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Ilya Kovalchuk departs without a deal ... but it ain't over till it's over

Ilya Kovalchuk, who came to Los Angeles on Sunday for face-to-face meetings with Kings executives, left Tuesday afternoon without a new contract. His agent, Jay Grossman, stayed behind for more talks with General Manager Dean Lombardi but left Tuesday night, also without reaching agreement on a long-term deal.

Kovalchuk met Coach Terry Murray as well as Dustin Brown, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene on Monday while touring the team's El Segundo practice facility. Brown and Stoll said they came away impressed with Kovalchuk and there's no reason to believe he flunked the interview part of the process while talking to members of the Kings' hockey operations staff. They wanted to look him in the eye before they made this considerable investment, and that's only logical and sensible. They apparently were not scared off by what they saw or heard.

The fact that Kovalchuk left town seems to indicate he and the Kings aren't near an agreement: if they were, he would have stayed here for a news conference. But planes (especially private jets) go back and forth often between California and Florida, where Kovalchuk lives in the off-season. So he could come back West on short notice.

Or this can drag on, which is more likely.

Various rumors Tuesday had the talks breaking off completely -- perhaps based on Kovalchuk's departure -- while others said the negotiations were progressing. No one from the Kings would say.

Where it goes from here is anyone's guess, but it's likely Grossman will try to use the Kings' interest as a bargaining chip and go back to the New Jersey Devils, who are believed to be the only other NHL team willing to give Kovalchuk more than a one- or two-year deal. The Devils reportedly made a 17-year, $100-million offer but that has never been confirmed and those numbers are wildly inconsistent with any deal that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has negotiated in the past.

So Kovalchuk remains on the market nearly two weeks into free agency, which is partly his own fault and partly the fault of market forces.

Kovalchuk and his agent began by asking for $100 million over 10 years, figuring that a two-time 50-goal scorer who is only 27  could easily command that number. They picked a year when a lot of teams are cash-poor and many others are at or near the salary cap and simply can't spend that kind of money.

The Kings have the money and about $17 million in space under next season's $59.4-million cap but they're looking long-term. They want to retain their core players, re-sign Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson before the two defensemen become restricted free agents next July 1, and add the defenseman (and other parts) they need to reach the next competitive level. All of that adds up quickly.

They're also factoring in the strong possibility that the salary cap will go down in the next labor agreement. The current  agreement ends after the 2011-12 season and general managers are being cautious now about taking on deals with high average annual values for fear they won't be able to afford those deals under a cap of $48 million. 

It appears the next move is up to Kovalchuk and Grossman. If the Devils' $100-million offer is real and all they're after is money, they should take it. They won't get $100 million from the Kings. But the Devils are aging and aren't likely to contend for the Stanley Cup soon, while the Kings are on the rise and could reach elite status sooner with a pure sniper like Kovalchuk playing the role of gamebreaker.

Lombardi didn't get the established, mobile defenseman he wanted in free agency and now will likely have to go the trade route. If he doesn't get Kovalchuk he will have to find another winger. An experienced second-line center is also on his wish list but would be tough to acquire.

Either way, the Kings need this to end soon so they can get on with the rest of their summer and their lives.

--Helene Elliott

 
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