Kovalchuk Poised For a Big Payday

On Thursday, the first day of free agency, the eyes of the sport will be on him.

He’s young, he’s been almost historic as a scorer and he may just be the most sought-after free agent the game has ever seen. There’s even the added intrigue of whether this former No. 1 overall pick will play near his hometown or go elsewhere, like perhaps, a team that makes its home in New Jersey.

No, we’re not talking about you know who. We’re talking about New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk.

He may not have the cachet of NBA superstar LeBron James, who will become a free agent on the same day, but Mr. Kovalchuk, at 27, is in a similar position. He has scored 338 career goals and all the active players who have scored more are at least four years older. In his seven full seasons, he’s never finished outside the top 10 in goals scored.

In February, the Devils took a risk and shipped three players and a first-round draft pick to Atlanta for the rights to Mr. Kovalchuk. It was a rental for a superstar player, and now, with unrestricted free agency looming, the Devils will try to sign Mr. Kovalchuk to an extension, though it won’t be easy.

Before the trade from Atlanta, the Thrashers said Mr. Kovalchuk turned down two contact offers—one for 12 years and $101 million and another for seven years and $70 million, which would have given him the highest yearly salary in the NHL…