I am so unimaginative with titles. I swear I've ripped off Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" like 132 times in the past year and a half of doing this. Sorry, Billy.
Anyway, Pierre Lebrun over at ESPN (I know, I know, make your "What does ESPN know about hockey" jokes now) speculated earlier this week that he believes a trade of Atlanta captain, star and franchise player Ilya Kovalchuk is "inevitable."
So let's take a look at who might be able to land the cream of the 2010 trade deadline and for what. if I'm Atlanta GM Don Waddell, my wish list looks something like: One or two young, impact forwards and/or a quality defenseman, but won't rule out goalies. Draft picks won't be factored in but of course would likely be included in a deal.
Boston: I heard this rumor: Blake Wheeler, Tuukka Rask and a first-round pick. That'd be something for the Thrashers to consider. With how badly Boston needs offense the Thrashers might be able to get more. Other trade candidates are Michael Ryder, Marco Sturm, maybe even Dennis Wideman if they want to pull the plug on him. Marc Savard + Ilya Kovalchuk reunited = scary. (Savard's career-high 97-point season came in 2005-06 with the Thrashers.)
Calgary: The Flames might be as desperate as Boston is for offense. Would they consider moving Dion Phaneuf? The rumor of him being on the block has been floated around before. I'm sure the Thrashers would love to get him to match up against the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Then Calgary can take a run at re-signing Kovalchuk with the money saved. Probably though the Flames assume - or pray - that everyone who's in a slump for them right now - which is everyone - snaps out of it in time to make a playoff push.
Chicago: Sickeningly so for the rest of the NHL, the Blackhawks might make the most sense. How, you ask? I'll tell you. Kovalchuk has stated he'll test the free-agent market if he's traded. Assuming he sticks by that, he's a rental player for his new team. Chicago needs to unload salary from future seasons. So the Blackhawks trade some combination of: Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg or Cam Barker, and maybe another piece here or there. Atlanta gets a couple guys locked up for a couple seasons, Chicago unloads its cap and still somehow strengthens its team then lets Kovalchuk walk at the end of the year. I just threw up in my mouth.
The teams could even swap goalies, with Chicago sending Antti Niemi to Atlanta to add to its stable of "Someone step up and take the No. 1 job, please" in exchange for Johan Hedberg, who would give the Blackhawks a veteran backup with playoff experience should Cristobal Huet falter instead of relying on a rookie.
Colorado: The Avalanche have something nice going, and I don't mean just this season. They have a lot of young, talented players. Plus they have cap space. Will they want to part with any of those youngsters (David Jones, Chris Stewart, Marek Svatos to name some) for Kovalchuk? Oh, Svatos they probably want to get rid of since he can't stay healthy. Jones is out the rest of the season but was having a nice breakout year when he was on the ice. They may still want to get rid of defenseman John-Michael Liles too. The Avs could match up well on paper, but I'm not sure how likely it is they'd re-sign Kovalchuk so I doubt they'd part with youngsters to get him.
Los Angeles: Jack Johnson, Justin Williams, Wayne Simmonds, Alexander Frolov, Jarret Stoll... I think the Kings could swing a deal. Their GM doesn't like Johnson's upbringing, which Johnson didn't like, suggesting that marriage can't possibly last much longer, and Frolov disappears at times but has goal-scoring potential. Williams is a two-time 30-goal scorer but the major problem with him is he can't stay healthy. Still, imagine a top line in LA of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Kovalchuk. Plus I think the Kings still have the cap space to potentially re-sign Kovalchuk.
Philadelphia: I'd ask for James van Riemsdyk and/or Claude Giroux, but the Flyers would want to unload Danny Briere's contract, maybe Simon Gagne (who I wouldn't want if I'm Atlanta). How funny would it be though if some deal is arranged and Braydon Coburn goes back to Atlanta, after being traded to Philadelphia for Alexei freaking Zhitnik? The Flyers could be a good fit.
St. Louis: You could take your pick of slumping youngsters: David Perron (though he's not having that bad a year to be fair), Brad Boyes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Carlo Colaiacovo... this would be more likely if Kovalchuk was willing to talk an extension, but if the Blues are desperate to reach the playoffs, maybe they mortgage the future for the present. Not sure that would be smart though. Their big win against Calgary Monday got them closer to the eighth spot and maybe they hope their scorers turn things around in time.
Those are the teams I think are the ones with playoff aspirations plus the means to acquire Kovalchuk. That doesn't mean those are the only ones that would be in the running. Anaheim, for instance, supposedly is unwilling to pay Bobby Ryan's next contract and could ship him to Atlanta. But if they don't want to pay Ryan, would they pay Kovalchuk? Probably better to just hang onto Ryan for either the compensation draft picks if he walks as a restricted free agent or trade him for another RFA or someone who is locked up long term.
Take Buffalo. The Sabres need a goal scorer - their leader is Thomas Vanek with 15, half as many as Kovalchuk - but they have a history of frugality, so they probably wouldn't want to part with young talent for a rental unless they think Kovalchuk will push them to Stanley Cup contender status, which he might. They definitely won't part with Tyler Myers, who might win the Calder Trophy.
Then there are some teams who'd like to add Kovalchuk but the pieces might not be there. Like Detroit (unless they part with Valtteri Filppula; but never underestimate Ken Holland), Minnesota, the Rangers or Pittsburgh. Some other teams are in Buffalo's boat; they have the pieces and the need but probably wouldn't re-sign Kovalchuk and could damage the franchise with a trade like that. For instance, Nashville, the Islanders or Phoenix. I could see New York making a free-agent play for Kovalchuk if he's talked down from the max.
Here's who I think isn't in the running, either because of their place in the standings, their current personnel or other mitigating factors: Carolina, Columbus, Dallas (more wrong than Kovalchuk would fix), Edmonton, Florida, Montreal, New Jersey, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto. But I learned when the Penguins acquired Marian Hossa in 2008 that anything is possible.
I think there's three teams I haven't mentioned: San Jose, Vancouver and Washington. They can earn "dark horse" status - they each have the means to pull off a deal but I'd be a little surprised if one happens. Also, it's a little too depressing to think of any of these teams getting Kovalchuk. (Like Chicago.)
My most likely destination for Kovalchuk: Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston in that order.