Kovalev's days numbered?

The self imposed deadline of signing superstar center Alex Kovalev to a contract extention passed yesterday for Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick leaving us all to wonder throughout the season how many more times we will see Kovalev in the new penguins’ sweaters that he modeled nearly 2 months ago. The following is from a story written in Thursdays edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It will clear up any misconceptions concerning his contract status and what may happen in the future.

Kovalev, Penguins end talks until next year

Thursday, October 10, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It’s wait until next year for the Penguins’ contract extension talks with Alexei Kovalev.

Or it is actually the beginning of a protracted goodbye?

Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick and Scott Greenspun, Kovalev’s agent, yesterday agreed to suspend negotiations on a new deal until the end of the team’s 2002-03 season, which starts tonight. Greenspun had been amenable to continuing talks into the season, but Patrick set yesterday as a deadline.

“We’re still open to talking, but I can see Craig’s viewpoint that it might be a distraction while games are going on,” Greenspun said. “Right now, we’re not sure how this will play out, but I expect we’ll be talking again when the season is over.”

Patrick instigated the discussions by offering Kovalev an extension in early August, but talks had disintegrated to the point where no figures were exchanged for the past few days. Even yesterday, Patrick and Greenspun spoke only briefly.

The sides never agreed on any aspect of a deal. There was vague agreement that a long term might be suitable for both, but the money gap was most significant. Kovalev was seeking a salary in the range of $9 million, same as has been paid to other second-tier NHL stars in recent months, but the Penguins are believed to have offered little more than two-thirds of that.

“I don’t think that, at any point in the negotiations, we were close to signing a contract,” Greenspun said.

Kovalev, 29, is signed for the coming year at $4.55 million. The Penguins will retain his rights as a restricted free agent for one more season, 2003-04, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent and offer his services to any of the NHL’s 30 teams.

Patrick, who was not available for comment yesterday, often has said that, because the Penguins are sure to keep Kovalev at least two more years, there is no urgency to getting an extension done soon. But two prominent factors out of the team’s control could cause that strategy to backfire.

For one, Kovalev will have leverage when his current contract expires, even as a restricted free agent, because he is sure to exercise his right to salary arbitration.

He also is sure to receive a hefty raise. Based on recent awards given to players of similar status, it could be $7 million. That’s how much the Philadelphia Flyers’ John LeClair received two years ago to set a league standard. Kovalev’s award would be for only one year, as teams can’t choose the two-year option if the second year carries into a player’s period of unrestricted free agency. That means the Penguins still would lose his rights in 2004.

There also is a chance the Penguins will choose not to pay Kovalev the amount an arbitrator awards. If they currently are unwilling to pay him as much as $7 million for the 2002-03 season through a contract extension, that is not likely to change next summer if an arbitrator awards a similar figure. That could prompt the team to trade him. Patrick already has lost the likes of Ron Francis, Bob Boughner, Ron Tugnutt and Robert Lang to free agency after keeping them through lame-duck seasons and might not be willing to do so again.

The other factor is the NHL’s marketplace.

In an unusual free-agency season this summer, several of the most prominent players on the open market signed virtually identical contracts. For example, the New York Rangers’ Bobby Holik, the Dallas Stars’ Bill Guerin and the St. Louis Blues’ Keith Tkachuk each received $45 million over five years. This was the financial measuring stick used by Kovalev and his agent in talks with the Penguins, and it was atypically clear-cut. The Penguins apparently didn’t like Kovalev’s asking price, but at least they knew it fell in line with the rest of the league.

They might not be so lucky next summer. Salaries for the NHL’s upper echelon of players rise each year, often as much as 5 to 10 percent, and it takes only one big signing to raise the bar for the rest.

Greenspun acknowledged that arbitration and the marketplace could influence what he and his client do with the Penguins, but he declined to rule out the possibility Kovalev could remain in Pittsburgh for the long term.

“Anything’s possible,” he said.

He also emphasized that, although talks faded in recent days, there was no trace of hostility between the parties.

“How could there be?” Greenspun said. “Craig approached us about an extension, even though Alex is already a signed player. I would say that one thing we and the Penguins agreed on is that Alex is a star-caliber player in this league, and they showed that by coming to us. Hopefully, that will continue in the future.”

Of immediate concern for the Penguins and Kovalev is whether he can set aside the contract matter and focus on the season.

Kovalev was off to a good start in that regard yesterday.

“I don’t care, really,” he said. “I have a contract. I have one more year to play. I’m not worried. My idea is just to play. It’s a different situation if you don’t have a contract. Then, you worry about the start of the season. But I have a contract, so why should I be worried about it?”

Greenspun affirmed Kovalev’s state of mind by pointing out that his client never was directly involved in the talks, adding that his client seldom even phoned his New York office for an update.

“If you’re human, you have to be thinking about it, but it’s not like he was obsessing,” Greenspun said. “I’m sure he’ll have no trouble at all keeping his mind on hockey.”

About three weeks ago I thought that Kovie was for sure going to sign an extention. Now I don’t believe he will. I think the Penguins are going to trade Kovalev before the deadline this season ONLY if they are out of playoff contention. If not, I expect them to trade him this summer.

This brings one question to the forefront.

What would the penguins hope to get in return besides draft picks? I can’t see Patrick trading Kovie in the same manner he did Jagr. Penguin fans in the city are already up in arms with a few of Patrick’s recent moves, and we would all call for his head should he make on more questionable “BIG” move.

So what do you all think? What can you realistically hope to get in return for Kovie?