Top 5 most likely NHL destinations for Ilya Kovalchuk (plus the KHL)

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kovalchukjuly1.jpgAlmost a month ago, I wrote a series of posts about Ilya Kovalchuk’s impending free agent status. In the first one, I advised NHL general managers to be careful about throwing big money at Kovalchuk. I followed that up with early speculation on where the talented but pricey left wing might land. With NHL free agent mania just one day ahead, I thought I’d take another look at which teams seem like logical choices for the Russian goal scoring machine.

Naturally, once the events open up at noon ET on Thursday, this post could end up looking really dumb. You never know with this crazy, money-spending league.

I’m going to keep the salary cap in mind with this post, but it’s important to note that NHL teams don’t need to be under the cap right away. They have much of the summer to go over a little bit, although obviously that will force their hands with waiver moves and salary dump trades.

Still, I want to keep this within the realm of reason, so teams such as the Penguins and Blackhawks will be left out. I think the Devils are out of the running, too, thanks to the Jason Arnott trade. The Colorado Avalanche have the space for a big move, but they are also out of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes according to Adrian Dater. My guess is that the budget-conscious Anaheim Ducks will re-sign Bobby Ryan instead of going after Kovalchuk.

Anyway, with all that out of the way, here are some of the most sensible destinations for the gem of this year’s free agent crop.

KHL – My guess is that if all things were equal (and by things I, of course, mean money), Kovalchuk would stay in the NHL. Still, the KHL doesn’t have a salary cap and has some tax-related perks too. Which means, in other words, the foreign league could throw a crazy deal Kovalchuk’s way.

1. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings are in a big market with beautiful weather and … oh yeah, they have a pretty good team as well. Los Angeles is well-stocked with young talent (Drew Doughty is almost insultingly skilled) but could use a forward deep in his prime. As long as the Kings are wise with the amount of years they offer, this could be the ideal match for Kovy.

2. St. Louis Blues – As of this time, the Blues have the most cap space in the NHL according to CapGeek.com. That will change if they sign restricted free agents Erik Johnson and Jaroslav Halak, but with more than $32 million they could still afford Kovalchuk. But would he want to play in still-building St. Louis? And do the Blues want to make such a big investment in a transition period?

After the jump, some suitors who have a chance (but a slimmer chance) to land the Russian sniper.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for kovalchukkhl.jpg3. Vancouver Canucks – This would be a tighter fit, but it makes
sense in some ways. Kovalchuk might not fit in with a team that grinds
it out so much (even the whipped-cream-soft Sedin twins tend to wear
opponents out in their own way with their patented cycle). Then again,
his world-class hands don’t fit in with that team either, with all
apologies to the surprisingly potent Mikael Samuelsson. Kovalchuk could
be the missing piece for the Canucks, but it would take a salary cap
Houdini act to fill out their roster.

4. New York Islanders – Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do in
Long Island. Still, the Islanders are just a few bucks behind St. Louis
but don’t really have any big free agents. Of course, there’s a reason
for that; the time barely has any NHL players to begin with.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs – I’m not sure the money makes complete
sense, but never – ever – count Brian Burke out of a big deal. My
bet is that the bombastic GM only enters swimming pools by way of the
cannon ball.

So, those are the five teams I’d say are the most likely to land the
big-ticket item of this summer (plus the KHL, obviously). If I had to
wager on it, I’d pick the Kings or the KHL. Like I said before, though,
you never know with the NHL. Logic flies out the window on July 1.

Pacioretty on losing ‘friend’ in Subban trade

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 02:  (R-L) P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his goal with Max Pacioretty #67 in the second period against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on January 2, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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P.K. Subban‘s relationship with now-former Montreal Canadiens teammates has been dissected for some time, but captain Max Pacioretty insists that he lost a “friend” in the trade.

At least, that’s what he’s saying publicly, as Sportsnet reports.

“I’d been with him for nine years, so it’s going to be very strange to come into the locker room and not see P.K. there, joking around with him all the time,” Pacioretty said.

He added that, in the Subban-for-Shea Weber trade, the Canadiens “lost a friend and hopefully gained another.”

Again, there’s been plenty of speculation that Pacioretty and other Habs viewed Subban as anything but a pal. Jacques Demers ranked among the many who believed that Montreal suffered from a “divided room,” with some believing that it came down to Subban vs. Pacioretty.

Pacioretty dismissed the claims back then:

While Subban responded in a way we’ve come to expect, wondering if he’d have to “make out” with Pacioretty to prove doubters wrong.

That Pacioretty passage might just sum it up the best: you can be friends with someone while (gasp) also occasionally being annoyed by their antics. Really, have you enjoyed a lengthy relationship – business or personal – that never had those moments of minor friction?

