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Chicago could be Kovalchuk’s kind of town

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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The Blackhawks’ richest assets are on the blue line, where Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell retrieve pucks and trigger breakouts with their fleet feet and tape-to-tape passes.

But up front, where they already boast firepower in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp, it’s conceivable that they could become even more dangerous.

With Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk due to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, and looking for a maximum contract (20 percent of the cap), the Thrashers may have to deal the 26-year-old sharpshooter prior to the March 3 deadline.

Chicago could enter the bidding with the notion of killing two birds with one stone: adding a top-five player to their roster for a Stanley Cup run while clearing cap space for next season.

According to a league source, the Blackhawks could use defenseman Cam Barker and ex-Bruin Kris Versteeg as the centerpieces of a Kovalchuk trade. Atlanta would most likely ask for a draft pick or two as well.

Two years ago, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell traded Hossa to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick. The source said that if Waddell puts Kovalchuk (25-22 -47 in 37 games) in play, he will be looking for far more than he received for Hossa.

The Blackhawks would add a dynamic left wing and power-play specialist in Kovalchuk, who could play on the same line as Hossa. And if they don’t re-sign Kovalchuk, they would also clear salary in Barker and Versteeg (each player makes slightly more than $3 million) for 2010-11, when the extensions of Toews ($6.3 million), Kane ($6.3 million), and Keith ($5.5 million) kick in.

The 23-year-old Barker, the third pick of the 2004 draft (behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin), has four goals and nine assists in 40 games. The 23-year-old Versteeg, stolen from the Bruins for Brandon Bochenski, has 12 goals and 15 assists.

The Bruins desperately need a goal-scoring threat like Kovalchuk, but Chicago’s deal would be challenging to match. Using the Chicago template, Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart would be the closest approximations to Versteeg and Barker. Wheeler scored his 11th goal last night and has been playing better lately. Stuart is out until later this month because of a broken sternum. But Waddell, a USA Hockey executive, has always liked the stay-at-home defenseman’s game, dating to Stuart’s time with the National Team Development Program.

Wheeler and Stuart will be restricted free agents after this year, and the Bruins would consider Kovalchuk a strict rental.

One advantage the Bruins have, however, is a deep pool of high-round picks in the next two years. The Bruins will not trade the 2010 first-round pick they acquired from Toronto for Phil Kessel, but they might consider the Leafs’ 2011 first-round selection. Waddell, however, could be feeling the heat from ownership. The Thrashers are in 11th place and playing before sparse home crowds.

McQuaid gets the call
Adam McQuaid, a healthy scratch in six straight games, returned to the lineup last night to replace Andrew Ference (groin). “He’s a pretty simple defenseman,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “He doesn’t do more than he has to do.’’ McQuaid had 8:32 of ice time and was on for two Chicago goals. At 6:47 of the second, McQuaid and Chicago tough guy Ben Eager went off for matching roughing penalties . . . At 2:48 of the third, Johnny Boychuk tussled with Colin Fraser. After taking a few early pops, Boychuk took down Eager with a right hand. “You could feel it in the building,’’ Boychuk said. “It was just dead. I had to do something to spark up our team and try to get everybody back in the game.’’ In the first, Fraser dropped the gloves against Derek Morris, but both were called only for roughing . . . Stuart said he hopes to join the team on its West Coast swing next week, even if he won’t be ready to play. “Mental more than anything,’’ Stuart said of the boost of practicing and being with his teammates on the road.

A starting point
Marco Sturm started out on Marc Savard’s left wing for the second straight game - until Savard left with an injury less than a minute into the game. Sturm, a natural left wing, had scored five goals in the six previous games he served as Savard’s right wing. “He’s always been a little bit more comfortable on the left side,’’ said Julien. “Yet when you look at this year, he’s scored more on the right side. Sometimes, position is only a starting position. Left wing is a starting position, but once you start playing - if you’re the first forechecker, or you come into your own end as the last guy - it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be on the left side. I don’t think it’s that big of a difference for him.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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