On first consideration, it's a no-brainer: Should the St. Louis Blues try to sign free agent Ilya Kovalchuk?
Of course they should.
Applying non-fantasy hockey considerations to the question, it becomes a much more complex question:
- How much will it cost and can the franchise afford him?
- Will he play defense and otherwise fit into the Blues' system?
- Would he be willing to come to St. Louis, especially if money isn't the truly definitive factor?
The fact of the matter is that St. Louis hasn't been seriously discussed as a destination for the soon-to-be UFA in several months because ownership issues, management's public "stay the course" mantra and the perception that Kovalchuk wouldn't want to be in St. Louis and/or wouldn't fit in with St. Louis' team system.
I, for one, feel that those arguments don't really hold water. In my mind Kovalchuk can be wooed to St. Louis, can be paid by St. Louis and can fit in with the current team and coaching in St. Louis. Consider this not just my own fantasy GM masturbation, consider this a plea. To The Blues' management. To the team. To Kovalchuk himself (you know he googles his own name). This is why Kovalchuk should be pursued seriously by the Blues on July 1. And why Kovalchuk should seriously consider coming to St. Louis.
Before getting to the questions at hand, a brief skim of Kovalchuk's resume seems appropriate.
#17 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 15, 1983
|2009 - Ilya Kovalchuk||76||41||44||85||10||53||12||0||4||0||290||14.1|
Beyond this year's excellent totals, Kovalchuk has eight NHL seasons of experience, during which he has scored more than .5 goals per game and over one point per game (338 g, 642 p) in his 621 games played. He averages over three shots per game over his career and his 117 power play goals indicate two positives: first, he excels in the man-advantage situation and two, he does not rely on the power play to score all his goals as 218 five-on-five goals in 621 games (he has three career shorthanded goals) is still a very strong number.
In his last five seasons he has scored 41, 43, 52, 42 and 52 goals.
He is a career minus-75, though 43 of those minuses came in his first two seasons on a dreadful Atlanta team. In fact, Kovalchuk finished plus for the first time this year on the strength of a plus-9 with the strong Devils team.
To paraphrase Ivory Christian in the movie Friday Night Lights, He's big, he's fast, he's nasty and he's fast.
But back to the question at hand. Can he and the Blues make a match?
The first question to be answered when discussing Kovalcuk is the financials. What is it going to take to sign the high-scoring winger and are the Blues in a position to offer him the money. Are they willing to pay out the big offer?
It's well documented that he turned down a long-term $100 million deal to stay in Atlanta. Does that dictate that it's going to take over $100 million to land him? I'd argue that is not the case. Plenty of other players have taken a pass on ridiculous dollars in order to control their own destiny. The latest example is Marian Hossa who skipped out on big money and a long-term contract in Pittsburgh to take less money in Detroit.
The fact of the matter is that every off-season has it's own magic high number for what can be offered in accordance with the CBA. The days are gone when the New York Rangers can wade in and throw the highest amount at a guy and sign him. If your team is willing to go to the highest point, they will match the highest number that any other team can throw at him for the year.
And who is best situated to make that high-ball offer? Your St. Louis Blues, who have over $30 million in cap space this year. Granted, Erik Johnson, David Perron, newly-acquired Jaroslav Halak and Alexander Steen all need to be re-signed to the pro roster and the Blues have no interest in spending up to the $59 million cap, but make no mistake, there is room on the Blues' payroll for a fat check to Kovalchuk.
If re-signing the four players listed costs the Blues around $12-14 million per year, they could offer Kovalchuk a nice cap-friendly long term deal with an annual hit somewhere around the eight to 10 million range and still be $8 to $10 million under the cap.
Consider the argument you make to the ownership group when proposing such an offer to one of the most exciting offensive talents in the league:
- Last year's team had a cap payroll of $52 million, 26th in the league. Taking today's numbers (above link) and adding both the $12 million that the four RFAs will likely get and the $8-10 million thrown at Kovalchuk and the cap number is around $50-52 million, lower than or equal to last season.
