Posted: Thursday July 8, 2010 6:02PM ; Updated: Friday July 9, 2010 2:05PM
Jim Kelley
Jim Kelley>INSIDE THE NHL

Kovalchuk picked the wrong year for a free agent power play

Story Highlights

The Kings showed that Ilya Kovalchuk badly misread the free agent market

Kovalchuk may have to call his own bluff and follow Evgeni Nabokov to Russia

Once again, Jarome Iginla is trying to take the heat off Flames management

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It's becoming clear to Ilya Kovalchuk that his bag won't be stuffed with as much money as he thought he'd get on the open market.
AP

It's pretty clear, especially if you've been reading the excellent reporting by Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, that Kings GM Dean Lombardi wants Ilya Kovalchuk ... but only at a price point that the market will bear.

Lombardi has now twice driven that home in a way that both the talented Russian winger and agent Jay Grossman can't help but understand. It's a fascinating scenario because in past years players -- especially those of Kovalchuk's caliber -- got nearly whatever they wanted. Not so now.

Truth is, the Kings can use Kovalchuk, but they can also move forward without him. There are few, if any, other serious bidders. Maybe the New Jersey Devils, but the New York Islanders? Come on. So the market is what the market will bear, and in today's NHL, the market is not $100 million over 12 years. That's the "final" offer by the Atlanta Thrashers that Kovalchuk turned down prior to his trade to New Jersey last February. This market is not even close.

That has to be humbling for the Kovalchuk camp, which on Monday put out a notice that he would decide his fate by late that afternoon, only to revise it on Tuesday to "the choices have been narrowed down" and "details are to be finalized." Now Camp Kovalchuk simply isn't saying anything.

As I write this, it's Thursday afternoon and my fingers have nothing new to report. It's hardly a given that any of those supposed "details" will be finalized on Friday, especially if the Kings truly are out of the picture again and the so-called front-running Devils have the market pretty much to themselves and the KHL.

Having grossly misread the market, Kovalchuk's options now appear to be:

1. Accept what the market will bear. (The Kings reportedly offered as much as $84.5 million over 13 years.)

2. Play in Russia if the offer is truly there.

3. Continue waiting for Godot, Brian Burke, or someone else to structure a deal that works for them and, at the very least, gives Kovalchuk an opportunity to save face in what is fast becoming a failed power play.

It was the same tough going, albeit on a lesser scale, for Evgeni Nabokov -- who just signed with the KHL for a reported $24 million over four years. The reasons are obvious.

Nabokov, considered the best goaltender on the market, waited a week after being let go by the San Jose Sharks and finally opted for a deal in Russia. The decision didn't come easy, but given what was on the table -- a possible low-ball offer from the Philadelphia Flyers and, perhaps, an even lower-ball offer to re-sign with the Sharks and share playing time with the lesser-priced (and less experienced) Antero Niittymaki -- he chose Mother Russia.

For now.

Bluffs come from all directions in the free agent market, and while Nabokov undoubtedly has come to terms with SKA St. Petersburg, nothing is a given. Players have been known to jump contracts or agreements on both sides of the NHL-KHL divide, and even though the two leagues claim to have reached some compromises in accepting each other's deals with players, their agreement has never been tested in court.

It's not likely that Nabokov will back out now or at any point this summer, but the option is likely still there. Despite arguments to the contrary, the KHL doesn't provide the same kind of lifestyle one finds in the NHL and especially in San Jose. Nabokov isn't just moving on his own. If he goes, he has to take his family or leave them behind for an entire season or more. That doesn't sit well with a lot of players, especially when their families have been settled in one place for a very long time. (Nabokov played for the Sharks for 10 years.)

Nabokov is an excellent goalie -- better than many starters in the NHL today -- but he, too, has been caught in a price squeeze. His is a "signing" that bears watching.

If Nabokov does honor his KHL agreement, it would seem that Marty Turco benefits to some degree. Turco acknowledged at the start of the signing period that it was "scary" leaving Dallas (a franchise that no longer wants or can afford him) and going on the open market at an age when retirement is easier to foresee than a two-year contract. However, the Sharks could use him for his remaining talents and knowledge of Western Conference shooters. Having him as a mentor to Niittymaki isn't a bad idea, either.

Despite the spin that San Jose gave his signing, Nittymaki is not a proven playoff performer. He's not even a proven No.1 in regular season play. The Sharks haven't broken up their team with an eye to rebuilding, they are still attempting to go farther than they did in last spring's playoffs and will need some help in net to realize their goal. More than a few teams can say the same. Turco can fit that bill.

 
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