So, what is the endgame for Ilya Kovalchuk?
"It depends on who is driving the bus," says one agent. "Is he making the decision or is it Jay Grossman (who represents the Russian star)?"
"Kovalchuk is not a naive 21-year-old," said another. "He's 27, and has been a pro for nine years. He knows what he wants."
Over the last few days, I've canvassed a few agents for their thoughts about this unusually long free-agency soap opera. ("Never seen anything like this," one GM said earlier this week.) Obviously, there's some conflict-of-interest here, but the agents didn't rip Grossman as much as they tried to put themselves in his shoes and figure out what's happening.
"Let's go back to what he turned down in Atlanta, (reportedly seven years, $70 million US or 12 years, $101 million)," one said. "If you're saying no to that, one of three things is happening. You don't want to play there. Or, you think you have a better chance of winning elsewhere. Or, you think you can get that offer somewhere you'd rather play."
Clearly, it's number three: Kovalchuk - and Grossman - believed they would get a $10 million/year offer in a more preferred location. It's been said many times, but Kovalchuk is the most unique free agent ever to hit the market. If anyone figured to hit the mother lode, it was with him.
So, what happened?
"He misread the market ... He had certain demands, but the market was uncertain," said the first agent. "Some defencemen did pretty well, but very few forwards got what they did last year and the goalies were crushed."
"It's like a game of musical chairs. There are only so many chairs ... if there's not one for you, you're screwed. And there are not a lot of expensive chairs."
Market, timing not ripe
As talented and unique a free agent as he is, Kovalchuk is also a victim of lousy timing. As the cap levels off after going up $17 million in the first four post-lockout years, there just isn't as much available. If you count Mikko Koivu's extension, only two players (Koivu and Tomas Plekanec) signed contracts worth at least $30 million since the beginning of June. Last summer, there were nine. The largest cap hit on any deal signed so far is Patrick Marleau's $6.9 million. That's 18th in the NHL.
"It didn't help that some of the biggest spenders - Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Rangers - all of whom showed interest in trading for Kovalchuk at the deadline, weren't really players in free agency," an agent added. "That eliminated a lot of his potential openings. Maybe he thought they would come back to him, but it's clear now they only viewed him as a rental."
A couple teams called about shorter-term deals, but were rebuffed. (I was told the Rangers offered $15 million over two years, but the organization denied that.) There is a belief among teams, agents and players that a "friendly rivalry" with Alexander Ovechkin has him fixated on passing Ovechkin's annual average value of $9.5 million. For his sake, that's got to stop.
I believe Kovalchuk wants three things: to stay in the NHL, to win and to be the sport's salary standard-bearer. If he were solely about the money, he'd have already joined Evgeni Nabokov in Russia. But, what he's doing right now is providing ammunition for everyone who believes he is selfish and only cares about cash. So, how should he end this?
One agent suggested he accept a one-year deal in Los Angeles, where he clearly wants to play. (The Kings want him, too.) However, the others disagreed.
"I wouldn't advise that," another said. "The NHL is going to go after these cap-friendly, front-loaded deals in the next CBA. They'll be gone, so he has to take advantage of the opportunity when he can. I'd tell him, 'We're going to go after as much money as we can get in the first eight or nine years, then we're going to help the team.'"
That's the consensus: He's going to have to accept an average annual value of $6.5 million-$7.5 million. (Could Koivu actually get a higher cap figure than Kovalchuk? Seems unbelievable.) I've only found one person who believes New Jersey actually offered him 17 years at $100 million, but the cap hit ($5.9 million) fits with what others think Lou Lamoriello would do.
Kovalchuk may not gain bragging rights from Ovechkin, but he can still be a winner. He can go where he wants, play for a good team and make enough money to swim in $50 bills. It will also give him the chance to be a difference-maker in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is what he really needs to do.
Make your choice, LA or NJ.
How do guys fall?
The number one question coming out of the NHL Draft was: How did two players, ranked fifth and sixth among North American skaters, fall to 13th and 14th overall?
There are two answers: Central Scouting's mandate and what teams are looking for.
Scout number one said, "Fans should use Central Scouting rankings as a guideline," not the definitive list.
(Several different scouts, all requesting anonymity, were contacted for this piece. Four of them will be quoted. To make it easier, each is given a number. I think I'm setting a record for most anonymous quotes ever. Unfortunately, that's the way this business goes.)
