Ilya Kovalchuk

Chuk Mate?

by Eric Vecchione

The New York Rangers will announce the signing of 22 year-old Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to a six-year, $7.8 million dollar contract on Thursday.

Sound unbelievable?

Not as much as you may think. As GMs around the league are in the process of putting together their rosters, Atlanta’s Kovalchuk remains the premier unsigned Group II free-agent. Group II free-agents are restricted, and the cost of signing one of Kovalchuk’s caliber is a fairly steep four first-round draft picks. In the opinion of the New York Post’s Larry Brooks, extending a max-contract offer sheet to Kovalchuk would be a win-win situation for the Rangers. For one, if Atlanta doesn’t match then the Rangers have one of the top forwards in the NHL already at age 22.The price of four first round picks seems high at first glance but when you consider that the Rangers always have a knack for being bad but never bad enough to get a top five pick without trading up the price seems pretty fair. And when you throw in the fact that the Rangers’ last four first round picks (not counting this past year) have been Al Montoya and Lauri Korpikoski in 2004, Hugh Jessiman in 2003, and Dan Blackburn in 2001, it really starts to look like a steal for the Rangers to be able to sign a player of rare talent and not give up that much.

Ideally, the Rangers will only be getting better in coming years meaning their first round draft position would have to be getting worse, making the picks even more expendable. Kovalchuk would be exactly the type of player to reinvigorate the team and the fans, and hopefully the rumors floating around that Glen Sather is looking to add a young, franchise-type player center on Ilya.

The second point made by Brooks was that, should Atlanta match the offer sheet as expected (tsn.ca puts their current total salaries at $31.5 million), they would be financially constricted and in all likelihood unable to add other pieces to their roster that they might need to make a playoff run. While this holds some truth, it doesn’t really matter whether the Thrashers sign Kovalchuk to $5 million per or the max for with the big contracts of Marian Hossa ($5 million) and Bobby Holik ($4 million) they’ll be tied up financially for a few years until some other salaries come off the books. The Thrashers still have enough room to sign Kovalchuk, but the fate of their salary flexibility is not entirely tied to whether or not another team extends a max-contract offer sheet to Kovalchuk. This is the nature of the beast in the new NHL economic system, and it’s up to GM’s to understand and exploit the nuances of the new deal whether it’s with the intent of getting another team’s player or making that team pay through the nose for that player so they can’t sign others.

The Kovalchuk situation could be in some ways similar to in 1997 when the Rangers extended a 3 year, $21 million dollar offer sheet to then-restricted-free-agent Colorado Avalance center Joe Sakic. The Avs matched that offer, and the price the Rangers’ were willing to pay for Sakic established the market and served as a catalyst for the skewed economics that led to the lockout. Where the Ilya situation would be different is that the offer of $7.8 million wouldn’t reestablish any league-wide market since there is a one-player salary cap of $7.8 million, and in that the Thrashers, unlike the Avs, wouldn’t be able to spend $60 million keeping their team together as the Avs were able to do under the old CBA.

In the end this all may be wishful thinking for Ranger fans optimistic about seeing a young, marquee player at the Garden not wearing a visitors jersey. With camp opening up in just over a week, Sather appears to have made his biggest moves already and though it makes sense for the Rangers to make an offer on a top player when they might not get the same chance in coming years there does not appear to be any reason besides hope to believe that we’ll be seeing Kovalchuk on Broadway this season.

As long as we’re talking about hope, we should wish that the Kovalchuk/young-restricted FA rumors (other top Group II’s include Florida’s Olli Jokinen, 26, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone, 25, and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, 27, although the only player you could make a strong case for signing as a Group II is Datsyuk, maybe Jokinen) are true and the “Rangers sign 31 year-old Maxim Shushinsky” ones are unfounded, way off-base, or entirely fabricated.

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