- Given the players that have been added and the fact that ticket prices have increased, we must assume that the Blues expect to break even on the season somewhere around the end of the season/start of the post-season. Missing the playoffs last year hurt the franchise and hurt the bottom line. Adding Kovalchuk and Halak increase the odds that the Blues make the postseason and that they play more than two home games, improving profits for the owners.
- The addition of a marquis player makes the franchise a better investment for prospective new majority owners, a group that SCP is actively trying to woo.
- The Paul Kariya signing three summers ago caused an immediate increase in season ticket sales and in merchandise sales. Adding a 27-year-old in his prime would likely make the Kariya Bump feel like a pothole in terms of dollars flowing into the doors at 14th & Brett Hull Way.
But could Kovalchuk fit in with the Blues' system?
Ilya Kovalchuk was traded at the deadline last year to the New Jersey Devils. Could there have been a better test of Kovalchuk's ability to adapt to a system than to change from his much-maligned One Way Ilya style in Atlanta to the reknowned devensive system of New Jersey? I have no idea if it was the coaches who got to him or his agent who said, "Play their system now for more dollars later," but he fit in, even earning praise from that team's coach and general manager.
In 27 regular season games Kovalchuk scored 10 goals and 27 points and was plus-9. In the playoffs he managed yet another point(+) per game performance with six points in five games. He was also an even rating despite his team being oustered in just five contests. I'd say that the numbers and the praise from the administration point to the winger's ability to adapt.
But beyond his limited experience in New Jersey, I'd argue that St. Louis can adapt to Kovalchuk as much as the team can ask him to adapt. Coach Davis Payne has already earned a reputation as a man who plays his players in roles where they can succeed with their skill sets. In the words of our GTPD, "He lets the painters paint and the plumbers plumb."
Gone are the days of Andy Murray and his "a checking line and three indistinguishable and interchangeable lines." Payne will design scoring lines built to take advantage of the three skaters' strengths. He will set up the scorers to score and ask the checkers to check. In that system, Kovalchuk will be expected to score. If he needs to be paired up with a defensive-minded winger to cover up on the back end, I'd expect that to happen.
Doug Armstrong is already making an imprint on this team and two of the hallmarks seems to be speed and scoring. If we had to add a third category it might just be Russian. Nikita Nikitin was signed recently and many think he may press for an NHL spot this year. The Blues also drafted Vladimir Tarasenko 16th overall last week, making a trade to acquire him at that spot. He has said himself that he wants to play in the NHL as quickly as possible. Could the Blues be constructing a built-in support system for their new Russian contingent?
The addition of Kovalchuk is an obvious addition to the team scoring, but it also gives an opportunity to the Blues' most recent top scorer, Brad Boyes. If Boyes slides to the second line and faces less tenacious defending, would it help him re-find his scoring touch?
But really, would Kovalchuk come to St. Louis?
No one beyond Kovalchuk and his inner circle know what is really driving his decision on where to sign on July 1, but I'm going to go ahead and take a guess at it.
- Dollars, comrade, dollars. Kovalchuk may or may not want to be the highest paid player in the NHL, but it seems obvious he wants to get paid easy retirement dollars and isn't likely to take a ridiculously low number to join a team like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Chicago.
- Winning, baby, winning. Kovalchuk is a driven man, otherwise he'd never have made it to the NHL. He is also a person who is accustomed to winning. In the NHL he has been a loser, as Atlanta made the playoffs just once in his first eight seasons and they were swept in that first round. Kovalchuk wants to go to a team on the cusp of being a long-term winner.
- Intangibles, man, intangibles. Does Kovalchuk want to be king of a city like hockey heroes in Canada? Or does he want to be basically invisible, like a hockey player in Los Angeles? Or would he be happy in the middle, the big fish in a medium-sized pond, like in St. Louis? Is he looking for a family-friendly town to raise a family, or a party town for a multi-millionaire who wants to find some fun?