"Everybody looks at Central Scouting or Red Line or other reports," says No. 2. "In the end it's what your guys see ... not what they see."
Those quoted in this blog stress they are not ripping the NHL service, just pointing out its major limitation: Unlike with the individual teams, there are no individual interviews. These can make a huge difference, good and bad.
"(Central Scouting) focuses on physical ability - not mental ability, work ethic or character," says No. 3. "It's up to regional scouts to sort through rumours and innuendo. If something is said about a prospect, you need them to determine if this is real or a negative vendetta. That's why these regional guys are so valuable."
"They don't look at character, or what guys are like in the room or on the bench," adds Scout No. 1. "They have a different set of criteria."
"(We) stop a bit short of investigating ... the personality of the players that are before us," says Central Scouting Director EJ McGuire. "Rather we err on the performance side. We are more of a talent identifier. I can sketch a depth chart of the Oilers and say that Edmonton should take a right-handed centreman in Tyler Seguin. It's easy for me to say."
"But I'm not privy to behind the scenes discussions. Maybe the Oilers have decided that two years down the road they are not going to re-sign someone, or they're going to make a deal so that someone else is a better fit."
"Maybe (a team is) looking at a player who is high on talent, short on maturity but it has a mature dressing room," he added. "The team is thinking, 'We can put him between this player and this player.' Conversely, if the dressing room is in disarray the team could be looking for a more mature player."
Not just physical traits
Central scouting does not do interviews. At the combine, each club is given 20 minutes with a prospect. (By comparison, NFL teams are given 15.)
"We do a rudimentary a psychological evaluation over the internet with players and a reaction test on the computer at the combine, which we make available to all 30 teams," McGuire said. "But it doesn't go as deep as the teams do."
While Vancouver's GM, Brian Burke said he really became interested in Ryan Kesler when the Ohio State forward put his arm around a teammate who'd had a bad shift. That little bit of consolation goes a long way. It's the kind of thing teams look for.
"Most guys sit across from the bench all the time so they can watch how a player reacts when the coach talks to him," says No. 1.
This draft did have some examples of that. John McFarland, ranked 15th, went 33rd to Florida. Kirill Kabanov, the red-flagged bad boy of this class, was taken 65th, 34 spots above his North American ranking.
Meanwhile, Jeff Skinner went seventh overall to Carolina, "Exactly where I would have taken him," according to Scout 1. Skinner's Central ranking was 34. (That was an improvement from his mid-season position of 47.)
So what happened to Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley? Fowler's situation was particularly puzzling because there was a time in March that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini mentioned him in the same breath as Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin.
"Fowler was great all year ... it had to be the interview process," said Scout No. 4. "Maybe teams didn't like his attitude, personality ... something?"
One of our scouts, who knows and likes both players, did say the Windsor defenceman did not interview well at the combine. "He was nervous. Very quiet. Maybe that hurt him. But when we saw him just before the draft, he was a totally different kid."
There's a Los Angeles Kings fan blog called MayorsManor that has an interesting exchange with Fowler. The blogger asked, "If somebody was to write a book about your life up to this point in time, what would the title be?" The response: "A Day or a Life in Cam Fowler Land. Something like that because I think I'm in a little different world than anybody else."
As someone who's been accused of that, I can totally understand where he's coming from. I can also see how others might not be comfortable with this type of attitude, because it's happened to me. Anaheim, which took Fowler, did not interview him at the combine.
As for Gormley, Scout 3 refuses to believe there was a bad interview. "He's your typical, friendly, Maritime kid. He could've gone Top 5. I know one team who absolutely would have taken him there."
According to one source, Gormley had real problems with the sit-up testing at the combine, although there may have been extenuating circumstances. That scared a few teams' strength coaches, however.
But what really hurt both players more than anything else was what the top teams were looking for. Obviously, Fowler and Gormley weren't going to Edmonton or Boston. So, let's break down the next picks.
3 FLORIDA: Dale Tallon told Florida reporters the Panthers were too easy to play against, and Kingston behemoth Erik Gudbranson will help that.
