When Alexander Medvedev, president of Russia's Continental Hockey League, says his league can offer Ilya Kovalchuk better terms than his NHL employer, the Atlanta Thrashers - as he did this past week - he's correct of course. Disingenuous, but correct.
Because its costs far outstripped its meagre revenues last season, the KHL introduced a thoroughly malleable salary cap - limiting the amount it pays its rank-and-file players but permitting teams to overpay desperately needed marquee players.
So far, the best the KHL could do was outbid the Edmonton Oilers to lure the aging and mercurial Czech great Jaromir Jagr to rejoin the team for which he played in the lockout, Avangard Omsk. Other recruiting efforts proved less successful.
Even if Jiri Hudler, for example was a useful player for the Detroit Red Wings last season, his absence - because of an offer he couldn't refuse from Moscow Dynamo - did not exactly sent tremors through the NHL. No one stopped buying tickets at the Joe Louis Arena because of Hudler's defection. If Pavel Datsyuk had gone home, that'd be a different story.
But thus far, the Russian players who've returned to play in the KHL are mostly those nearing the ends of their NHL careers, or ones who'd flat run out of North American options. Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Zubov left following last season; Alexei Yashin has been gone a couple of years now after the New York Islanders finally cut their losses and bought him out of a ridiculously high contract.
Kovalchuk's acquisition would represent a far greater coup than repatriating any of the aforementioned trio.
His absence would be keenly felt, first in Atlanta, where the Thrashers have evolved into a respectable, entertaining team this season with Kovalchuk leading the charge. One could convincingly argue that Kovalchuk - who returned to the Thrashers lineup Thursday with a three-point night after missing three weeks with a broken foot - is one of the top five Russian talents in the world, at or near the level of his contemporaries Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) or Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) for sheer offensive virtuosity.
The problem for the KHL - and what Medvedev doesn't say - is that the recent history of Russian players in Kovalchuk's sphere is that they are not primarily motivated by chasing top dollar or necessarily selling their services to the highest bidder.
Ovechkin, Malkin and Datsyuk all inked long-term contracts with their respective NHL teams largely because they want to play in the NHL, the best league in the world - and it's not as if they don't make gazillions here anyway. Ovechkin is, on average, the league's highest-paid player at $9.538-million (all currency U.S.) annually. Malkin makes $8.7-million per year, or the same as Sidney Crosby, tied for second overall, while Datsyuk is 22nd at $6.7-million.
Even if the Thrashers are struggling at the box office and operating deeply in the red, general manager Don Waddell has reiterated over and over that his team is prepared to offer Kovalchuk fair-market value for his services, on what would be a lifetime contract if he signs.
Enough, in other words, for Kovalchuk to make his decision based on lifestyle choices; and on the team's prospects of winning, which have never seemed better. The money, no matter who pays it, will be enough for Kovalchuk to live well for the rest of his life.
Medvedev, who met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in Washington this past Wednesday in the hopes of ending the Cold War between the warring leagues, is deputy chief of oil giant Gazprom and one of Russia's wealthiest men.
How rich then that Medvedev would be playing the capitalist card - crossing his fingers that Kovalchuk's choice of where to play next year when he becomes an unrestricted free agent will be motivated purely by economic factors.
My, how the political and economic times can change. Bob Dylan would be proud.
The Jiggy Shuffle
J.S. Giguere, the Anaheim Ducks' goaltender under Brian Burke and backstop of their 2007 Stanley Cup championship team, is chafing at his limited role with the NHL team and may be ready to move on if he cannot dislodge Jonas Hilller as the team's starter. The Ducks, facing budgetary restrictions, would be happy to accommodate his wishes, given how his four-year, $20-million is back loaded, so they're on the hook for $6-million this year and $7-million next year - too much to pay a player who is No. 2 on their depth chart.
The only problem: Finding a taker for Giguere, only two years removed from a Stanley Cup champion and the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP back in 2003. Last summer, Giguere gave the Ducks a list of possible teams that he'd waive his no-trade clause to join that also included the Toronto Maple Leafs. Before he left to become the Leafs' general manager, Burke deviated from his philosophical norm by granting Giguere a no-trade clause on humanitarian grounds. Giguere's son Maxime was born with persistent fetal vasculature syndrome and receives outpatient treatment at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Any destination for Giguere would need a similar facility within easy range.
Probably, Anaheim would take Vesa Toskala back from the Ducks in a deal, just because the contract numbers would be advantageous for them ($13-million out, $4-million in).
Question is: Would Giguere want to go to a Leafs team that seems to have settled on the Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, to carry them to the next level?
