Posted: Friday July 23, 2010 5:29PM ; Updated: Friday July 23, 2010 5:29PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>INSIDE THE NHL

Lightning strike gold, Kovalchuk crystal ball, more mailbag topics

Story Highlights

A new owner and GM Steve Yzerman are making Tampa Bay the place to play

Who's to say Ilya Kovalchuk won't play until he's 44, and that bodes ill for the NHL

Sniper Sean Couturier heads my projected top three picks in next year's draft

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simon-gagne.jpg
Simon Gagne's choice of Tampa Bay speaks volumes about the job that new GM Steve Yzerman is doing.
AP

The postman always knocks and knocks, so let's grab another fistful of your epistles...

I can't believe how little attention Steve Yzerman is getting. Have you been paying attention to what he's doing in Tampa? Where's the love for the Simon Gagne trade? I believe this will be a completely different team with a new, winning attitude. I can't wait for the season to start. Or for you guys in the media to jump on the bandwagon.
-- Chris Braun, Florida

I'll agree that the Gagne deal did kind of get the Farrah Fawcett treatment, but not for lack of respect for him as a player or Yzerman's slick deal. Gagne just had the bad luck to be swapped on the same day that the Ilya Kovalchuk deal was voided.

Although I wrote a note on the deal previously, let me add this: To me, the most compelling element is that Gagne said he wanted to go to just one team...and it was the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Surprising? Oh, yeah. Not that Tampa is the NHL's version of the Gulag Archipelago. If you can overlook the eternally blinking turn signals on the backs of cars and the wilting humidity, it's a pretty sweet locale. As more than one player has told me, you can't beat wearing flip-flops to practice.

But since the lockout, the fractious ownership situations, goofy management, and barely competent coaching has made Tampa a tough place to play. Then Jeff Vinik took over (don't forget to give Gary Bettman full marks for bringing him on board) and began to craft a corporate culture that not only put the right people in the right positions, but gave them a chance to succeed once they got there. The hiring of Yzerman then was Vinik's master stroke, and one that could go down as the best move in franchise history.

Yzerman has made some interesting moves -- drafting Brett Connolly, signing Dan Ellis, moving Andrei Meszaros out and Pavel Kubina in -- but what really puts this situation in relief is the fact that Gagne tabbed the Bolts when he was allowed to call his shot. The Lightning are different. Starting now. Should make for a fun season for their fans.

I'm fascinated by the whole [Ilya Kovalchuk] situation. For some reason, and I'm not sure why, I was thrilled when the league vetoed the deal. But the more I think about it, I'm not sure I understand why they did, or at least, if they have a valid reason for it beyond the same emotional reaction I felt. Any idea what's going on now or what happens next?
-- Barry Browning, Arkansas

The Devils and the Kovalchuk camp are supposed to be in the midst of a five-day period in which they've been asked to come up with a new deal that is more palatable to the league. In reality, they're just sitting around waiting for the next shoe to drop and likely waiting for the chance to take the case to arbitration. Why? They believe -- and so do many observers on both sides of the fence -- that the league has no legal leg to stand on.

Sure, everyone knows this contract struts up to the spirit of the CBA and slaps it in the face. It's clearly constructed to circumvent the cap. But, and it's a big but, there appears to be no specific wording in the CBA that will allow the league's challenge to stand.

Essentially, it all comes down to whether Kovalchuk intends to honor the duration of his deal by playing until he's 44. Hard to believe he'd do that, but can anyone say that with any certainty? Who thought Chris Chelios would have played for as long as he did? Dominik Hasek signed this week to play in the KHL at age 45. And that's the rub: there's no way of knowing what sort of longevity a player has in him. So unless the league is privy to some sort of careless documents that suggest otherwise, the Devils and Kovalchuk can argue the desire to fulfill the contract...and the league simply has no rebuttal.

It's pretty clear that the league failed to account for the type of contract signed by Kovalchuk, Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa and several others when crafting the CBA. At this point, it's looking more and more like the NHL will have to live with it until the next round of talks. And that means Kovalchuk's deal is looking as though it will stand.

Everyone's talking about the Kovalchuk deal like it's the end of the hockey world, but what about Clarke MacArthur's arbitration ruling: $2.4 million for a guy who is only a hair better than the kids riding the buses? That's the real insanity!
-- Karen Block, Ontario

The Thrashers clearly agreed, walking away from the award and allowing MacArthur to become a free agent. Word is they would have walked from any award north of $2 million, and who can blame them? No one questions MacArthur's grit, but for that kind of money it's fair to expect a player who can soak up some second-line minutes. That means someone who can be relied on to chip in a few more than the career-high 35 points MacArthur contributed last season.

It'll be interesting to see what impact that the arbitrator's decision and the Thrashers reaction have on the remaining hearings on the docket. Don't be surprised to see a few more walkaways.

I can't figure out why the Thrashers allowed Max Afinogenov to walk. This team struggled to score, especially after Kovalchuk left. Why let a player go who could help make up some of the gap?
-- Chris Vasquez, Georgia

Well, partly because they didn't want to give him the term or the dollars that he was looking for. Partly because he doesn't fit the Rick Dudley mold of tougher, two-way players. But more to the point, Afinogenov had his chance to prove himself capable of picking up the offensive slack in the wake of the Kovalchuk trade and he came up small, scoring just six goals over the final 27 games. Do the math and that hints at an 18-goal pace for the season.

Now, if Max were a brilliant defensive player (ignore that minus-17 rating), was reasonably consistent in his production, or brought some other valuable dimension to the lineup (maybe he brought the coffee and donuts every morning), then he might make sense as part of the mix. But unless he finds the market dry and comes in dirt cheap, I expect to see the Thrashers leave his roster spot open and allow the kids to fight for it. With no real chance of contending soon (either with or without Max in blue), this is the most sensible solution.

Challenge for you: name the top-three picks in next year's draft, then let's come back in a year and see how you did.
-- Elle Canfield, British Columbia

Best guess? Sharp-shooter Sean Couturier of Drummondville, playmaking center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Red Deer, and Swedish sniper Gabriel Landeskog of the Kitchener Rangers, in that order.

A month ago, I would have listed Swedish defender Adam Larsson at the top, but I'm thinking that the preference for dynamic offense that dictated this year's draft order could be in play again next year. I'll hedge my bet by saying Larsson could still go first overall -- he's been dominant every time I've seen him -- but I could see him slipping a couple notches. Conventional wisdom says a rebuild starts at the blueline, but this draft suggests that teams are willing to reach for premium offensive talent first.

 
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