NEW YORK | The names Ilya Kovalchuk, Dan Hamhuis and Evgeni Nabokov don’t roll off the tongues of American sports fans quite like those of LeBron, D-Wade, and Dirk.
Such is life in the world of the NHL, which is also about to embark on a free-agent frenzy of its own, starting Thursday.
The NBA has cornered the attention market for weeks — even years — leading up to its high-profile free-agent shopping season because some of the biggest players in the sport are available.
“You have a very special circumstance this free agency with basketball, and I don’t think that happens frequently when you have that special of a player,” New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow said. “Wait a second? Did I just tamper with the Cleveland Cavaliers? What if we announce that we signed LeBron James?”
While there are no Gretzkys or Lemieuxs, or even players of the caliber of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, to be had in the hockey landscape, that doesn’t mean there is a dearth of talent in this year’s group.
“The hard part is trying to figure out who the big guys are this year,” New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “You can really look at a lot of guys and say, ‘They’re the big guy’ and somebody else is saying, ‘No, he’s not the big guy.’ It’s pretty wide open at this stage.”
But probably not as open as last year when the Chicago Blackhawks seemingly came out of nowhere to snag star forward Marian Hossa, with a 12-year, $62.8 million contract on the first day of free agency.
Vancouver re-signed twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin to matching five-year, $30.5-million deals, and the Rangers lured Marian Gaborik away from Minnesota with a five-year, $37.5 million pact.
All of that happened on July 1, 2009, and all three teams could claim that the moves paid off.
After two straight failed finals appearances with Pittsburgh and Detroit, Hossa meshed well with the Blackhawks’ core of young players and helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961.
Henrik Sedin put up an NHL-best 112 points and 83 assists for the Canucks and skated off with the Hart Trophy as league MVP. And while Gaborik and the Rangers fell one win short of reaching the playoffs, the high-flying forward shook off some injury woes and had 42 goals and 86 points.
“I don’t think there is a lot of depth anywhere because the free agents over the last couple of years have been getting signed,” New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “There is certainly quality players at all areas: goaltending, defense and forwards.
“If your needs are where there is a player who can help, it’s strong. If you don’t have the need where there is a player available, you look at it the other way. I think there are some excellent players out there.”
Kovalchuk headlines the class of this year’s unrestricted free agent forwards. He finished up last season with the Devils, who pried him away from the Atlanta Thrashers once it became clear that the high-flying Russian wouldn’t re-sign with the club that drafted him.
Kovalchuk will surely draw lots of attention, but his salary demands could severely limit his options. Only a handful of teams might be able to fit him under the salary cap. Despite prolific regular-season numbers throughout his career, Kovalchuk has won only one postseason game in eight NHL seasons — including two playoff appearances.
The 27-year-old Kovalchuk turned down a 12-year, $101 million contract offer from the Thrashers before he was sent to New Jersey. He finished with 41 goals and 85 points, but the Devils were eliminated in five games by Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
Lamoriello said no progress had been made in negotiations Wednesday between the Devils and Kovalchuk and leading defenseman Paul Martin, who can also be unrestricted on Thursday. However, he added that New Jersey would still be interested in the pair once they reach the open market.
“I understand the process,” Lamoriello said. “We’ll have to just wait and see.”
Maxim Afinogenov, who posted 24 goals and 61 assists in his first season in Atlanta after nine in Buffalo, will also have suitors among teams looking to spend less than the Kovalchuk market.
Next season’s salary cap will be $59.4 million, up from $56.8 million. Teams must maintain a minimum payroll of $43.4 million.
Hamhuis, whose negotiating rights were traded twice in the past 10 days to teams hoping to get him signed before Thursday, is among a solid group of available defensemen.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were the last to have the exclusive negotiating window with Hamhuis, who spent six seasons with the Nashville Predators, but couldn’t make a deal with him or with their own veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar before Thursday.
Throw in Martin and Ottawa’s stay-at-home defenseman Anton Volchenkov, and teams could bolster their blue lines in a hurry.
“I think there’s a shortage of centers and a shortage of wingers,” Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “I think there are a lot of defensemen. There seem to be a lot of goalies out there.”
Nabokov is the biggest name in that group, but he is nearly 35 and likely headed into the downside of his career. After Nabokov failed to get San Jose to the Stanley Cup finals during his 10 seasons there, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson decided it was time to cut the popular netminder loose.
The Sharks, however, provided the first big free agent moves by re-signing forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski to four-year deals last week.
Where Nabokov eventually lands could begin the rush of goalie signings.
Most of that goalie attention could fall on Philadelphia, which remarkably reached the Stanley Cup finals using a combination of retread veteran goalies Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as the No. 1 guy.
Leighton agreed to a two-year deal with the Flyers on Wednesday, but there is no guarantee that he will be given the top starting job — especially after he let in a questionable Stanley Cup-winning goal to Patrick Kane in overtime of Game 6.
Philadelphia could also look to add Nabokov, Dan Ellis or Marty Turco if the price is right for any of those veterans.
“A lot of guys have said that there isn’t the depth in a lot of areas, but if you look at the goaltenders there is a lot of free agent goaltenders,” Sather said.
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this report.