In some ways, it would be exchanging one understudy role for another - not exactly the answer to his unhappiness. You'd have to think at some point the Detroit Red Wings might look at pursuing an upgrade in goal. For them to make the numbers work, Detroit would need to wait until much closer to the trading deadline, when this year's contract is down to a fraction of its overall value.
The dollars owed to Giguere next year would represent both a hefty commitment for Detroit and an organizational shift in philosophy - saving money in goal to pay for high-end defencemen and forwards. On the plus side, a number of contracts come off the books after this season for Detroit, creating some salary cap breathing room for a change.
Rumours Du Jour
Don't the Ducks make more real news than virtually any team in a non-traditional market? Apart from Giguere's sarcastic aside this week about pondering retirement if he couldn't play regularly, captain Scott Niedermayer acknowledged - to the Newark Star-Ledger - that he could be traded before the end of the season. Now, this requires a little clarification. First, Niedermayer stressed that his priority was helping the Ducks win and if they were in playoff contention, nothing was going to happen. Niedermayer will be in play only if Anaheim is desperately out of the playoff picture - and even then, it is hard to imagine that there'd be a league-wide bidding war for his services. Niedermayer is a rare iconoclast, a player who would only leave his family behind on a rental basis if the fit is right.
So where might a good fit be? Well, New Jersey, for starters, where he played his entire NHL career before joining the Ducks after the lockout ended, on a Devils' team that now employs his brother, Rob. The Niedermayers won a championship together in Anaheim in 2007; it would be a fabulous finish to either or both of their careers if they could do it again in 2010. Other possibilities: Vancouver, a team that was interested in his services last year and would give him a chance to play close to home; and as a much longer shot, Toronto, only if the Leafs rebound in a big way and get in the playoff mix. You'd have to think that the chance to pull on the fabled blue-and-white, and play for Burke, his ex-boss, might be an intriguing move. Niedermayer would have been a Leaf in 1991, if Toronto hadn't traded its No. 1 pick in that draft to the Devils for Tom Kurvers.
Scotty Bowman, the legendary former coach and now an adviser for the Chicago Blackhawks, believes next year's NHL salary cap could drop about $2-million, a reasonable prediction given how little box-office revenue is being generated in Phoenix, Tampa and Atlanta. Even the rising Canadian dollar won't offset those black holes. If that cap forecast is ultimately how it plays out, you'd have to think most general managers will get even more gun shy about adding high-priced help (such as Giguere) unless they're on expiring contracts. Cheaper options (such as Martin Biron of the Islanders) will become far more attractive.
Around The Rinks
The Chicago Blackhawks lost centre Dave Bolland for up to four months following surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, a problem that had been bothering him since last year. By having the surgery last Tuesday, the Blackhawks expect Bolland back in early March, following the Olympic break . . . The good news for the Blackhawks is how well goaltender Cristobal Huet has settled down after a slow start in which he and Toskala were jockeying for the league's poorest save percentage through mid-October. Expediency probably more than faith (Huet is signed for $5.625-million annually) meant coach Joel Quenneville kept rolling Huet out there, and of late it has paid off with a 5-2 record in his past seven starts and a save percentage that has finally inched above .900 . . . After a slow start the San Jose Sharks are back on top of the NHL's overall standings and they did it even before two top-six forwards, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi returned to the lineup this week after missing time with injuries. Pavelski sat out five weeks with a broken foot, after blocking a shot Oct. 3 vs. Anaheim; and he scored in his return . . . Daniel Sedin, the Canucks' leading scorer last year, went out Oct. 7 with a broken foot as well, but his projected return date isn't until next Friday . . . Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin is expected back in the Washington Capitals lineup next Tuesday against the New York Rangers, which would amount to a six-game absence with a shoulder injury … Sidney Crosby had slipped into a tie for 31st overall in the NHL scoring race after enduring a five-game scoring drought, the longest of his career. It ended early in Thursday's loss to the New Jersey Devils with a first-period assist on Ruslan Fedotenko's goal, snapping the slump after 318 minutes and 49 seconds. Six of the top 10 scorers as of Thursday in the NHL points race were Canadians: Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Dustin Penner, Ryan Smyth, Joe Thornton and Corey Perry. Of those six, only Nash is considered a mortal lock to play for Canada in the Olympics . . . Ovechkin's injury permitted the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar to move seven points ahead in the scoring race. Kopitar won't play in the Olympics either. After qualifying in Turin in 2006, Slovenia didn't make the cut for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver . . . Also in the hunt for help down the middle, the Rangers, who have both Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky out indefinitely. The versatile Vinnie Prospal shifts to the middle in the interim.