NHL Free Agency: Why Is LA Passing on Ilya Kovalchuk? One Word, "Chicago"

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NHL Free Agency: Why Is LA Passing on Ilya Kovalchuk? One Word,
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Back when the LA Kings were still in on the Kovalchuk Sweepstakes (well, the second time at least), a friend and I were emailing back and forth on the possible scenarios that could result in Kovalchuk actually becoming a Los Angeles King.

Like any Kings fan, my friend wants Kovy bad. However, the way he summed up his final opinion on the matter was very curious.

"I don't want us to be Chicago."

Now, on the face of it, that's a pretty bizarre statement for a hockey fan to make.

So, you don't want to win a Stanley Cup, you don't want to be a perennial contender, you don't want to be counted among the top franchises in the league?

But, after giving it some thought, I understood the sentiment from another angle.

No, you don't want to dismantle a Stanley Cup winning roster, you don't want to be saddled with bad contracts, and you don't want to wave goodbye to players you developed and nurtured, simply because you can no longer pay their salaries.

Looking at things in this way, one finds that the Chicago Blackhawks are perhaps the best and worst example of how to build and run an NHL team.

Let's take a look at the best at what they've done.

Like any dominant franchise, they've drafted and developed extremely well.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien and Niklas Hjalmarsson were all essential to Chicago's success this past year and all were Chicago draft picks.

Chicago also acquired key contributors via free agency and trade acquisitions, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Marian Hossa and John Madden among them.

They also signed an unheralded, relatively overlooked Finnish goal keeper named Antti Niemi in 2008 who, just two years later, came off the bench in the regular season and didn't stop playing until his team won the Stanley Cup.

Talk about being in control of your own destiny.

Chicago built a winner from the ground up. They did it more quickly and smarter than any team in recent memory.

Surely, any team would want to be these Chicago Blackhawks.

However, as smart as former GM Dale Tallon was in building with these pieces, he also committed a grievous error, and one few teams can ever recover from-overpaying for free-agents.

In Chicago's case, they wrapped up nearly $13 million annually in two players, defenseman Brian Campbell and goalie Christobal Huet.

The ins and outs of why these contracts were bad moves have been well documented and anyone who doesn't know that Christobal Huet was perhaps one of the worst free-agent signings in recent memory, should also be informed of the fact that the sky is blue and water is wet.

What's significant to the point however, is that, regardless of Chicago's ability to bury Huet and his contract in the minors, or the possibility of trading Brian Campbell, these two signings have undone a significant amount of good work in Chicago.

Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg were traded to Altanta and Toronto, respectively, due to Chicago's inability to keep them and stay under the salary cap.

Keeping veteran center man, and now three-time Stanley Cup winner, John Madden in the fold is no longer an option.

Goalie Antti Niemi has filed for salary arbitration, the result of which may price him out of Chicago.

And finally, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson has just been signed to a four-year, $14 million offer sheet by the San Jose Sharks.  This is something Chicago will have a difficult, if not impossible time, matching without sacrificing another player, perhaps the aforementioned Niemi.

Surely no team, wants to be these Chicago Blackhawks.

What does all of this have to do with Dean Lombardi, the Los Angeles Kings and Ilya Kovalchuk?

Well, like Chicago, Los Angeles has moved quickly from a floundering franchise to legitimate threat, largely through outstanding draft picks.

Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Wayne Simmonds, and Drew Doughty all figure to be the core, and a very strong one at that, for years to come in Los Angeles.

Also, just like the Blackhawks, they've made some solid acquisitions via free-agency and trades having acquired Jack Johnson, Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth via these means.

Now, like the Blackhawks before them, they have significant cap space, a solid core of young talent and a desire to fill out their roster by way of free agent acquisitions.

Enter Ilya Kovalchuk.

Reports are he wants to be a Los Angeles King and has now twice engaged the team in an effort to get a deal done.

The Kings have the cap room to pay him his reported asking price of $10 million per season, but GM Dean Lombardi has now walked away from the bargaining table twice.

Why?

Well, as big a splash and as good a fit as Kovy in LA would make, Lombardi has only the 2010 Stanley Cup champs to look to for instruction on what not to do. 

With Drew Doughty, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Johnson in their final contract years before becoming restricted-free agents next summer, Lombardi could well sign Kovalchuk this year and make a strong, if not successful push, towards a Stanley Cup championship, but, at the cost of one or all of those players leaving to seek the significant raises they will undoubtedly command.

Though Kovalchuk would likely prove a better value to LA than either of Brian Campbell or Christobal Huet in Chicago, Lombardi is not about to mortgage his team's future to land him.

By taking this action, Lombardi is seemingly following the trail blazed by the Chicago Blackhawks, but, with the benefit of knowing where the pitfalls are, something Chicago is finding out by falling into them.

Could the LA Kings be the next Chicago Blackhawks?

It's entirely possible.

But, Dean Lombari has made it clear, they're not going to be those Chicago Blackhawks.

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