The St. Louis pitch to Kovalchuk and his agent is easy on the first two counts. As mentioned, if management can save enough money on the Halak, Johnson, Perron and Steen signings and make a legitimate offer to Kovalchuk they'll be within the realm of the top-dollar offers. By the time Kovalchuk leaves St. Louis he will be an independently weathly man and if he has invested well and/or curbed ridiculous spending he will never have to work again.
In fact, looking at the Kovalchuk cap breakdown done by Jewels From The Crown this week, there are 13 teams that could afford him. Of those 13, count out Atlanta, who have moved on from No. 17.
On the second point, there are few teams left in the 12 who can afford Kovalchuk that fit the "contender" category. Take out the Islanders, Panthers, Stars and Hurricanes as teams that have their playoff run window just beginning to open. Of the teams left, I would say that Phoenix, Colorado, Nashville, Anaheim and St. Louis look like the teams left in the pack that could make a compelling "come join us for years of contending" argument.
When looking at the third component, without knowing the player's desires, Blues ownership needs to make a presentation of the city that shows it off for exactly what it is:
- St. Louis is a smaller town with all of the amenities of a larger metropolis.
- St. Louis has a strong pull for athletes and their families as many former athletes and Blues have made St. Louis their after-career homes. It's a great place to raise a family and athletes have a strong support system in the community. Plus, Bobby Plager still lives here and works for the Blues, which should be reason enough.
- St. Louis loves its sports heroes and still gives them their space. Want to be adored and have your name chanted? Score a big goal. Want to be left alone in the St. Louis Bread Company when you're grabbing breakfast on Sunday? We can do that too.
In summary... (or what I like to call my final Kovalchuk plea)
The Blues have made it abundantly clear since the end of the season that they are not interested in going overboard in free agency or breaking the bank to chase players. They have said that they want to continue to build from within and that they don't want to upset the chemistry of the team they are building.
And yet, ownership wants... needs... to make sure that the team takes a step forward this year. Being on the verge of a playoff run is not good enough any more. One round in the playoffs is not acceptable any more. Signing Jaroslav Halak addressed one major team weakness. Signing Ilya Kovalchuk and the trickle-down theory of offense he creates would address the other chronic weakness of this team.
And yes, ownership does not want to spend up to the salary cap. Not this year, not any year. But they have built a team that can add Halak and Kovalchuk and still be well below the salary cap. Spending money to make money is a concept well-embraced by captains of industry and the addition of the sold-out games and sold-out playoff games would offset the cost of one more big salary for ownership.
And of the team, what of them? Chemistry is the keyword that is always bandied about. Chemistry cannot be predicted with the addition of any free agent or any rookie who makes the team. But the most likely person to add to the team and not upset chemistry is a player who is of a similar age to the core and a player who contributes to winning. Kovalchuk fits both categories. If his position on the team makes for a more seamless transition for newly-drafted first rounder Tarasenko, all the better.
Playing Davis Payne, consider whether this lineup looks like it is cheap enough, effective enough and marketable enough to 1) sell more tickets and 2) entice yet another silent majority partner for the ownership group:
Left wingers: Ilya Kovalchuk, David Perron, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka.
Centers: Andy McDonald, Patrick Berglund, T.J. Oshie, Jay McClement
Right wingers: David Backes, Brad Boyes, Matt D'Agostini, B.J. Crombeen
(That gives Payne a lot of players to mix and match onto three lines that could be considered scoring lines and one nice checking line)
Defensemen: Erik Johnson, Barrett Jackman, Eric Brewer, Roman Polak, (pick two): Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Strachan, Mike Weaver, Nikita Nikitin, others.
Goaltending: Jaroslav Halak, Ty Conklin
The Blues have tempered our hopes as fans ever since the end of the last deflating season. In the weeks and months since then, however, they have made bold moves to improve the team and take steps forward in becoming a true Cup-contending team. Signing Kovalchuk could be yet another step in that progression.
I know that president John Davidson has spent the months calming us down and new GM Doug Armstrong hasn't actually said anything to the fans yet as far as his plans for the team. But I keep going back to team owner David Checketts' last words to the fans at the end of the season when he said to expect significant changes this summer. So far, so good. Let's see if they have one last move left in them.
I think they do.