Kovalchuk interested in Leafs; Burke says nyet

NHL free agency opens exactly 15 days from today, and as you’ve no doubt heard already, Ilya Kovalchuk is, if not the prize, then certainly one of the top two along with Patrick Marleau .

Yesterday, ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun had a quote from Leafs GM Brian Burke basically squashing any speculation his team would be in the mix for Kovalchuk , saying simply: “We’re not going to be involved in that race.”

So there goes one top-six forward candidate.

What’s interesting about the Kovalchuk talk is that I’ve been told pretty definitively that the Leafs were among the teams he was interested in. While the player (who is under contract to the Devils until July 1) and his camp remain quiet on all this, the general feeling around the league is that Toronto was at least among the teams in the running.

Now, that might seem at odds with some of the things Kovalchuk’s looking for – with a winning team near the top of the list – but many still believe that Burke can, in adding pieces via free agency and trade this summer, turn things around rather quickly.

Yes, Kovalchuk is looking at a considerable contract, but with Nikolai Kulemin unsigned, Toronto has only roughly $12-million committed to their forward group, with nearly half of that going to Phil Kessel . It’s highly likely Burke radically alters his salary structure in the next three weeks, moving out money on the blueline for money up front.

There’s also some creative accounting that could come into play with Kovalchuk’s contract. We’ve already seen players like Marian Hossa sign behemoth deals stretching into the sunset with a relatively modest cap hit, and I think there’s a chance we see the same for Kovalchuk .

The final five years of Hossa’s deal, for example, include just $8-million in salary. If the Kovalchuk camp was willing to do something similar, on say a 13- or 14-year deal that took him to age 40-plus, it’s possible that he could get huge money up front, be locked up long term and have a cap hit in the $6-million or so range.

Do I think Toronto would sign a risky deal like that? Not really. But given a dire need for some quality offensive weapons to play with Kessel and Tyler Bozak, how many other options are there to boost the Leafs’ offence?

There is, for one, some general skepticism around the league that Tomas Kaberle will fetch the type of player Burke is seeking, and there aren’t many quality top six forwards in free agency outside of Kovalchuk and Marleau. Many of the traditionally big spending teams, meanwhile, are already in a tight spot payroll wise. Others are cutting salary altogether.