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Ilya Kovalchuk: 10 Reasons not to do 10 Years at $10 Million

I know a full metric ton of you are excited by the reports the Islanders are in on the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. I get that. I'm a longtime fan waiting for the volcanic burst when years of suffering patience are rewarded by a leap back into the NHL's top clubs. And when have we ever been able to rave that the Isles signed a legit top free agent other teams wanted? (Ironically, that's also why I doubt it will happen; of course usually when I say that, it happens within hours.)

If the Islanders, who are thin at left wing and as much as $10 million below the cap floor, announced a 1- or even a 4-year deal with the sniping winger for around max money ($10 million? $11 million? Why not? Not my money.), I'd be nervous, but thrilled. I'm the type who might even rush my butt off the couch to overnight a custom #17 Isles jersey, against my rational self. And the loathing; oh, there would be self-loathing.

Garth Snow told Newsday: "Over the last couple of days I've made maybe a hundred calls and explored options where, maybe it doesn't come to fruition, but I'm not doing my job if I don't make those calls." Bless him for that. I'd be shocked if he didn't call. All reports are the interest is real, not a gimmick.

But it's the MSM reports that a deal could be as much as $10 million per for 10 years -- that is what has me scared to death. I don't think he's worth it (not even now, but I could stomach the overpayment short-term), and I don't think that sort of commitment -- one fourth of the payroll now, one-sixth of the whole cap -- fits where the Isles are in their rebuild. They need another scorer; they don't need to give another scorer the Moon today and every year to 2020.

I fully recognize this is a debatable stance for hockey fans, and it's been a fun debate among the regular participants here in comments. So for you and others, I'll spell out my reasons for reservation. To be clear, this is built around the rumored and unconfirmed 10x10 offer. If it's less than that, some of this is moot:

1. Even though the Islanders are Below the Cap Floor, They're Still on a Budget

Is Charles Wang suddenly going to lavish more money on this club's payroll? Will they even be a cap-max team when they have a new building in five(?) years, when Kovalchuk is 32, on the decline, and half-way through such a contract? If the Isles are willing to spend to the cap, that's one thing. But if they're maintaining floor status, that doesn't leave much room for extensions to Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey (next summer) and John Tavares (the following summer), to say nothing of the other first-rounders (Calvin De Haan, Nino Niederreiter) who will follow.

In short, a team constructed and spending the way the Isles do needs to find value contracts even more so than the teams who are pushing the cap maximum. The Islanders always say they're willing to spend for the right fit, but of course the reality is that "the right fit" is a lot more selective than other teams. Your real cap is much lower when you're spending $15 million less than other clubs in your division. For a team like the Isles, money mistakes are magnified. In exchange rate terms, we're spending Canadian dollars while they're spending Amer-- wait, things have changed since the '90s. I gotta work on that analogy.

Counterargument: If the Isles are never going to spend much above the floor, we're pretty screwed regardless, so might as well have fun with Ilya, put butts in the seats, get fans excited, win more games, maybe steal a playoff appearance/series. And the revised lease on the Coliseum at least gives Wang more liquid cash to play with.

2. Ilya Kovalchuk is not a $10 million player

I get that the Isles -- and any team, really, but especially the Isles -- have to overpay to get a free agent to choose us over the contending Penguins or the further-along-and-rising Kings. But Kovalchuk is not even a Crosby- or Ovechkin-level player. His stats are largely padded by regularly getting the most PP minutes of any forward in the league. His lack of defensive acumen (to put it nicely) in his own zone is legion. This is not a popular view in our counting-stats-obsessed culture, but 40 goals instead of 30 is not so sexy if the swing is even bigger in the goals against department.

A $10 million cap hit is $4.6k more than Ovechkin's, $1.3 million more than Crosby's, $2.3 million over Lecavalier's, $2.5 million over Heatley's and Gaborik's, $3.3 million over Backstrom's, $3.9 million over the Sedins' and Zetterberg's. Note that every one of those players' employers routinely spends near the cap (except Tampa Bay, who I guarantee regrets the previous ownership signed it).

So: 20 to 25% of your payroll on a routinely minus player? All because he scores 10 to 12 goals more than the next teammate? That instead of two 25 to 30-goal scorers who are good in their own end?

Counterarguments: But we need to overpay to get anyone. And maybe with cap inflation, in five years $10 million will be the going rate for scoring stars.

