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Kings gamble big and lose big on Ilya Kovalchuk

Starved for scoring, the Kings were willing to give Ilya Kovalchuk $80 million over 15 years and keep him on the payroll until he’s 42 and playing in a beer league. Make that a champagne league, given his future paydays.

They were as stunned as the rest of the hockey world Monday when the Russian winger agreed to a 17-year, $102-million contract to stay in New Jersey, a deal that averages “only” $6 million per season but is heavily front-loaded and beyond all estimates of what even a two-time 50-goal scorer would command in a queasy free-agent market.

Kovalchuk will earn $80 million over the first eight years — including $11.5 million a year in the third through seventh seasons — and will earn a total of $2.75 million for the last five, following a trend of teams paying a lot in the early years of a contract and paying little later to get a low average annual value that will fit under the salary cap. The NHL must approve the deal but is expected to give it a rubber stamp.

“Ilya had two very good choices,” Tim Leiweke, the Kings’ governor and chief executive of their parent company, AEG, said via e-mail. “NJ offered more money. Simple as that.

“We threw everything at him we had while leaving the cap space necessary to sign our kids. He is a great player and I am disappointed he didn’t come to LA. It was not for lack of effort or cash.”

Speaking of money, a few hours after being beaten to Kovalchuk, the Kings notified season-ticket holders that their credit cards will be charged for their first payment Tuesday. Nice timing. And no discount applied for failing to land Kovalchuk or any other free agent.

The Kings didn’t know the structure of the Devils’ proposal and were surprised by the spike after the second season. General Manager Dean Lombardi acknowledged that his offer, made last Thursday in his third round of talks with Kovalchuk, wasn’t in the ballpark.

He felt he couldn’t pay Kovalchuk $11.5 million in any season because that would become the starting point when he negotiates a new deal with defenseman Drew Doughty. He wouldn’t be able to afford Kovalchuk, core players and other pieces, which makes some sense.

But when will an elite free agent agree to come here for less? To come here to win, not to use the Kings as leverage to make financial history?

That’s what Kovalchuk wanted from the start: to trump countryman Alexander Ovechkin, who has a 13-year, $124-million contract with Washington. Kovalchuk will earn more than Ovechkin in six seasons, and he must love that.

Nor was the $102-million total a coincidence. Kovalchuk rejected a 12-year, $101-million offer from Atlanta before the Thrashers traded him to the Devils in February and no one thought he’d equal that. He beat it, if barely.

We’ve heard the reasons free agents haven’t wanted to sign here. The team wasn’t good enough. When the team improved it still wasn’t a Stanley Cup contender. Those reasons aren’t valid anymore. The Kings, on the rise and flush with $16 million-plus in cap space, should have been in good shape but focused on the one free agent who wanted to break the bank.

There’s a widespread perception that Leiweke wanted Kovalchuk more than Lombardi did and that Kovalchuk was forced on Lombardi. Lombardi, saying he liked Kovalchuk after interviewing him in person last week, wouldn’t bite.

“I think there’s a business side and a hockey side to everything, and the key is to make it all mesh,” Lombardi said. “There are relative degrees of ‘want.’ I’m not going to worry about that.”

He has enough else to worry about.

“Your job is to work through it and put your best offer out there,” he said. “If it don’t work, it don’t work. Somebody else will come along.”

That somebody won’t be Simon Gagne, who was traded from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay on Monday. He told the Tampa Tribune he was willing to waive his no-trade clause for the Lightning, “not for other teams.”

Lombardi is hoping some of his prospects will step up next season, but asking rookie Brayden Schenn to be a second-line center and left wing Kyle Clifford to immediately produce might be unreasonable. Still in need of productive wingers and a top-notch defenseman, Lombardi will have to part with draft picks and some of his precious prospects to fill those holes.

“The thing you don’t do is panic and go out and grab somebody,” Lombardi said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re still right on schedule. We talked about being a couple players away — somebody else will come up. It will be there eventually.”

That’s a familiar word for Kings fans — eventually. Except for the season ticket payments. The word for those is now.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen


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