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Why the Predators SHOULD trade for Kovalchuk…

His name is Ilya Kovalchuk and he’s a bona fide superstar who happens to be on the market.

He also happens to be exactly what the Nashville Predators need.

Since everyone and their mother is arguing against the Preds going after the gifted goal scorer, we figured it’d be fun to draw up an arguement for going after him.

So, in no particular order, let’s break down the reasons why it would behoove Nashville to make a deal for Kovalchuk.

In the 11 year history of the franchise, the Predators have never had a flashy, scoring winger. Some fans would argue that Alexander Radulov was going to become one before he left the team unexpectedly in the summer of 2008 but those fans answered their own question: he was going to become one. He defected to Russia before he could fully realize that potential. Kovalchuk not only fills that role, but he does it 10 fold, seeing as how he’s older, more experienced and has produced without much of a supporting cast around him in Atlanta. 

The 26-year old Russian is just about to enter his prime and he already averages about 1.25 points/game. Since his sophomore NHL season, he’s only scored less than 87 points once (76 in 2006-07). But in that 76 point season, he buried 42 goals, a goal total that would make any Nashville Predator fan salivate. They’ve never seen a player with that kind of firepower use Sommet Center as their home building.

By the way, the Predators’ franchise record for goals in a season is 33 (Jason Arnott in 2008-09).

Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell isn’t allowing any team to contact Kovalchuk’s agent Jay Grossman in hopes of working out a contract before a trade is made. Thus, the team that brings him in will have exclusive negotiating rights until July 1 when he becomes a free agent. Poile could have four solid months to work out a deal or, at the very least, know for sure they’re out of the running.

It’s been reported that Grossman was asking Atlanta for the league maximum salary of $11.2 million/year. Obviously a contract of that size to any one single player would sink a small-market franchise like Nashville. Additionally, by saying he’s worth that much annually, he’s also saying that he’s better than Ovechkin ($9.5 million cap hit) or Malkin ($8.7 million cap hit), which he’s not.

So, with the league maximum salary, that would leave roughly $36 million leftover to spread out over the other 21 players. Obviously, that’s impossible given that Arnott, David Legwand, Shea Weber and Martin Erat all make $4.5 million each, JP Dumont makes $4 and Steve Sullivan and Ryan Suter each making at least $3.5. (If you’re keeping score, that leaves just $7 million for the 13 other players).

But it’s also being reported that Kovalchuk might lower his asking price if he likes where he plays. Assuming he enjoys his time in Music City, could the Preds afford to give a guy like Kovalchuk $8.5 million/year long-term? It would still be a significant pay raise (he currently makes $6.4 million) but wouldn’t hinder his team from establishing a supporting cast for him in the future. An $11.2 million salary would cripple whatever team he went to and, therefore, could just kiss any hopes of a Stanley Cup ring goodbye.

So they determine he’s a rental player. So what? They’d still have one of the league’s best goal scorers for the stretch run and the playoffs. It’s no secret that this team – heck, this city – needs a 2nd round playoff appearance. Not only to boost interest in the casual fan but also to boost corporate partnerships and sponsorships. Since the assumed “final piece” (for a deep playoff team) is a scorer of Kovalchuk’s ilk, it can be suggested that acquiring him would give the Predators the best chance they’ve had to actually win a playoff series in their 11-year history. Without him, they’re just another bubble team.

Bringing Kovalchuk to another non-traditional hockey market like Nashville will force the North American media to finally pay attention. Just like when Peter Forsberg was acquired by the Preds back in 2007, everyone started calling Nashville a contender. They were the same team (sans Scottie Upshall) they were the week before the trade but, all of a sudden, the southern market team that no one cared about was a threat. While respect from the media doesn’t do a whole lot in the standings, it could be a huge confidence boost for a team that really is better than most give them credit for.

The Preds would also garner respect around the league. With a guy as potent a scorer as Kovalchuk, the Preds would no longer be just “an over-achieving team” on the calendar. Teams would have to gameplan for not only Nashville’s work ethic but they’d have to gameplan for Kovalchuk and everything he brings to the table.

Certainly, a deal should never be made just for the media circus that’ll ensue, but it should be a factor. A good PR person will tell you exposure like that is invaluable. A team like Calgary or Minnesota or Vancouver who sell out every night already wouldn’t need to consider the media factor, but a team like Nashville or Phoenix should.

February 17, 2007 was Forsberg’s first game in a Predators sweater and, once it was announced they he’d play in that game, tickets sold out in minutes. Matter of fact, when fans couldn’t get tickets to that game, they bought tickets to the next available games. A surge in sales ensued and Nashville could bank on that reaction once again if they brought in Kovalchuk.