4 COLUMBUS, 5 ISLANDERS AND 8 ATLANTA: With 20/20 hindsight, all the rumblings about these picks being available make complete sense. The Blue Jackets (Ryan Johansen), Islanders (Nino Niederreiter) and Thrashers (Alexander Burmistrov) targeted players who were not as highly ranked as Fowler or Gormley, so they were willing to move down. In the end, they couldn't guarantee getting their guys, and stayed put.
6 TAMPA BAY: To other teams, this was probably the biggest surprise. In taking Brett Connolly, the Lightning grabbed Central Scouting's top-ranked skater after Seguin and Hall. Connolly is a perfect example of how a bad interview can frighten some teams (although not the Lightning). Bothered by hip flexor issues on both sides, he "was unable to articulate the exact nature of the injury," said Scout 3.
7 CAROLINA: Fowler and Gormley are falling because, instead of an expected run on defencemen, teams are going with forwards. No surprise the Hurricanes don't take either, since Jim Rutherford is on record as saying he doesn't like taking blue-liners with high picks. Rutherford feels that by the time they are really ready, they're getting close to being free agents. He has taken just two first-round defenders in the last decade.
9 MINNESOTA: Other teams were convinced the Wild were going to take a forward, and they did, centre Mikael Granlund. One of the reasons Minnesota successfully recruited Casey Wellman last season: they were so thin up front, he could be guaranteed an immediate spot.
10 RANGERS: Blueshirts fans were befuddled by this one, but I wrote in my last 30 Thoughts how some of the people I spoke to raved about Dylan McIlrath.
11 DALLAS: Before the draft, one pretty smart executive said the thought there were three franchise players available: Hall, Seguin and Jack Campbell. Clearly, the Stars felt the same way.
Fowler went 12th and Gormley 13th.
It should be pointed out that several of these teams' phones were ringing off the hook with offers from other organizations wanting to step in and draft either of them. (Even Rutherford tried.) The key thing to recognize here is that from picks 3-11, there were only two teams willing to consider defencemen. There wasn't a ton of opportunity for either player.
Besides, it's not as if things ended badly. Fowler is going to learn under recently retired Scott Niedermayer and Gormley gets a great coach in Dave Tippett. Dan Ellis tweeted it best, "Sometimes it is more important to find the right fit and the right opportunity than be a high pick."
1. There's a lot of angst about Donald Fehr's influence on the NHLPA, but remember this: In August 2002, baseball's players and owners were headed towards yet another strike. Angry fans voiced their displeasure at ballparks around the country. Both Fehr and Bud Selig clued in, realized the potential for serious damage and reached a surprise deal. Ex-Expo Steve Kline, who was the St. Louis Cardinals' player rep, said, "It came down to us playing baseball or having our reputations and life ripped by the fans. Baseball would have never been the same if we had walked out." Hopefully, Fehr remembers that and Gary Bettman learned from afar, because there isn't a senior executive in the league or the PA who should keep their job if there is another stoppage.
2. The possibility of a lockout in 2012-13 is a factor in the Kovalchuk negotiations. Several articles indicated he asked for a signing bonus instead of a salary that season, because signing bonuses must still be paid. (Salaries, no.) I could see that being an issue for Kings owner Philip Anschutz, one of the commissioner's closest allies.
3. The Kings are getting ripped a bit because they struck out in free agency, but that's a little unfair. They did get a much-wanted Rob Scuderi last summer, and also convinced Ryan Smyth to waive a no-trade for Southern Cal.
4. Lockout talk makes me want to go out and choke an old lady, but it's being discussed, so a little more: One of the low years in Mikko Koivu's new contract (I know, I know, it's $5.4 million) is during the potential "dark" year.
5. Another contract that struck a few people as being lockout protected? Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis. Hamhuis' actual cash value is $5 million for each of the next two years, before dropping to $4.25 million for the last four. He also gets a $2 million bonus in 2012-13.
6. Two reasons I think Koivu got such a big extension: First, as Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, the team thought he would get $7 million on the open market. (I'm not sure about that one.) Second, the Wild watched this year as Marian Gaborik scored 42 goals while Martin Havlat struggled in Year One of his new contract. They didn't want to lose another core guy and see him rip it up elsewhere.
7. For those wondering what this means for other players, Koivu's deal cannot be used as an arbitration comparable. Extensions involving unrestricted free agents are not admissible.
8. Really like most of the agents, but you always have to remember that they are promoting their own players first and foremost. Some take it overly personally when you critique a client. I temporarily forgot, and said to one of them early in July, "I can't believe you got that deal for (your guy)." He replied, "Me neither."
