If you’ve ever been desperate for something to watch on TV, you may have been sucked into the World Series of Poker. Every episode ends with 2 players, head to head, with one of them pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table. The people in the crowd gasp and are set abuzz. The commentators talk about the strategy and how it’s a HUGE moment in the tournament.
Well, if the Los Angeles Kings end up signing Ilya Kovalchuk, you can just imagine GM Dean Lombardi pushing all of the Kings’ chips to the middle of the table. Oh, and that gasp? Those are the 18,118 fans that pack Staples Center.
Things would be so much easier if teams could spend their money as they pleased. If teams could act like the Yankees did when they spent the GDP of Ghana on the left side of their infield, it’s safe to say that Kovalchuk would have received that $100 million contract and would have been off the market faster than you could say, “Martin Biron signed?”
But the reality is that we’re not living in an uncapped world. There are pros and cons, good sides and bad sides to a signing. Here are the two sides to this story for Kings fans.
- Is it a good move? They needed 5 on 5 scoring and a legitimate sniper, and Ilya Kovalchuk is one of the best pure snipers of the last decade. He’s a 2-time 50 goal scorer, he’s entering his prime, and if he plays on the same line as Anze Kopitar, the sky is the limit. Any player on the Kings NOT playing on the same line as him will have easiest defense pairings to deal with, and those who are playing with him will have more open ice to work. In a game where there are few “difference makers,” he has the skill (and stats) to be one.
- On the other hand, you can only rebuild and stock talent for so long. The Blackhawks had a great young team in Chicago, but they still went out and bought two big name guys in Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa to help put them over the top.
- With the acquisition, the Kings will be the talk of the NHL. When was the last time the Kings had the rest of the NHL talking? 1993? However long it’s been, it’s been far too long for Kings fans. And whether it’s a perfectly sound move or not, they’ll immediately be placed in the conversation as a team that could challenge for the Western Conference and a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s a long way from competing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Steven Stamkos/Drew Doughty sweepstakes.
- The Kings have a great prospect pool—arguably the best in the NHL. But if they have any weakness, it’s that they don’t have any high-end snipers with elite potential. Also, they’re stacked at defense, have a potential franchise goaltender, and look strong at center. But they’re extremely thin at left wing. For those of you playing at home, Kovalchuk would be an elite sniper who plays left wing. Void filled.
- People can argue whether he’s the best unrestricted free agent of all time or not. But the reality is that he’s in the conversation. He has 5 consecutive seasons of 40+ goals, including a couple seasons with 50+ (By the way, the Kings haven’t had a 40 goal scorer since Luc Robitaille in 1993-94). The former #1 overall pick is only 27 years old and by all accounts should be entering his prime. Usually when players get their big paydays, they’re on the backside of their career. In this unique case, we have a bona fide superstar who, by all accounts, should have his best years ahead of him.
- Over the last two weeks the unrestricted free agent, who has been trying to maximize his worth on the open market, has been vilified because he’s trying sign the biggest contract possible. There’s a feeling that he’s a bad dude who could potentially rip the team apart. What has been forgotten is that Kovalchuk was actually Captain of the Atlanta Thrashers—a decision that wasn’t artificially manufactured, but awarded to him by his teammates. That doesn’t exactly sound like Sean Avery.
- Money (Part 1): Will the Kings be able to sign all of their young players if they dedicate a ton of money towards putting the crown on the Russian sniper’s chest? Even though outsiders quickly mention the Kings cap space, it’s not as wide open as it might look. If those same lazy reporters would get off their ass and actually look beneath the surface, they’d see that there are a lot of moving parts for the Kings in the next 2 off-seasons.
Drew Doughty ($3.475 mil), Jack Johnson ($1.425 mil), and Wayne Simmonds ($.821 mil) are all restricted free agents. Each player is due a very large raise, and after seeing what Doug Wilson did to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kings should be prepared for an offer sheet (or two) that could drive up their prices. As if that’s not enough, goaltender-in-waiting Jonathan Bernier is also a restricted free agent.
Michal Handzus ($4 mil) and Justin Williams ($3.5 mil) are unrestricted free agents and their contract will come off the books. It’s pretty safe to assume that “all of that cap space” will go to the 3 RFA’s and most of the money saved on Handzus and Williams would go to Kovalchuk. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it gives outsiders some perspective on how to deal with this.
Following 2011-12 Season:
Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll come off the books and save the Kings about $10 million on the cap. That’s the money that will come into play when the Kings want to re-sign guys like Brayden Schenn, Thomas Hickey, and any other potential prospects who could blossom into valuable NHL players. The good part about having a stacked prospect pool is that there are players constantly coming up and challenging for spots with the big team. The bad part is that there are players constantly earning raises and wanting to get paid. Again, just ask the Chicago Blackhawks. It wasn’t the superstars who were exiled—it was the young 2nd and 3rd liners who gave them the scoring depth to win their first Cup in 49 years. With Smyth and Stoll coming off the books, Dean Lombardi has budgeted for a few hefty raises for the prospects.
- Money (Part 2): How many of those big name, July free agent signings are looked back upon as a good move? It’s safe to say that Brian Campbell and Jeff Finger received contacts during the frenzy that they NEVER would have been offered on any other day of the year. Do you really want to be a team that shelling out the crazy money? Optimists among Kings fans can hope that Lombardi is playing hardball to get the potential contract to a more realistic rate. But history says that the team that wins a bidding war usually looks back to regret “winning.”
- The next time he backchecks will be the first time he backchecks. And Terry Murray only does two-way players. Just ask Alexander Frolov.
- Here’s what is scary for Kings fans about signing Kovalchuk. For the last few years, they’ve been the team with the bright future. They’re the team that is doing it the right way and had a ton of great prospects with bright futures. But with Kovalchuk, no longer do Kings fans look forward to the years down the road and know that it’s going to get better. No, the time is now. This is what the years of heartbreak have been building towards—and if it doesn’t work out, then there is no hope of ,“We have young players and tons of cap room.” This is the proverbial “final piece.”
- The “Koval-Check” jokes could get really old, really fast.
Here’s what it comes down to: It’s a ton of money, but he’s the right guy at the right time to spend a ton of money on. But how much is too much? If the Kings can get him for under $7 million (there have been reports of an offer with a $6.7 million cap hit), Kings fans should celebrate wildly without reservation. Throughout the last week and a half, what may have been forgotten in the negotiations and speculation is that he’s a damn good player. A game breaker. On pure talent and offensive skill, he’s undoubtedly one of the top 5 players in the world. And let’s face it, that “scoring goals” skill tends to get hockey players paid more than the skill to “play sound positional hockey.”
Remember, there’s always risk when all of the chips are pushed into the middle of the table. Some conservative fans will insist that this will screw them in the long-haul. Other fans will swear that this is a move the Kings NEED to make if they ever want to make the next step from playoff contender to Cup contender.
Me? I’m convinced of one thing. Dean Lombardi knows all the pros and cons and gets paid better than I do to make these decisions. I’ll trust that he knows when to walk away, and knows when to run.