NHL Free Agency: Ilya Kovalchuk Wants To Be a New York Ranger?

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NHL Free Agency: Ilya Kovalchuk Wants To Be a New York Ranger?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

“Kovalchuk should simply declare, publicly his want to play for the Rangers. I bet Slats would clear the deck and make it happen.”

That a twitter update by Darren Dreger, TSN hockey analyst, at approximately 10:54 AM.

This simple statement will have Ranger fans feeling like a kids on Christmas Eve praying for a gift wrapped Tickle Me Elmo in the morning under the tree (kids from 1996 that is).

It’s no secret, Ranger fans want Kovalchuk, and who wouldn’t? Let’s take the guarantees that the stocky, 6′ 2″ 230 lb left pivot provides: goals, assists, physicality, and respect from the opposition.

Kovalchuk is the type of player that coaches of opposing teams plan their entire game strategy around. An elite talent like Kovalchuk must be shadowed every shift he skates throughout the 60 minutes of regulation by the opposition’s number one defenseman. If Kovalchuk is playing the Flyers, you can bet your bottom dollar that Chris Pronger will be shadowing him throughout the course of the match. This is beneficial for Kovalchuk’s team for two reasons:

1.) Chris Pronger is a gritty defenseman with excessive snarl. He is one of our generation’s best defenseman for both his capabilities of eliminating offensive threats in his own zone and for his offensive prowess that truly rounds out his overall game. A player like Kovalchuk however, has the ability to single-handedly eliminate Pronger’s talent and impact on a game. Pronger, when facing Kovalchuk’s team, will be forced to play with ‘tunnel vision’ as he focuses on shadowing the gifted left winger, taking Pronger out of his element and changing his description from "game-changer" to "game-sustainer."

Kovalchuk’s team, in this scenario, has already won a strategic battle in eliminating one of the Flyers’ key players from having any true (game-changing) impact on the game. Of course the possibility still exists that Pronger (and other elite defensemen) keeps Kovalchuk off the score sheet, but this still benefits Kovalchuk’s team.

2.) Let’s take every Ranger fans’ ultimate 2010 offseason dream (and no, I’m not talking about Lebron going to the Knicks): Kovalchuk becomes a New York Ranger. This opens the ice up for Marian Gaborik, Vinnie Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Ryan Callahan, and basically every other forward on the Rangers squad. In fact, the Rangers offense would  benefit so greatly from Kovalchuk’s presence that even if he were to have a disastrous season of less than 20 goals, that Rangers offense would still trump their total goals scored from last year. How is this possible?

The Rangers offense, last season, was a one-trick pony. In other words, the Rangers were dependent solely on the their first line (primarily Marian Gaborik). The Rangers had a tremendous start last year, going 7-0-1. This great start was a result of Gaborik enjoying the time and space necessary to have an offensively explosive opening month and the opposition’s lack of a scouting report on what to expect from the 2009-2010 New York Rangers. 

This trend changed quickly however as the opposition’s coaches began to realize that the Rangers lacked offensive depth after their first line.

The slogan became ‘shut down the first line and the Rangers offense is blind.’  Thus Gaborik was shadowed by the oppositions best defensive duo (much like our Pronger-Kovalchuk scenario) and the Rangers lacked the talent/depth to make up for Gaborik’s inability to score as easily.

The result? The Rangers stopped scoring goals and the Rangers began losing.

Ilya Kovalchuk alleviates this chronic ailment as he would provide the Rangers with a bona fide second line. Take a second line of Sean Avery-Brandon Dubinsky-Ryan Callahan and the opposition will be very comfortable when that line is on the ice. That line as formatted represents the Rangers second-most gifted line, and yet they represent no real threat to the opposition like Gaborik does.

Now, take that same line and replace Sean Avery with Ilya Kovalchuk and suddenly they are a legitimate offensive threat, comparable to Prospal-Christensen-Gaborik. Who does Peter Laviolette  match Chris Pronger up against, the first line or the second?

Either way, one of Gaborik or Kovalchuk, the Rangers most gifted scorers, will be on the ice against the Flyer’s 3-4 defense duo rather than the usual 1-2 duo. This means more opportunities for that respective player/line and, ultimately, more goals.

Also, this alleviates pressure on the depth goal scorers. Brandon Dubinsky will enjoy more space as he will be even less of a concern when skating on a line with the heavily guarded Kovalchuk. More Rangers will be left unmarked as the rival’s defense will face more chaotic situations rendering them more likely to make assignment/positional mistakes.