9. Second good line I heard recently came from an NHL assistant coach on why he's happy he doesn't have to go to the draft: "By the time those guys can help, I'll be fired."
10. How respected is Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay? If Scotty Bowman took over the Toronto front office - as discussed in summer 2007 - Ramsay was going to be the bench boss.
11. Surprised more GMs haven't used the offer sheet as effectively as Doug Wilson did with Niklas Hjalmarsson. Now, the Blackhawks will probably have to remove one more player than they hoped/planned. It was brilliant.
12. However, there's some doubt that Wilson made the right move going with a goaltending duo of Antero Niittymaki/Thomas Greiss. Is the San Jose defence as good as Philly's/Chicago's? That's crucial.
13. If the Vancouver Canucks do trade Kevin Bieksa, the team will do whatever it can to prevent it from being a salary dump. Mike Gillis wants to make a hockey deal.
14. Montreal may have anointed Carey Price the starter by trading Jaroslav Halak and signing Alex Auld, but it sounds like the Canadiens are going to take a hard salary line. The organization might be best advised to eliminate any possible distractions for their young goalie, but, unless things change, this is going to be a battle.
15. The Blues apparently signed Halak a few days before it was announced, but wanted to wait until after July 4 to announce it. That way, it wouldn't get lost in the local holiday news cycle. Good move.
16. Think we'll see extensions for both Drew Doughty and Steve Stamkos this summer, but probably not until arbitration cases are finished. That's when a GM's schedule lightens up a bit.
17. One GM's incredulous take on the Derek Boogaard deal: "That's what you want to pay a good third-line player or fifth defenceman."
18. Obviously, there was a lot of shock at that move - and Calgary's decisions - but there was surprise at Paul Holmgren's trade for Andrej Meszaros. He has a $4 million cap hit for each of the next four years, and his stock was low. It's also caused an awkward dance with popular forward Simon Gagne.
19. Been reported that the Devils failed to move players (Bryce Salvador and Brian Rolston) in order to make room for Kovalchuk. It may be the other way around. Lamoriello won't necessarily move them until he has the player.
20. I hope someday the truth comes out about Kovalchuk and the New York Islanders. If Darren Dreger tweets he's hearing a 10-year, $100 million offer, I'd believe him over many of the people who denied it
21. The Islanders, by the way, fired assistant GM Ryan Jankowski and Hall-of-Famer Bryan Trottier, executive director of player development. Apparently, team psychologist Dr. Frank Gardner now wields a lot of decision-making authority. The team does put great emphasis on that kind of testing.
22. Interesting that Calgary reportedly inquired about Marc Savard. Savard admitted that while he was there, he asked teammates why they disliked him so much. In case you're wondering, only three people are still there from his tenure: Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Dave Lowry, now an assistant coach.
23. Texted Manny Legace to wish him good luck in Riga, one of the good KHL locales, and he responded, "I didn't sign there."
24. Contract negotiation that got ugly quickly: Coyotes GM Don Maloney and agent Kent Hughes, over Matthew Lombardi. Maloney thought demands were extravagant, Hughes not happy Phoenix went public. Nashville benefited, big-time.
25. Says a lot about Scott Arniel and Bob Boughner that they would be comfortable working with one another. Some new coaches would be nervous about having Boughner alongside them, since he could be an eventual replacement. Meanwhile, GM Scott Howson said Boughner talked a lot about what it takes to be a good NHL assistant in their interview.
26. Let's see: Best forward at the Olympics. Gold medal. Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion. Is there any reason to wait four more months to choose Canada's Athlete of the Year?
27. Is there a reason the Colorado Avalanche has just one player (Paul Stastny) signed past next season? Didn't Boston try that strategy - and fail?
28. One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career: "Don't (bleep) with happy," courtesy Bob McCown. Good on Jim Nill for recognizing the same thing.
29. Scottie Upshall, close with Mike Richards, tried to help his friend get past the Stanley Cup disappointment by getting him to focus on the good things he accomplished.
30. Laughed at the media releases announcing the Kris Versteeg deal. Toronto's was "Leafs obtain Versteeg from Blackhawks." Chicago's was "Blackhawks acquire trio of forwards from Toronto." Wonder which team was more excited?
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