Chances are, such chemistry issues were really just a distraction from the more important issues, such as Montreal depending far too much upon Carey Price.

The good news for “Patches” is that he won’t field nearly as many questions about Subban now that P.K.’s plying his trade in Nashville.

The not-so-good news is that he’ll be an obvious target for blame if Montreal’s fate doesn’t change with Weber replacing Subban.

We’ll find out soon enough if Pacioretty has enough help from his friends.

Related

Owner stands behind Marc Bergevin’s moves, Subban trade included

Michel Therrien on his relationship with Subban (when they were still employed by the Habs)

Subban: This is a business

Senator says Bettman, NHL are ‘in denial’ about concussions, CTE

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media during a press conference prior to Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This isn’t the first time Gary Bettman denied or downplayed the link between concussions and CTE; it also isn’t the first time that someone has been stunned by his stance.

Even so, it’s difficult to look away from the bank-and-forth between the NHL’s commissioner and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, most recently spotlighted by Sports Illustrated.

It began with Blumenthal’s letter to Bettman and the NHL, dated June 23, which cited the NFL acknowledging a link between football and CTE. He then asked Bettman nine questions related to how the NHL handles brain injuries and how it might be different from the NHL.

The New York Times passes along a response dated July 22, Bettman described the science linking CTE to concussions as “nascent” and reasserted his previous stance:

“The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

Blumenthal was “appalled” by Bettman’s take, according to Sports Illustrated and the Senator himself.

Perhaps you could chalk this up to a public relations battle of sorts, although TSN reports that this latest round of comments might provide fuel for lawyers working on a concussion lawsuit against the NHL.

“We should have the chance now to walk him through some of his denials and find out why he has made his statements and ask him what makes him so sure,” Lead counsel Charles Zimmerman said. “Why is he so willing to go against conventional science which says repeated blows to the head cause damage to the brain?”

As familiar as some of this might feel for those following the way the league is handling concussions, it could mean that the NHL will follow in the NFL’s footsteps in a costly way.

At minimum, it’s been a mess for the league, and it doesn’t seem like things will get easier anytime soon.

Rangers want Kreider to become a ‘nightmare for defensemen’ again

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers moves in on Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2016 in New York City.  The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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If Chris Kreider is penciled in to finish with about 20 goals and 45 points each season, the New York Rangers got a solid deal for the 25-year-old.

That nice $4.625 million cap hit could become a steal if Kreider blossoms into the 30-goal force the Rangers were hoping for, however.

NHL.com details how the Rangers hope he returns to the form that, to quote assistant Scott Arniel,* made him “a nightmare for defensemen.”

“I remember we had a conversation asking him about what kind of player did he think he was, and he didn’t say I’m a toe-dragging, stick-handling guy who can beat guys 1-on-1,” Arniel said. “He knew what he was. He said it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and it was five things that a true power forward needs to do every game. Then he got away from those things [last season].”

As New York Newsday notes, Kreider shares that viewpoint, aiming to be “big, strong, fast, mean, imposing” and to play a “power forward game.”

(If you’re playing Power Forward Buzzword Bingo … yes, Kreider also talks about his north-south game.)

How much room is there to grow?

The biggest question circles back to the beginning; how much higher is Kreider’s ceiling than what we’ve already seen?

Kreider indicates that a strong finish to 2015-16 salvaged his numbers, but the end result is near-identical production compared to 2014-15. He spoke of pucks not going in early in the year, yet his shooting percentage was a career-high 13.5.

About the only difference that really stands out does possibly denote a dip in physicality, as his 58 PIM were low in comparison to 2014-15 (88) and 2013-14 (72). The Rangers probably don’t want him off the ice and in the box more often though, right?

Earning opportunities

Really, the big thing for Kreider might just come down to opportunities.

Despite becoming more experienced, he’s still averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game.

The key, then, might be for Kreider to convince Alain Vigneault to deploy him more frequently, which might come down to bring that physical edge more often.

* – That story is an interesting little peek into how the Rangers handle and develop players like Kreider. Arniel almost seems quaint at times in the piece, bringing to mind Dan D’Antoni’s inspirational notes to Leondaro Barbosa.

Linden: Virtanen must earn his spot on Canucks roster

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 10: Jake Virtanen #18 of the Vancouver Canucks skates during the pre-game warm up prior NHL action against the Calgary Flames on October 10, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.

One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.

That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)

Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.

He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.

“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”

Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.

It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.

After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.

When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.

“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.

“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”

Related: Since World Juniors disappointment, Virtanen has been ‘a different player’ for Canucks