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.