Ultimately, Kovalchuk can make any teams offense more unpredictable just by having his last name on the sweater. For Ranger fans the idea of Gaborik and Kovalchuk representing the offensive elite for the team is tantalizing.

Those are the indirect benefits that the name Kovalchuk on your depth chart provides. We all know the direct benefits of having Ilya on your squad provides. He has scored 40+ goals in his last six seasons (reaching the 50+ plateau twice in that span) and is recognized as one of the top 5 most consistent scorers in the NHL. He also has size, which provides physicality and strength on the puck.

Kovalchuk can run the point on the power play which would be extremely beneficial along with Del Zotto and Gaborik on the first power-play unit. The benefits Kovalchuk provide are overwhelmingly obvious, but have also blinded many Ranger fans to the pressing issues that signing Kovalchuk would create.

Kovalchuk is expected to sign a contract in the ball park of $60 million locking him up for the next seven years. That breaks down to about $8.5 million against the salary cap. Compound that enormous figure with the albatross contracts the Rangers already have on their payroll and the situation becomes quite alarming. 

Referring to capgeek.com , the Rangers current payroll for this upcoming season is set at $53,671,667 with 20 players signed (as of right now); that leaves Glen Sather with about $7,890,833 to utilize for the rest of this year. 

This is pretty close to what Kovalchuk is looking for and makes signing him seemingly possible, but there are two problems to this premise: their names are Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.

Defensemen Staal and Giradi are both restricted free agents this offseason and still need to be signed.

Staal is due (and deserving) of a hefty raise from his $800,000 salary that he received in his prior contract. Expect Marc Staal to make around $4 million per year in his next contract (maybe a bit less considering he is a restricted free agent and does not have much of a bargaining chip unless he is sent offer sheets from other teams). Dan Girardi is utilizing his arbitration rights and bringing the team through the arbitration process (for those unfamiliar with the process I covered it in yesterday’s article and it can be read here ). Expect Giradi to be awarded a $3-$3.5 million dollar contract. With those two players signed at those ball park numbers that would leave the Rangers with about $1 million dollars left in salary cap area for the rest of the season. All of a sudden the chances of signing Kovalchuk seem diminished.  

The problem is not with Kovalchuk’s asking price, he is a player worth $8+ million, but with Glen Sather’s mistakes of the past. Chris Drury with a cap hit a little over $7 million for two more seasons and Wade Redden at $6.5 million for four more seasons, represent the reason the Rangers cannot move forward and consider themselves in the Kovalchuk hunt. With either of those contracts eliminated the Rangers would have a legitimate shot at landing the superstar left winger, yet should they?

Is Kovalchuk worth $8.5 million dollars? Absolutely, but this is from a general standpoint. If you’re wearing a general manager’s glasses with NHL tinted lenses you make this deal. His value is rooted in everything I discussed earlier: He is a legitimate scoring threat and game-breaker (Kovalchuk’s Stats ), he makes his teammates around him better with his play-making prowess/ability to control play in the offensive zone, and he has an indirect effect on the texture of the game/ice as he can control the strategic management of the opposing coaches’ squad by focusing their defensive tactics solely on the offensive threat he provides (the result is open ice for everyone else).

Before the salary cap era, Kovalchuk would already be signed because the NHL tinted lens would be comfortably fitted in the frames of Glen Sather’s Glasses. Unfortunately, in this era, Sather must view Kovalchuk with a critical ’New York Rangers’ eye. The situation is no longer rooted in “Is Kovalchuk worth that kind of money?,” but rather “Is Kovalchuk worth that kind of money for the New York Rangers of 2010-2011?” The answer is a resounding “No!”

Even if Glen Sather does demote Wade Redden to the AHL during this years preseason camp, Kovalchuk still does not make logical sense. Let’s add the million dollar cap space we will have after signing Giradi and Staal with the $6.5 million dollars that Redden’s demotion would open up for the Rangers. That leaves the Rangers with $7.5 million to sign Kovalchuk.

Further, let us now say that Kovalchuk wants to be a Ranger so much that he decides to take that $7.5 million dollar a year offer and signs the contract that will make Madison Square Garden his home. That leaves the Rangers with virtually no cap space to make any adjustments over the season.

“We have Kovalchuk! What adjustments will we need?”

