How Ilya Kovalchuk Should Have Handled Free Agency

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 12: Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils shoots the puck against Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during their game on March 12, 2010 at The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

As a public service to both Ilya Kovalchuk and hockey fans, I’m going to list some things Kovalchuk could have done to prevent his extended stay in NHL Free Agent Purgatory.

Free Samples
At the end of the 2007-08 season, Marian Hossa left Pittsburgh to sign a one-year deal with Detroit. Hossa could have gotten a longer deal somewhere else, but by taking the one-year internship in Detroit, Hossa did a few things:

  1. He showed his commitment to winning, by taking less money for the chance to win a Cup.
  2. He showed GMs what he brings to a team by helping Detroit once again reach the Stanley Cup finals (although, to be candid, Detroit did lose the Cup that year).
  3. He improved his game, learning things from many of the Detroit players. Hossa didn’t have a down-low game before he spent a year with the Wings. He’s a much more complete player because of that one season.

That season in Detroit improved Hossa’s value on the free agent market. NHL GMs would be much more comfortable with Kovalchuk if he gave GMs a “free” season somewhere to show everyone just what he brings to the table.

A great season somewhere would remove any doubts GMs have about throwing a lot of money at Kovalchuk. Sure, he’d lose a year of salary, but a strong season would result in a contract that would more than make up for what he left gave up for that one season.

Decide Which is More Important: Winning or Money
If the numbers being thrown around are true, Kovalchuk has already turned down several opportunities to be a very well-compensated player. That tells us Kovalchuk is interested in money.

But before Kovalchuk was traded to New Jersey last season, he turned down a 12-year, $101 million deal from the Thrashers, which is more than anyone else has offered so far. At the time, the thought was that Kovalchuk turned down the Atlanta deal because he wanted to win.

If he wants money, he should have taken the Atlanta deal. If he wants to win, he should decide if he things New Jersey or LA is the better team and then sign with one of them. But he can’t keep floating between the idea of getting a cap-busting contract and the idea of winning, because the two thoughts are pretty much mutually exclusive in the real world.

Read the Market
Kovalchuk came into free agency following a Stanley Cup finals featuring two teams with depth and versatility. Neither team had a top guy per se. Instead, both teams featured a few talented players. So much so, that Jonathan Toews winning the Conn Smythe seemed more like a coin-flip-driven decision than an intellectual one.

In last season’s Cup finals, everyone was an MVP and no one was an MVP.

I’m sure at least a few GMs saw the Finals and thought that they wanted a team like Chicago or Philadelphia. Putting all of a team’s eggs into the Kovalchuk basket would be the antithesis of the Chicago/Philadelphia strategy. Sure, the Blackhawks gave a massive contract to Hossa last year, but it wasn’t until they had a lot of fantastic pieces already in place. And while Hossa was fantastic in the playoffs, ultimately Chicago is paying a sick amount of money to a second-line guy. So it’s fair to say, Hossa serves as a little bit of a warning against the massive free agent contract.

NHL GMs saw were reminded that depth is more important than anything. I’m not sure there are any teams that are deep enough for Kovalchuk to represent the final piece of the puzzle, but who also have the cap space to give Kovalchuk the contract he wants.

To get the huge contract, he might have signed someplace else short-term and waited for a more star-driven Cup finals to convince GMs they need the best player available, not a variety of very good players.

I assume the Kovalchuk Purgatory will eventually end, allowing the NHL to get on with the rest of free agency. It’s too late to help Kovalchuk, but hopefully future free agents will see these tips and take them to heart.

Because it’s emotionally draining spending each day waiting for Kovalchuk to sign somewhere.

I’m not sure I can do another summer like this.