Thursday at noon, 29 of the 30 National Hockey League general managers will begin a process that they believe will ensure their franchise experiences the sport’s ultimate success while one, Stan Bowman, plots how his Chicago Blackhawks can defend its first Stanley Cup Championship in 49 years.
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The prize of this year’s marketplace is New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk
There has not been a player of Kovalchuk’s caliber and at his age that has been a free agent post-lockout and, arguably, in the history of the NHL free agency. The 27-year-old is one of the premier scorers in the league. He has recorded 642 points in 621 NHL games. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft has scored 52 goals twice and 40 or more goals six straight years.
It has long been suspected that Los Angeles and Boston, along with the Devils, will be active participants in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Acquired in February from Atlanta, Kovalchuk averaged a point a game in the Devils final 27 games of the regular season. He was the best Devils skater in the five-game, first-round playoff series loss to Philadelphia, totaling six points (two goals and four assists).
So, yes, the price tag will be steep. Kings GM Dean Lombardi has $44.6 million in payroll assigned to 16 players. It is not out of the realm of possibility that he could sign Kovalchuk and still be able to add other pieces.
Boston and the Devils are in far more tenuous financial situations. The Devils, who reportedly re-signed RFA forward David Clarkson to a three-year, $8 million deal, have to determine whether they can afford Kovalchuk and defenseman Paul Martin and still have room for Zach Parise next summer. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli may be looking to shed the salaries of Marc Savard and Tim Thomas from his ledger. However, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara are both unrestricted free agents next summer and Savard’s and Thomas’ salaries could ensure that both continue to ply their trade on Causeway Street.
The club that may be the most interesting to watch today will be the Rangers. Historically the Rangers have been major players in the free agent market, but that may not be the case this year. Glen Sather is negotiating deals with RFA’s Brandon Prust, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal and UFA Jody Shelley. Should the Rangers add pieces during free agency, it will most likely be second-tier players, such as Phoenix center Matthew Lombardi.
Sather and John Tortorella have pointed at filling holes at backup goaltender, forward and especially defense. Both the GM and coach have continually stated their hope that the lineup becomes younger and that the youth comes from within.
“I think we need to improve, through our whole team but especially around our net. It’s not about the fighting, it’s a little more presence around our blue, protect our goalies a little bit better,” Tortorella said Monday. “Just to have a little more jam to our hockey club.”
Tortorella softened his stance on backup goaltender Alex Auld. The coach sounded adamant on breakup day that the organization had not seen enough from Auld in the three games he played after being signed off of waivers from Dallas. Tortorella said Monday that the decision to return to the organization resides with Auld.
The organization is steadfast that the reserve goaltender is able to give Henrik Lundqvist 20 games off. Lundqvist played a career-high 73 games last season. He went 35-27-10 with a .921 save percentage and 2.38 goals against. However the workload and the pressure of having to play an almost perfect game every night out wore on Lundqvist.