Ilya Kovalchuk Right Move for Maple Leafs

Mark AndersonContributor IIIJune 19, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 10:  Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his third period goal against the New York Islanders at the Prudential Center on April 10, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With the free agent frenzy just around the corner, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has said on numerous occasions that he’s not interested in joining the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes.

But I’m not buying it. 

Why not? For one, what GMs say before they act rarely coincides with what they do, and two, adding this guy just makes too much sense.

Granted, Kovalchuk’s rejection of a $10 million contract from Atlanta just before he got shipped off to New Jersey would make any GM in this age of the salary cap quake in his power suit.

But that’s just the point—no one is going to give Kovalchuk that much money.

That said, there’s no reason a team couldn’t snag maybe the greatest young sniper ever to hit the unrestricted free agent market for $8-9 million per season and a Marian Hossa-like long, back-loaded contract that might take the heat off the cap hit at least somewhat.

So why not the Leafs?

Sure, we all know they have a lot of money locked into their defense corps, and truly are more in need of a proven top-line centre rather than a decidedly un-Burke-ian slick winger whose defensive commitment has been questioned in the past.

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But first of all, I think Kovalchuk gets a bad rap. Devils guru Lou Lamariello is not a man to tolerate selfishness, and had only glowing things to say about Kovalchuk's work ethic this spring.  In addition, whatever you want to say about his play, the man is a class act.

Second, proven first-line centres are simply nowhere to be had, neither via the Leafs’ meager trading assets nor the free agent market and certainly not in the 62nd pick of this year's draft. 

Yet, what even Burke cannot ignore is the 27-year-old’s consistent twine-snapping production. And that is the bottom line. The Leafs desperately need goals. Lots of them. From anywhere. And Kovalchuk proved this year that he can score no matter who his centre is. For one thing, I’d take Bozak over Antropov any day. 

Here’s the deal. If the Leafs sign Kovalchuk and pull off a number of other no-brainers, they must be considered a contender for a playoff spot, possibly even a fifth seed with a little luck—of which 2009-10 had none at all.   Indeed, worse than bad luck, they had Vesa Toskala.

Burke is looking for the quick road to the postseason and this scenario has got to sound appealing.

Of course, not without some merit, there are those who say that Kovalchuk wants to go to a winner.  However much blue-blooded idealists like me imagine the Leafs improving, I am grounded in reality enough to know that there are other destinations for the Russian winger where W’s are more probable. 

L.A. seems to be the place most people envision him, and yeah, they are definitely a team on the rise with a bright future. 

But for one thing, precisely because the Kings have more and better players, they will soon be overwhelmed with their own salary cap issues. Just how much are they going to have to pay Drew Doughty after this year, for example? 

Furthermore, with Burke’s track record in Vancouver and Anaheim, and teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago going from zeroes to heroes in a matter of years, there’s every reason to think Toronto has a not too distant future every bit as bright as a place like L.A.

In fact, it is infinitely more bright, because, let’s face it, no matter how much success the Kings have, L.A. is about the Lakers and Dodgers—and it will never, ever be about the Kings.

Gretzky proved that one.  Sign with the Blue and White, on the other hand, and Kovalchuk’s stature immediately soars to Olympian heights. You think that parade in Chicago was impressive? Just imagine downtown Toronto. 

Really though, provided the team wants him, choosing cities all depends on Kovalchuk. Maybe he’s the Lecavalier type who wants nothing to do with the vicissitudes of a rabid hockey market and would rather head to the beach with a low-profile.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why any supreme talent would want that.  But in any case, he’s had that his whole career. I think the adoring faithful of the ACC has got to sound like a welcome change for a superstar like Kovalchuk. He can probably hear them chanting his name right now. Ilya! Ilya! Ilya!

Ok, I'm getting carried away.

But I maintain that however polarized Leaf Nation is about salary cap this, salary cap that, selfish player this, overrated that, I don’t believe there is a fan out there who wouldn’t like to see him in a Leafs jersey rushing over the blue line, leaving some hapless D-man tangled in his jock strap. Certainly not this fan. 

And that, my friends, is why Ilya Kovalchuk should be a Maple Leaf come July 1st.