A young, flashy, handsome, superstar athlete will not only force the media to take notice, but will also sell tickets. And, let’s face it, selling tickets to an ice hockey game in Nashville, Tennessee has never been easy. This is football country and it always will be. But, while football isn’t in season, the Predators have an opportunity to capitalize on the casual sports fan here in Music City. A huge name like Kovalchuk will certainly bring in ticket revenue and, if nothing else, will keep the Predators on the front page of the sports section on a daily basis. And again, in a market like this, the domino effect of free advertising (like staying on the front page) could mean big returns on box office sales, partial season ticket sales and even corporate sponsorships.

Back in the summer of 1997, the San Jose Sharks used their off-season to sign Stanley Cup winning goaltender Mike Vernon. Despite being one of the most recognizable goalies of the 1980’s and 90’s, Vernon never really dominated the game like his two Stanley Cup rings would suggest. So why did the Sharks want him so badly? Sure he was experienced and sure he was a 300 game winner in the NHL, but they wanted him because he was a Shark killer. Vernon just had San Jose’s number. No matter the situation, no matter the game, he owned the Sharks when he was in net. So, as the old adage goes, they couldn’t beat him, so they joined him. It truly was a chess move. They sought out Vernon so nobody else could use him against them.

So while Kovalchuk hasn’t exactly “owned” the Preds compared to other teams (10 points in 8 career games against Nashville), by bringing him in, they keep him from playing against them. Especially if Atlanta is looking to deal him specifically to a Western Conference club in order to avoid facing him down the stretch.

Atlanta is on record as saying the asking price for Kovalchuk is roster players that can help now. As TSN’s Bob McKenzie puts it in his latest column, “the Thrashers are in the hunt for a playoff spot” and “(Waddell) doesn’t need to peddle hope to his fans with draft picks and kids… Teams have been told Waddell wants one top six forward, one top four defenceman and a prospect or high end draft pick.”

So they want a top four defenseman do they? Dan Hamhuis, projected by many to be a top two defenseman, is certainly available and could really provide some help to the weak Thrashers blueline. Think of the experience and mentoring he could offer the 19-year old Zach Bogosian or how he could be the defensive yen to Tobias Enstrom‘s offensive yang. Hammer would round out Atlanta’s power play point men and be able to help on the mediocre Thrasher penalty kill.

As far as that “one top six forward” goes…

Several fans have likened both Cal O’Reilly and Mike Santorelli to former Pred Rich Peverley. A point-per-game producer in the minors, didn’t get much of a chance on the NHL level and was basically the victim of a numbers game. Atlanta picks him up when Nashville is forced to put him on waivers and voila… Peverley goes onto post 77 points in 94 games with the Thrashers. And, with Colin Wilson tearing up the AHL, O’Reilly and Santorelli appear to be a little more expendable.

Giving Atlanta O’Reilly or Santorelli (or both), would give them two young, creative players who could come in an impact their lineup right away. Not to mention they’d probably be thrilled to do so after being odd men out in Nashville’s organization for a couple years.

Lastly, Atlanta wants that prospect or high end draft pick. Here’s where it gets a little shaky.

The Preds don’t have multiple draft picks in any early round this year so Poile would be sacrificing an entire round to bring in a guy who’s probably a rental. But, with Hamhuis, who’s gone anyway, and the duo of O’Reilly and Santorelli, the Preds would be more than fulfilling Atlanta’s request, without sending them a draft pick. The question the Preds have to ask themselves is this: is both O’Reilly and Santorelli too much? They’re both centers who are either stuck in the minors or relegated to a fourth-line slot with the big club (i.e. no chance in realizing their full potential). Arnott and Legwand have no-trade clauses so the logjam at center isn’t getting solved from that direction and Goc was just re-upped (and deservedly so). That leaves just one center position available for O’Reilly, Santorelli, Wilson and the recently reassigned jack-of-all-trades Nick Spaling.

Someone’s gotta go.

Finally, back in 2007 it was rumored that Poile had a trade offer on the table to bring all-world megastar Alexander Ovechkin to Nashville. Eventually, when the Washington Capitals decided they were willing to pay him what he was asking, Ovechkin signed a 13-year extension at $9.5 million/year. Bringing in Kovalchuk would give Poile the personal satisfaction of finally getting to bring a top-tier talent that’s essentially guaranteed to score 45-50 goals a season to Music City.

So there they are. Nine reasons why the Nashville Predators should bite the bullet and go out and get Ilya Kovalchuk. While none of the reasons are good enough by themselves, as a collective group, they’re one helluva an argument.

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