Rumor: Could Ilya Kovalchuk Be on the Blackhawks’ Radar?

Could the Blackhawks make a deal for Atlanta's Kovalchuk?

A number of reports are swirling that the Atlanta Thrashers have given superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk and his agent a deadline of Monday to accept their latest, and final, contract offer. If there isn’t an agreement, the Thrashers could move fairly quickly into the trade market, where Kovalchuk would undoubtedly become one of the hottest commodities available. A couple analysts believe the Blackhawks could sneak in and acquire him as early as this week.

Reports are that the Thrashers GM Don Waddell and Kovalchuk’s agent have been meeting at the World Junior Championships over the past week, and that a final offer has been made by Waddell. Kovalchuk is in the final year of a deal paying him $7.5 million, with a cap number of $6.4 million. To date, he has performed at a level worthy of his salary; in 35 games, Kovalchuk has 25 goals and 22 assists. His 47 points rank seventh in the NHL, just one point ahead of Patrick Kane’s 46.

A rumor that has been on the outside of the Kovalchuk rumor mill, which has been at least warm if not piping hot all season, is that the Blackhawks might jump into the mix and snatch the star left wing quickly. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun wrote of the rumor in his latest blog, citing a rival Western Conference GM that says adding Kovalchuk might be not only a great move for the 2009-10 Blackhawks, but also help relieve the payroll in 2010-11 as well.

Two names have been central to most of the rumors surrounding Kovalchuk: Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker. Unloading both young players wouldn’t be easy to stomach, but the impact on the Blackhawks could be incredible.

One of the issues coach Joel Quenneville has been dealing with, despite having arguably the deepest group of forwards in the league, is finding the right combinations to sustain consistent offense. Many fans have dreamt of a top line of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, but to date that group hasn’t played together consistently. The issue is that Kane and Hossa are both right wings, and when Quenneville hasn’t felt comfortably trying to move Kane to the left side. Troy Brouwer has played on the left side with Kane and Toews for most of the season.

Another factor to consider is that the Hawks hope to get two key players back from injury after the Olympics. Both Adam Burish and Dave Bolland have missed most of the season because of injuries, but are rehabbing well and appear to be on track to join the team in March. Bringing both of these players back into the mix could be an enormous lift for the offense in a number of ways. The biggest impact would be the return of Bolland to the center position on the second line, allowing Patrick Sharp to move back to a wing. Quenneville has been forced to mix up his center rotation in Bolland’s absence, and bringing consistency back to that spot would be huge.

So how would dealing two players like Versteeg and Kovalchuk impact the Hawks lineup?

First, let’s deal with the reality for Hawks fans. Money has to come off the payroll for next year one way or another. There are a  lot of good, young players that are popular with the fans but the numbers game indicates they won’t all be here next year. The Hawks are not going to move Kane, Toews, Hossa or Bolland this year, and most analysts believe Dustin Byfuglien’s roster spot is safe as well. Considering his cost and performance this year, Brouwer would have to be considered safe as well. On defense, the Hawks won’t move Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell’s contract will make him hard to move. He’s played well enough lately that it wouldn’t be prudent to move Campbell at this point anyway.

That means the Hawks will look to move salary by trading players from a group including, most prominently, Sharp, Versteeg, Barker and Brent Sopel.

The consideration now much become how the players are moved. Does GM Stan Bowman unload salaries just for the sake of dumping salaries, or does he go for broke? It’s possible to accomplish both. Dealing for Kovalchuk might be an overwhelming move to bolster the present while accomplishing the movement of money off the future payroll.

It’s hard to imagine that moving a player like Versteeg for a likely rental in Kovalchuk makes sense long term, but look at what the Hawks offense would look like if they made this deal. We’re talking about a fantasy team, not the Chicago Blackhawks.

Once Bolland comes back, the Blackhawks could realistically have two of the top 10 scorers in the NHL on their first line if Quenneville opted to put Kovalchuk with Toews and Kane. Consider as well that you would then have a second line of Sharp, Bolland and Hossa and then move Brouwer and Byfuglien, who have 10 and 11 goals respectively, playing with John Madden on the third line.

Quenneville might personally pay for the airline tickets to get Kovalchuk to Chicago. That lineup is scary.

Moving Barker off the blue line is what could become an issue, but Barker’s inconsistent play would make it easier to handle moving forward. The Blackhawks would likely have to bring a defenseman up from Rockford, or add a veteran off waivers to either join Sopel for the rest of the season or back up Jordan Hendry, who has played very well in relief this year. With the Hawks giving a three-year deal to prospect Shawn LaLonde, Barker becomes the most likely player on the roster to be moved.

By making a proposed Barker-Versteeg for Kovalchuk trade, the Blackhawks would cut ove $6 million off their 2010-11 payroll and would add an elite scorer to their already-potent offense for what could be a magical run at the Stanley Cup. Renting Kovalchuk would be a calculated gamble by Bowman to push all of his chip into the table and let the rest of the NHL know that the time of the Blackhawks is now.

As it stands today, and argument could be made that the Hawks are among the best offensive group in the league; they’re one of only three teams with at least five 10-goal scorers already. But with all due respect to the great front line of Heatley,  Marleau and Thornton in San Jose and the Sedin twins in Vancouver, there would not be a better, deeper offense in hockey than the Blackhawks if this deal happened.

If the rumors are true, and Kovalchuk could be on the move as early as the middle of this week if he turns down Atlanta’s offer, the Blackhawks could make another strong statement that we are indeed witnessing the beginning of a special era in Chicago sports history on the West Side by making a deal for a superstar like Kovalchuk.

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