According to an NHL source, the leading contender for the Russian right wing's services are the Los Angeles Kings.
"This hasn't been a well-kept secret," said the league source. "Maybe the Kings sensed there probably aren't more than three or four teams seriously in the hunt, and wanted to get the word out they were prepared to dig deep. There is always going to be that surprise team, like Chicago last summer grabbing (Marian) Hossa for 12 years. But heading into July 1, the Kings are the front-runners."
Los Angeles has not been shy about wanting to make a splash in unrestricted free agency. Kings governor Tim Leiweke referenced the Kobe-led champion Lakers last week and acknowledged his team was determined to find star players to put the finishing touches on GM Dean Lombardi's three-year rebuilding program. The Kings have the salary cap space to give the security Kovalchuk craves.
And make no mistake, the security of the NHL and a respected franchise is what Kovalchuk wants more than anything else. The 27-year-old has already demonstrated that it's not 100 percent about the money for him; if it was, he would have accepted the $100 million offer of his team of seven-plus years, the Atlanta Thrashers.
Of course, Kovalchuk could blow up the theory by accepting a mind-blowing offer from the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. However, a reliable source tells FanHouse that Kovalchuk has a strong preference for the NHL.
"The KHL gives him an option and some leverage -- although not too much," said the source. "The teams that pitch Kovalchuk this week know he wants to stay in the NHL."
If Kovalchuk signs with the emerging Kings, getting more chances to prove himself in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will not be a problem.