Atlanta picked Ilya Kovalchuk first overall in the 2001 draft. (Getty Images)
With word out of Atlanta that the Thrashers are more likely to trade Ilya Kovalchuk than re-sign the all-star sniper, the NHL's trade derby has officially begun. Atlanta GM Don Waddell will no doubt be fielding calls from a variety of Cup contenders, and – if Kovalchuk is indeed dealt – whatever the Thrashers can get in return for their franchise face will re-set the trade standard.
A player with Kovalchuk's size, speed and skill set doesn't come along often; if the Thrashers can't sign him, they're forced to trade him because the team needs to set itself up for a post-Kovalchuk reality (i.e. they can't lose him for nothing). It's not a good situation if you're a Thrashers fan – but if you're a supporter of the team that lands Kovalchuk, it might be a memorable spring.
Here are some other players, mostly unrestricted free agents on non-contending and bubble teams, who will be up for grabs to the highest bidder between now and the NHL's March 3 trade deadline:
There was speculation earlier this season that Scott Niedermayer might be headed back to New Jersey for one more run at the Stanley Cup.
Besides Kovalchuk, the Thrashers also have veteran defenseman Pavel Kubina on track for UFA status in July. Big, mobile and a capable power play quarterback, Kubina would be a top-four defender on virtually every team in the league.
The Hurricanes have returned to their great-one-year-and-then-bad-the-next roots – in a big way. Although Carolina should be better in the second half of the season than it was during a forgettable first half, the damage has been done and it’s time to unload some veterans and build up the prospect cupboard. GM Jim Rutherford reportedly asked veteran winger Ray Whitney and capable defenseman Niclas Wallin – he of the three playoff overtime game-winning goals – to waive their no-trade clauses. As well, center Matt Cullen brings it at both ends of the ice and blueliners Aaron Ward (for defense) and Joe Corvo (for offense, although he’s out until March with a leg laceration) are also serviceable.
The Avs have playoff aspirations of their own, but if they take a tumble in the second half, look for pesky winger Darcy Tucker or depth scorer Marek Svatos to be up for grabs. Veteran D-man Adam Foote knows a bit about playoff intensity and Ruslan Salei has seen his share of pressure-packed post-seasons, too. Brett Clark is another Avs blueliner who can play 20-plus minutes a night.
Fredrik Modin, a veteran winger who can score goals as well as kill penalties, can play on the first line or the fourth. He’s had some injury troubles, but is a big body and a proven secondary scorer.
The Kings appear to be destined for the playoffs for the first time since 2002, so they’re looking to improve their lineup rather than get rid of top-line talent. Problem is, Alexander Frolov is a perennial underachiever and is headed for unrestricted free agency. Los Angeles might swap him for a veteran forward (or defenseman) with playoff experience. He’s worn out his welcome in Hollywood.
Tomas Plekanec is one of the NHL’s surprise stories this season, as the Canadiens pivot forced his way into the league’s leading scorers. Good timing, too, since he’s destined for UFA status in July. Habs GM Bob Gainey will try to re-sign him, but if Montreal falls in the playoff race – and/or Gainey and Plekanec can’t reach an agreement – he’d fit in nicely on the second line of a Cup contender.
Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason are starting in Florida and St. Louis after proving their worth in Nashville’s net. No problem, as the Preds turned to Dan Ellis a couple years ago and Pekka Rinne last season. This year, Ellis and Rinne are splitting time for a Nashville team that’s focused on the playoff picture. Problem is, both stoppers are UFA-eligible. Nashville probably wants to re-sign Rinne as he’s younger, bigger and comes with a better pedigree. Of course, he’ll probably be more expensive, too, so maybe the Preds will opt for Ellis. Defenseman Dan Hamhuis is also a free agent in the summer; he’d be worth a lot on the trade market, so Nashville might try to move him rather than lose him for nothing. Then again, if the Preds remain firmly in the playoffs, they might hold tight and try to go on a post-season run.
Once he gets back from his suspension for plastering Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis, biggie-sized D-man Andy Sutton is the type of depth players that NHL GMs have their eye on. He’s not going to join a contender and play 25 minutes a night, but he’d be a luxury on a contender’s third pairing.
Ottawa's blueline already has provided Boston with Zdeno Chara, the Rangers with Wade Redden and Tampa Bay with Andrej Meszaros. So would it really be a big surprise to see the Senators part ways with UFA-to-be Anton Volchenkov?
Zbynek Michalek flies under the radar in Phoenix, but he's capable at both ends of the ice. He's consistent, he rarely misses a game, he can play 20-plus minutes and he's a plus player.
The Blues have some veteran scorers on the verge of UFA status in Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk. They've both been around the block and could help a contender with their on-ice offense and off-ice leadership. St. Louis also has Carlo Colaiacovo, who could boost a power play and would come pretty cheaply.
If you don't like St. Louis' veteran forwards, how about Tampa Bay's Alex Tanguay or Jeff Halpern?
The Leafs are prime candidates to move some bodies between now and March 3. Center Matt Stajan and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, both UFAs this summer, might not be top-line talents, but they'd fit in nicely as support players. And, of course, there's Tomas Kaberle. The mobile Leafs defenseman is under contract for one more season, but the right package of players, prospects and draft picks might pry him loose (assuming he wants to be traded).
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
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