Among the clubs that are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup next season, only San Jose Sharks have much freedom of what to do with their roster this summer. According to CapGeek.com, the Sharks have $20M of uncommitted salary space for next season. New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals are next with the respective $16M and $13 in cap space. Here in San Jose we tend to think that Doug Wilson will decide to stay the course, resign Patrick Marleau to a long, but cap-friendly contract and go from there. But what if this is not going to happen?
What if Marleau decides to test the UFA market? What if Los Angeles Kings or New Jersey Devils or whoever else gives him an offer that Doug Wilson can't match? Or what if Doug Wilson decides to quickly rebuild the team, but still compete for the Cup next season?
If that happens, one of the options Wilson may look into on July 1st is the biggest free agent on the market this summer, Ilya Kovalchuk.
There is no secret of what Kovalchuk brings to the table. He's been under the microscope of Russian and North American media ever since he emerged as the top player at IIHF U18 Junior Championship in 2001 when he scored 11 goals and 15 points in 6 games. It was then that the world of hockey discovered his deadly shot, his great skating ability, his puck handling skills, and his passion for the game. Ever since then, Kovalchuk has been one of the most consistent performers in the league and is rightly considered to be one of the top 10 NHL players today.
It's also no secret that Kovakchuk is expected to sign one of the largest contracts in the league. He already rejected 12-year, $101M and 7-year, $70M offers from Atlanta Thrashers. He's also being actively pursued by the richest KHL clubs and his Russian agent Yuri Nikolaev recently stated that Kovalchuk's return to Russia is a very viable option. At the same time, we think that Kovalchuk will stay in the NHL, despite what the Russians may be offering.
However, one of the reasons why we tend to never think that Kovalchuk may end up in San Jose is the club's history under Doug Wilson. As a general manager of San Jose Sharks, Wilson never signed any free agents of Kovalchuk's caliber. It's not that he is modest with spending, as contracts of Milan Michalek, Matt Carle and Ryane Clowe indicate. But these were all contracts of young players, not established NHL all-stars shopping for a new club. None of these were unrestricted free agents either. Wilson prefers to acquire his top players via trades, and this is how Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle all got here.
Yet at the same time, ever since Doug Wilson was appointed as the GM of San Jose Sharks, no other team with the exception of Red Wings accumulated more regular season points than did the Sharks. Regular season wins are fun, but as we learned this spring nothing compares to playoffs wins. During Doug Wilson's tenure in San Jose, only twice out of six playoffs runs the Sharks advanced past the second round. It could very well be that Doug Wilson may be rethinking his strategy at this point.
We don't need to look any further than the two best teams of the past season. Both the Flyers and the Blackhawks saw that the time to compete for the Cup was now. They went out and made a big splash - Chicago by signing Marian Hossa and Philadephia by trading for Chris Pronger. Those two players turned out to be key additions to these teams and both played big roles in their team's run to the Stanley Cup final.
Could it be that the Sharks are one big free agent signing or one big trade away from finally making it into the Stanley Cup final? If that's the case, Kovalchuk could very well be that player who can change the outlook of this franchise.
If we compare Kovalchuk to Marleau, as I think this is where Doug Wilson's choice is, Kovalchuk has been a more consistent goalscorer, having scored 230 goals vs 167 for Marleau since the lockout. It also doesn't play to Marleau's avor that his best two career years in San Jose came when he was mostly playing on Thornton's line. Kovalchuk never had this kind of supporting cast in Atlanta, yet he still scored at least 40 goals in each of the past five seasons. Kovalchuk is also four years younger.
The logical question is, why would the Sharks sign Kovalchuk when they already have Dany Heatley? They both score a lot of goals, they are both deadly on the power play, and they're both defensive liabilities. What differentiates Kovalchuk from Heatley is the same quality for which Marleau has been criticised over the years - his leadership.
Kovalchuk is a natural leader in the locker room. He's the type of the player who always the first to speak up and when he does, he speaks his mind, whether for good, or for bad. When it comes to saying things as they are, he's a Russian version of Dan Boyle, and from all I've heard and read about Kovalchuk, his teammates listen. When coach Bykov was faced with a choice of who to appoint a new captain for Team Russia at the recent World Championship in Germany, the "C" went to Kovalchuk. That happened despite Ovechkin, Fedorov also on the team.
One of the things the Sharks may be lacking going into next season is the leadership on the offense. As great as Pavelski was last spring, we should not be expecting him to carry this team on his shoulders during the whole season. We also know that this isn't Joe Thornton's or Dany Heatley's team. When we think of who is the leader in San Jose, we think Dan Boyle - but the list stops there. There is no question that Chicago, Philadelphia or the past champions Detroit and Pittburgh have leaders on both offense and defense. There is no question who these leaders are. Kovalchuk could bring that missing leadership to San Jose's lineup.
Do I believe that this will actually happen? I don't think it will. Kovalchuk's salary expectations both in terms of the money he's asking and the length of the contract may be too high for Doug Wilson to even think about this option. The signing of Kovalchuk will be even more difficult once Pavelski and Setoguchi sign their new contracts, and that's even before the goaltending situation is sorted. But nonetheless, today is June 14th, and the Sharks still have more salary space on their roster than 24 out of the remaining 29 teams. That chance still remains.