by pcoffey on 07/11/13 at 09:38 PM ET
That's the question the pulses through the minds of New Jersey Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello and a legion of Devils fans after Thursday's shocking news that Ilya Kovalchuk had heeded the call of Mother Russia and returned home to a life of fulfillment in the Kontinental Hockey League.
So Kovalchuk has instantly become yesterday's news, a bittersweet chapter in team history where his precise shots and great speed are coupled with a lost first round draft pick and thoughts of what might have been.
But if the NHL of the salary cap era has taught us anything, it's that time waits for no team. Would it have been easier for the Devils if Kovalchuk dropped this bombshell on June 30, on the eve of free agency? Maybe. But that would have driven up the prices on players like Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder and perhaps even Patrik Elias as they negotiated. And, perhaps, the loss of Kovalchuk might have turned these players off from signing in New Jersey in the first place because there would be no opportunity to play with a star player like Kovalchuk.
Yes, it's a bad situation, but not a hopeless one by any stretch.
If you are looking for positives right now, the Devils have cap space once again. According to capgeek.com, New Jersey now has $10.6 million to spend if going to the cap limit is its goal. And down the line, the Devils are out from under $77 million that had been tied to Kovalchuk.
But in the short term, there also has to be some concern to throwing good money after bad.
When Scott Niedermayer signed with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005, Lamoriello jumped into the free-agent market immediately and re-signed Brian Rafalski and then signed Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis.
The first move was justified. The next two? Not so much.
“Right now, we’re just answering the questions as to this telephone call," Lamoriello said on a conference call Thursday. "As far as going forward, we’ll address that accordingly.”
Lamoriello's reputation has taken some hits in the cap era as some of his signings have not worked out. Getting Malakhov off the roster, for instance, came at the cost of a first round draft pick. So, the onus must be on making the right move, not simply the next one.
Sure, Lamoriello could go out and sign Jaromir Jagr or Brendan Morrow tomorrow, but neither will replace Kovalchuk's offense. Seriously, there are no free agents who care going to replace Kovalchuk. So in this case, come caution is advisable. Perhaps Jagr or Morrow are good fits and signing them makes perfect sense. But remember the 2012 free-agent pool wasn't startling to begin with, so caution is the word.
Lamoriello will undoubtedly explore the trade market, and based on his trade for goalie Cory Schneider at the Entry Draft, he sure has his mojo back in this aspect of the game. And remember, with the drop in the salary cap, some teams will have difficult decisions to make this fall once training camps jump into motion. It is more than likely that a few teams will be looking to shed a contract or two, and right now the Devils are there to offer a friendly refuge, thanks to cap space.
“We’ve been doing everything we can going forward with what the ability is," Lamoriello said. "So, if there’s something we can do, we can do it. Obviously, there’s more (cap) room right now. It’s an obvious situation.
“Remember, this wasn’t a decision by the New Jersey Devils.”
But it is a decision that now requires some caution and critical thinking. There is no question that Kovalchuk has hurt the Devils pretty badly. The Devils don't need to make matters worse by compounding the problem by adding the wrong players.
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About Iced Coffey
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.