Free Agents 2010-2011.

With about 16 games left in the regular seasons, some teams are looking forward to the playoffs, but other teams are quickly looking forward to the beginning of free agency on July 1st.

There are some interesting players on the market this season, and I will focus on talking about a couple today.

Ilya Kovalchuk

First and foremost, Ilya Kovalchuk is perhaps the biggest name in the market this year. Failing to re-sign him in Atlanta, Don Waddell shipped the All-star left-winger to the Devils. Simply looking at the return going back to the Thrashers, I don’t think the Devils have any insurance Kovalchuk will sign back with New Jersey in the off-season. Don’t get me wrong, I think Bergfors and Oduya are decent players, but they aren’t even close in terms of value, even if you late first-rounder.

Ilya will demand a huge salary, that much is given. Somewhere between $8-million to $10-million per season, and perhaps a $6-million cap-hit, if he signs to a very very long contract. At this point in the league, there is only about eight teams which can afford him; nine if you want to slice it very thin, Colorado can officially afford him, but the space is very tight. Of course, the situation will be very different after the season, with UFAs leaving their teams, and teams will have more room in terms of cap-space.

In the cap-era, with the ceiling on salary (20% of the team’s total salary), the variations on the salary offered across teams is very small. Most if not all teams which are interested in signing him will give him the maximum, unless Ilya is willing to take a discount on a favored team. Imagine how this will look, if after all the good thing Kovalchuk has said about Atlanta, he signs with New York at a lower price. Of course, this is assuming the rumors of Waddell offering Kovalchuk the maximum salary is true.

If the salary is similar, and since he just only 26, most teams will offered at-least a 12-year contract to lower the cap-hit. At 38, Kovie can still be very productive, hence the NHL probably can’t challenge such an offer from any team.

So I guess it will be up to his personal preference which team he signs, since there won’t be any opportunity costs for signing with any team. After almost eight seasons in a bottom-feeding team, I am guessing he will choose a cup-contender, or at least a team with the best shot for a run at the cup.

Among the teams currently able to sign Kovalchuk, I am guessing Dallas and Nashville have the best shot at the cup in the near future. Dallas didn’t do much during the trade deadline, with Modano retiring and Turco out, the Stars will be a strong buyer in the free-agent pool. Nashville is currently bound for playoffs this season, and with their core pretty much intact, adding Kovalchuk will make them a serious contender.

I will also throw in the Islanders as well. Although they are having a disastrous season, their youth-core is very strong, and will be the next Chicago Blackhawks sooner rather than later. Plus, Kovalchuk can surely enjoy living in New York.

Patrick Marleau

Yes, rumor has it, that Doug Wilson is keen on re-signing Marleau, but no talks are allowed during the season.

Marleau is having a fantastic season, 40 goals and 30 assists in only 64 games!! Goal production-wise, this is his best season ever, since playing in the NHL. At this pace, Marleau should finish somewhere around 87 points, also another personal best.

His production, of course, is a direct result of playing on the best line in hockey right now, along-side Thorton and Heatley. Marleau is 31, and can probably play for 6 to 7 more years, so he still has some mileage in him.

On the surface, it does make a lot of sense to re-sign him, and keep the most lethal line-up intact. But this will all depend on their play-off performance this year. If the Sharks win the cup, then Wilson will surely let him walk, since the costs of his other players will rise after the cup.

If they exit early, Wilson will probably not risk signing a long-extension with Marleau, at $6.5-million per season, a repeat of his 07-08 season will be devastating. Relieving the 6.5 million will be a smart move, since the salary spread is lop-sided to the forwards in San Jose. The first-line alone costs $21-million, more than 1/3 of the teams’ total cap. Dan Boyle costs another $6.6-million, plus Nabokov, who Wilson still have to sign, costs another $5.4-million cap. So five players together costs 60% of the teams’ salary. I don’t need to stress how risky this is.

Of course the best argument is simply the fact that Thornton and Heatley are such talented players that they don’t need Marleau to play on their wing to be productive. One only need to see how productive Marleau is when his is placed on a line with Pavelski and Clowe, to understand his true value.

Don’t forget how well Setoguchi played early on in the season, and you will agree that he is a great replacement on the top line, especially when you look at his $1.2-million price-tag.

The better Marleau plays, the bigger the discrepancies between how much he thinks he should make and how much Wilson can offer him.

When the season is over, do you think there is a team out there willing to offer more than $6.5-million for a 80+ point guy?? Do you think Marleau will take a significant pay-cut to stay in San Jose??

So, let’s just say Marleau is interested to sign with some other team, which team out there fits him?

I’d say if Marleau does leave, I think there’s a good chance he will end up in Colorado. The Avs didn’t expect their rebuilding process to mature so quickly, but with their young players playing so well, Colorado has a decent shot at the cup sooner than later. If they can sign a veteran player like Marleau, the team will suddenly become a strong contender. After-all, they have the cap-space to sign him with a raise.

Another team might surprise you, I think the Leafs will be interested in Marleau as well. Kovalchuk and Marleau are by far the best options for Burke, in terms of acquiring talent for his team. Kovalchuk’s style of play doesn’t really fit Burke’s plan, but Marleau on the other hand is a Burke-player. Coach Ron Wilson’s years with the Sharks may also be provide a pull to land Marleau in Toronto.

Although cap-wise, the Leafs can’t afford Marleau at this moment, but with the Defensive corp built with Kaberle, Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin, and Schenn, Burke won’t be re-signing Van Ryn and Exelby. Finger will probably be traded around the draft for a pick. With that, the Leafs will free up $7.2-million, enough to sign Marleau.

This will be smart too, since Burke gave up this year’s and next year’s first-rounder for Kessel, he will need to do something big in the off-season to make up for the embarrassments during the coming entry draft.

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