Admit it, when you saw the NHL had rejected the Ilya Kovalchuk 17 year/103 million dollar contract there was a part of you that still hoped, still believed Brian Burke and company would pull the ultimate coup in the history of sports. In fact, you might have even felt a press conference was imminent, where Brian Burke smugly reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed Ilya Kovalchuk.
When you realized what the cap hit was going to potentially be (6 million!) you felt instantly ill. Stop living in denial and just come to the dark side already. There are a bunch of valid reasons as to why Brian Burke would not pull the trigger on signing Ilya Kovalchuk, here are a few:
1) Contract – Kovalchuk clearly covets being a one-hundred million dollar man, whether it is over 12-15 years it does not make much of a difference to him, he obviously wants that figure.
2) Salary Cap – Having 15-20% of your designated funds allocated to one player on a roster of 19-20 players is not cost feasible.
3) Style – He definitely does not fit the prototypical Brian Burke type of player and he might not go to the areas of the ice that Burke wants his wingers to be able to go, he is not overly physical.
4) Attitude – Concerns about the makeup of this player have been discussed before, does he fit in with the new attitude the Leafs are trying to instil under the Dion Phaneuf regime?
5) Culture – Finally, the country club atmosphere that has supposedly haunted the Leafs during the “Muskoka Five” era. Kovalchuk has the reputation of being a selfish player without much of a rapport with his teammates. This could be doubly dangerous in a young and impressionable Maple Leafs dressing room.
There have been other arguments brought to the table, but I’d say this is a fairly good compilation of the main deterrents.
Let me play Devil’s advocate – no pun intended:
1) Contract – Honestly, a deal over 10 years to any pro athlete is just begging for a terrible ending, there have not been many cases where a lengthy term has worked out well for the employer. However Kovalchuk is probably the best Free Agent the NHL has ever had, period. The guy is 27 years old and has already posted in chronological order the following goal totals: 29, 38, 41, 52, 42, 52, 43, and 41 respectively.
Current Blue Jays GM said recently the team will be employing a higher risk/reward draft strategy and will be searching for high potential, high ceiling players. The reasoning is simple yet prudent as these types of players are not available annually (or easily) on the free agent market.
Back to hockey, Ilya Kovalchuk is that type of player – in his prime.
2) Salary Cap – Again, I will never argue that in a sport like hockey where depth plays a huge role in fielding a competitive team it absolutely makes little sense to commit a huge portion of your cap to one player. However, under the current CBA (as we are learning) there are small loopholes that a team would be foolish not to at least attempt. Signing Kovalchuk to the type of deal he is looking for would make the cap hit anywhere from 6-7 million, basically the same cap hit as a Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf or JS Giguere. Did I get your attention yet?
3) Style – This one I am more ambiguous on as in one regard I agree we might not need another skill oriented European. However, this isn’t Rickard Wallin we are talking about, this one of the most skilled Russian born players the game has ever seen. Over the years I have watched Ilya Kovalchuk play a slightly more abrasive style than the media and fans will credit. Have we not witnessed him and Ian White do battle on countless occasions, while White may not have big size he has the heart of a lion and Kovalchuk more than held his own in that battle.
I do not want to add another soft European, trust me, but if he comes with the skill set of an Ilya Kovalchuk, count me in as we can pare the roster of other non-performing ones – ahem Grabovski, to meet the Burke quota.
Please note Kovalchuk is 6’2” and 230 pounds, not exactly a dwarf.
4) Attitude – For this I cannot argue as I do not know Kovalchuk personally, nor do I have inside access to any of his former dressing rooms, coaches or teammates. I guess a certain leeway would be expected for a 40 goal scorer though, unfortunately.
5) Culture – We do not want to see the team revert back to the Pat Quinn era where players were not accountable and basically come and went as they pleased. Does anybody remember the Leafs during the Quinn coached days? We were a fairly talented group with solid goaltending but our team lacked any form of discipline and if there was a night that the whole bench wasn’t arguing senselessly with the referees all game I must have been sleeping.
For better or worse Dion Phaneuf is our new leader and face of the franchise and thinking of him and Ilya in the same dressing room would make any GM nervous. Again, I do not pretend to know what type of man or teammate Ilya Kovalchuk is, but I do know the he is basically a bigger and more skilled version of Phil Kessel, that can’t be a negative?
Kovalchuk would instantly become the most talented player to ever don the blue & white. He makes our power-play extremely deadly. He takes the immense scoring pressure off the small shoulders of Phil Kessel. The guy is a threat each and every time he steps out onto the ice, defensemen fear for their jockstraps when he flies over the blue-line looking to create a scoring chance. Imagine the possibilities?
For all the rationale, hyperbole and bluster it really comes down to a few things. If I could add a player like this for the next 10-12 years at a cap hit within a million of Dion Phaneuf I would certainly be intrigued. If I didn’t have to trade two first round picks (plus a second) or a single roster player to acquire him, I would bend over backwards to get it done.