How about adjustments like making a trade during the trade deadline to add the missing piece of the team puzzle for a serious playoff run. Adjustments such as calling up players from Hartford to fill in for injured Ranger players during the course of the season. Adjustments like signing our own players back when they become restricted free agents during the 2011 offseason (Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Gilroy). These necessary adjustments will be next to impossible without some cap room flexibility. Signing Kovalchuk ,even with Redden’s cap hit eliminated, is a very risky gamble, and brings another important dimension to the debate.

“Who replaces Wade on defense?”

Redden is by no means a 6.5 million dollar defenseman, but he is a serviceable 3rd-4th defenseman (albeit vastly overpaid). If he is buried in Hartford and Kovalchuk is signed, his only replacement can be a rookie from the Hartford Wolf Pack;  the Rangers will be unable to replace him with a free agent on the market due to the inability to fit any contract larger than the league minimum under the cap. 

A rookie defenseman at league minimum will struggle in trying to make the jump to the NHL in a rushed manner which will result in defensive deficiencies and more goals against. This is counter productive to Kovalchuk improving the offense as his offensive output will become a necessity (rather than icing on the cake) to balance out the increase of goals scored against the shoddy defense. His contract will weaken the Rangers’ defensive depth as they will be unable to sign a formidable replacement for Redden. Kovalchuk’s production may slightly edge the deficient aspects of a more watered down defense, but it will not be prominent enough to turn the Rangers into a serious cup contender. Rather it will more than likely result in just a  few more regular season victories.

Poor Defense will become a handicap for the 2010-2011 Rangers just as lack of offense hindered the 2009-2010 squad.

Teams with holes in their defense are prone to struggling in the playoffs (just ask the Washington Capitals from the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarter Finals). The Rangers have a very inexperienced back-end as it is with Redden in  the lineup (Del Zotto, Gilroy, and possibly McDonagh this season). Two sophomores and a rookie filling out the back-end of the defense demands patience as the young players go through the necessary learning curve that exists in becoming a well-rounded defenseman. A few years of experience is necessary before these young defensemen reach their potential.  Signing Kovalchuk screams ‘win now,’ rather than the ‘rebuild from within’ route Glen Sather seems adamant about pursuing.

The team, as constructed, is not ready to ‘win now,’ but rather are a few seasons away from enjoying the fruits of the patience they provided their home-grown talent with. Del Zotto, Stepan, Grachev, McDonagh, Anisimov, Kreider, Gilroy, Sauer, McIlrath, and Werek all need seasoning/time to reach their potential before the Rangers become serious Stanley Cup Contenders. The Rangers also need to be patient in waiting for their salary cap situation to be alleviated of Drury and Rozsival’s $7,050,000 and $5,000,000 cap hit as their contracts each expire in two years. After their contracts come off the books, the Rangers will have plenty of cap room to sign other lucrative deals with truely talented superstars (much like Kovalchuk).

One other important aspect in considering signing Kovalchuk is the business side of making the deal. There is no doubt that Kovalchuk will draw the usual rich business men to Madison Square Garden as New Yorkers love superstar talent and are therefore more willing to spend money on tickets if there is a name like Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shannahan, Wayne Gretzky, Marian Gaborik, Alexei Kovalev (disaster), Eric Lindros (disaster), or Jari Kurri (mega disaster) playing for the team. Kovalchuk is the type of player that draws fans to the Garden; James Dolan and Glen Sather both know this. It is difficult to argue against signing Kovalchuk when looking at his worth from a business stand point because at the end of the day the NHL is a business and owners are looking for profit more so than championships. Kovalchuk would certainly increase revenue for James Dolan and that may play a factor into the Kovalchuk signing situation. Glen Sather, however, seems to have the most control over Rangers’ personnel decision and seems dedicated to the rebuild process.

To wrap up, Kovalchuk is an immensely talented hockey player who will always make a hockey team better. He scores a plethora of goals, racks up assists, adds physicality, keeps the other team on their toes, and opens up the ice for his teammates. On the flip side, his contract demands symbolize a ‘win now’ mentality for any general manager who shows interest. Glen Sather and the New York Rangers, as presently constructed, are not a ’win now’ team, but rather a team that begs for patience as the future generation prepares to become the promise of tomorrow. Glen Sather needs to stay the course, build the future, put faith in the various prospects he has picked, and give them a chance to become the next superstar. Most of all, Glen Sather needs to prove to the loyal New York Rangers fan that he has truly changed his ways; and avoid trying to win the Stanley Cup with one large pay-day. _X_

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