3. Ilya Kovalchuk is not so Hot at 5-on-5 Hockey

Plus/minus is an evil, team-dependent stat, so consider this: Last season Kovalchuk at +1 in Atlanta (his first plus ever) was 11th on the team in that department. The year before (-12), he was 31st on the team, while Rich Peverley led at +16. The year before that (-12 again), he was 26th on the team. I know that stat can be misleading, but what does it say about a guy who scores so many more goals than his teammates, yet is still consistently on the ice for more goals against than those teammates? Float much? Rely on PP much?

To go deeper, it gets worse when you consider that Kovalchuk logs a lot of those points against weaker competition. As Gabe Desjardins chronicled at Behind the Net [go there for more data and a good discussion]:

Ilya Kovalchuk has been much more likely to start out in the offensive zone than his teammates, and even though he lines up against his opponents' weaker lines, his teams have been significantly outshot while he's on the ice. In other words, he's a seriously negative player at even-strength. By way of comparison, Vincent Lecavalier - who has a millstone of a contract he can never live up to - also gets choice faceoff starts, but he faces tough competition and comes out positive relative to his teammates.

Now, goals are goals -- if a coach can get you out for ideal matchups and you score, bully for both of you. But still, is a guy like that worth the top salary in the league? For 10 years? You can groom or acquire a guy who's twice as effective at preventing goals while scoring nearly as many points, for half to two-thirds the price.

Counterargument: But he's very hot at 5-on-4 hockey, which is no small matter given the Islanders' poor powerplay.

4. At Age 27, Ilya Still Wanders in His Own Zone

I base this one on personal observation, word from Atlanta fans who have watched him, and numbers like the ones compiled in the Behind the Net post I linked to above. But if you want a video representation, just check out this post at Birdwatchers Anonymous, chronicling an obvious defensive zone fail in an Islanders win over Atlanta. A sampling:

The 3rd Moulson goal is also assisted by "defensive indifference" from the Captain Kovalchuk. Watch the video clip and once again you'll see the Islander (Streit) with the puck up at the top of the Thrashers defensive zone. You'll see Kovalchuk enter the picture but then he just peels away without applying any sort of pressure on the puck carrier. Once again

Counterargument: The same Atlanta blogger, who has always been a guarded skeptic while watching Ilya play for his team, also said Ilya was playing "like a superstar" after watching Kovalchuk take off upon being named captain. The possibility is that Ilya excels when challenged with responsibility -- he certainly didn't sleepwalk through the Devils playoff loss like his teammates did. Thus is the dilemma: He is undeniably a star; is he a star worth this much for this long?

5. He Would be 32 Half-way through the Deal, 37 when it Ends

Think about the forwards in this league who were between the ages of 33-37 this past season (the age range Ilya will be in for the final five years and $50 million of the theoretical 10-year deal). Looking at that list, how many would you have paid max salary to this season? (Or, to be fair, given possible cap inflation, how many would you have paid about $8 million to?) Perhaps Martin St. Louis and Daniel Alfredsson (though they each make much less) aaaand...?

Counterargument: But Ilya is a special player in those two guys' class, and the Islanders have to overpay to get anyone.

6. Ilya Doesn't Fit the Rebuild

I'm a patient fan. When Garth Snow got full decision-making control of the team, all I wanted was a guy who would do things Milbury would not (and to be fair, in many cases could not): Develop draft picks, hoard prospects -- and be patient enough to avoid rash decisions that deviate from the plan.

It's very hard to tell fans to be patient year after year. But when you are a team on a low budget, this is the only route. You need your high picks to turn into young stars who develop with the team, who realize that Long Island is a good place to play hockey, and who take the proverbial "hometown discount" to re-sign with the team under a cap system. While a short-term move helps the Isles cap situation today (how weird is that?), it doesn't help in a few years. If the Islanders are keeping their low budget, then they will have issues fitting their young forwards (and later, young defensemen) in with a 30-year-old $10 million man anchoring 20% of that budget.

Admittedly, this is a selfish lament for me. I've been patient this far, so I'm not willing to rush into another long-term deal that could haunt and even hamstring the club within five years.

Counterargument: Grow up, whiner. Ilya might be better than any of those young Isles forwards, so he'll make twice as much and they'll all be happy scoring fools.

7. This Backchecking Thing Really Bothers Me

In hockey, stat-focused observers (like Gabe, who I quoted liberally above) like to talk in cold, hard numbers, while poo-pooing the subjective psychobabble of the common sportswriter. I'm somewhere in between. I think numbers -- NOT just counting numbers, but the rate numbers Gabe uses -- can tell us a lot about a player's individual value in a very fluid game, while "They wanted it more" is a tired excuse used to explain collective Halak-backed luck.

