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Kovalev will be a wealthy man thanks to the Penguins |

Kovalev will be a wealthy man thanks to the Penguins

| Sunday, January 26, 2003 12:00 a.m

Alexei Kovalev is probably destined for great wealth. Next summer, an arbitrator will look at his numbers, compare them to other players at the top of the NHL’s food chain and award Kovalev a salary somewhere between seven and eight million dollars for next season. That’s assuming Kovalev is not signed to a long term contract by the team that possibly acquires him from the Penguins some time between now and then.

And that is a rather strong assumption.

Kovalev is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2004, just before the expiration of the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement. It is hard to imagine a team signing Kovalev to a long-term contract and paying him top dollar, when that team will have no idea what the landscape will look like coming out of what appears to be an unavoidable lockout in 2004-05.

Kovalev turned down a reported five-year $30 million offer from the Penguins, banking on the prospect of a big arbitration award, and a possible gigantic new contract when he becomes unrestricted.

What if he remains unsigned during a lockout season• What if teams are scrambling to reduce payrolls in the summer of 2005• Isn’t it a possibiltity that Kovalev could be left holding the bag?

Presumably, the huge long-term contracts that already exist, like the ones between Bobby Holik and the Rangers and Alexei Yashin and the Islanders, will be grandfathered into the next CBA, should it include a salary cap or luxury tax. Certainly, there will be enough teams willing to sign free agents in the post-lockout NHL, and Kovalev will most definitely be paid handsomely for his services no matter what.

But if he is banking on a $9 million salary when he is 32 years old, he could be disappointed.

Who knows• He might have to settle for some paltry sum, like say, $30 million over five years.

Meanwhile, Kovalev’s recent scoring slump was just another example of how much Mario Lemieux means, and has meant, to the players who have benefited from playing alongside him.

Do you think Robert Lang would be making $5 million per season if he hadn’t played on Mario’s team the last few years• Although Lang did not play on a line with Lemiuex, he did play on the powerplay with him for parts of two seasons, and he saw a lot less of the top checking lines and defensive pairs of the opposition at even strength. Lang will never score eighty points again.

Kovalev is one of the most entertaining players in the game. He would be worth the price of admission in a lot of NHL cities. Yesterdays hat trick notwithstanding, his numbers are very much the by-product of the environment that is created for him by Lemieux and GM Craig Patrick. At the beginning of the season, when the Penguins powerplay was tearing up the league, Kovalev, Dick Tarnstrom and Jan Hrdina were racking up big numbers.

Lemieux was the catalyst, and the powerplay was clicking at over 30 percent. Without Lemieux, the powerplay is “clicking” at under 12 percent. Do you think the arbitrator will take that into consideration when he or she is deciding how much Kovalev, Hrdina and Tarnstrom should be paid if and when they go to arbitration?

That is one reason why the owners will do everything they can to revamp or eliminate the arbitration process altogether in the next CBA. Robert Lang got the biggest raise in the history of arbitration a couple of years ago. He should have given Lemieux a rebate. It’s pretty sad that teams get no consideration from agents for having created an environment for their client’s success. Kovalev has admitted many times that he has blossomed into a goal scorer because the Penguins have let him play his game without putting pressure on him to perform. As prolific as he is, it would not surprise me a bit if he never reached the forty goal mark again with another team. A lot of former Penguins will tell you that the grass is not always greener than the money on the other side of the fence.

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