needs scoring. No one on the market this summer is in his class. The prime years of Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist are approaching. To compete in the East, a second pure scorer is vital. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The Rangers have no one in the pipeline that fits the bill. On the business side, fans are grumbling and tickets are available for almost every game at the Garden, which is due to be renovated.

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