But I do have room for the subjective and the psychological, because I've watched enough, talked to enough, and played enough endurance and team sports to know that the mind plays tricks on you in pressure-and-pain athletic situations. You know how runners break through "the Wall"? Well, team-sport athletes need to believe in some reward to push themselves through that wall. So when your goalie gives up a backbreaking (i.e. "soft") goal time and time again, it doesn't matter how often he saves 97% of his shots -- you're still worried, in the back of your mind, that all your best efforts will be for naught. Likewise, when your team's scorer routinely blows the defensive assignment that is the responsibility of ever winger on the team, you notice.

At first, you make excuses for him because you sure do appreciate when he pots a laserbeam top corner to win a game in OT. But after enough viewings, when you're body's tired, when the team is in a slump, when you're battling through a bad groin and a bum wrist and you know that primadonna top scorer is still going to loaf on his responsibilities, in the back of your mind you wonder, "Wait, why am I busting my ass through injury to catch my guy, when he's just going to have an open shooter on the other side?" It's the same reason a scorer can sprint through pain up ice for a scoring chance, but then magically feel that throbbing pain too much to sprint at the same speed back toward his own zone.

All of that may be too subjective. And it may be unfair to put Kovalchuk in that department. But suffice to say, if a $10 million guy shirks or simply not know how to achieve basic defensive assignments in his own zone, that's going to eventually rub off on teammates. Not in a good way.

8. Eight, Eight, I Forget What Eight Was For...

(reference, for the too-old or too-young.)

9. A Major Free Agent and the Lighthouse Project Have Nothing to do with Each Other

This is a minor point (I'm focused on hockey, not politics), but it's one rumored about in a few circles -- that Charles Wang must be pushing this deal as a way to help push his Lighthouse Project through. That Ilya = more wins = more Isles popularity = more pressure on the Town of Hempstead.

I must confess I don't follow that. The Town of Hempstead has shown it doesn't much care for any Islanders on-ice PR. They're not influenced by a playoff push or the drafting of John Tavares. They were influenced to move a little quicker when the Islanders got fans to rally and show up at hearings, but in the end we're still where we are now, in a stalemate before an expected TOH "rezoning plan" announcement that will surely fall well short of what Wang is asking for.

The barely breathing Lighthouse Project today rests on whether either side is willing to compromise, no? How does adding a big-name free agent for a lot of money move the Town of Hempstead to acquiesce toward Wang's position? If wins are a factor, doesn't Wang need an answer from TOH well before Ilya's presence (theoretically) leads to more wins next December (when pretenders finally slump and contenders get through the holidays above water)?

Counterargument: Maybe Scott Gordon reaches him the same way Ilya said Jacques Lemaire did. And hey, Brett Hull used to not backcheck while piling up goals on mediocre teams, and then he saw an opportunity to win Cups -- and met the right veterans to show him the way -- and suddenly he was a regular Guy Carbonneau out there.


Again with the Violent Femmes "Kiss Off" reference...hey, this is blogging, and 10 is a lot.

"EVERYTHING" is essentially what 10x10 is. But in the end, this is hockey and most of us are in this for the entertainment and the thrill. Cups are won through a variety of ways. Kovalchuk is a dynamic scorer. As I've said before and now, I'd happily take him streaking down the wing in Islanders Orange and Blue for the right situation. But not for the type of near-max deal he is widely reported to be asking. There are many reasons to want him -- including two interesting Russian prospects the Islanders have in their system -- though I'm not sure if those reasons are enough to want him for this long.

Yet if we're talking 10 years, Quisp at Kings blog Jewels From the Crown (who has written a ton about this saga as it relates to the Kings) has a much more palatable suggestion for any team: 10 years, $75 million, staggered downward so that $10+ million salaries are in the early years and it goes down from there. Everybody wins. (Except Ilya, if he's intent on $100 million.)

That'd be much better. In fact, while that would still be a hefty cap hit and cash layout, it would have the effect of allowing the Islanders more actual cash in those later years, which is important to teams that aren't as liquid as the league's big cashcows. There are ways to throw a lot of cash at Ilya for a more reasonable term -- which is probably what L.A. and New Jersey have in mind.

In the end, I think Ilya will milk whatever offers the Isles make to squeeze more money out of the closer-to-contending Kings and Devils. But if the unlikely happens and the Isles seal a big 10x10 deal with Ilya, I'm not going to be bugging you guys about it afterward. I'll be pulling for him and the team as always. I'll be hoping I'm wrong about ALL of this.

But in the meantime, I wanted to explain why I think it's too much, for too long, for the wrong guy. Thanks as always for reading and debating.