For the past few seasons, it’s become a yearly tradition for us to hear news about Ilya Kovalchuk’s potential NHL return and ponder where the Russian sniper could land. It’s also become a yearly tradition to watch the return story gather steam only for Kovalchuk to decide to stick around in the KHL for another year as he awaits his opportunity to return stateside as an unrestricted free agent.
But this, my friends, is it. At long last, Ilya Kovalchuk has celebrated his 35th birthday, and, as such, has come off of the NHL’s voluntary retirement list. That means when July 1 rolls around, Kovalchuk will become an NHL free agent and have the opportunity to sign with the team of his choosing. No more KHL contract holding him back. No more needing to get approval from the New Jersey Devils, whom Kovalchuk spurned way-back-when after playing the third season of his 15-year, $100-million contract. It’s no longer a matter of if, but now a matter of when with regard to Kovalchuk’s return. And if we needed any more proof, Kovalchuk is even deciding to skip the upcoming World Championships as he prepares to head back to the NHL.
That’s not where this story ends, though, because while we know Kovalchuk will be packing his bags and heading back to the NHL for the first time since the lockout-shortened campaign, we don’t yet know where he’s going to land. After a 31-goal, 63-point campaign in the KHL this past season with SKA St. Petersburg – and a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics – he will have no shortage of suitors, but which team will get the former Rocket Richard winner to sign on the dotted line?
NEW YORK RANGERS
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Since news came that Kovalchuk was going to make his NHL return — and actually return, no more of this will-he-won’t-he business — the Rangers have reportedly been his destination of choice. Kovalchuk recently denied that he and the Blueshirts have been talking contract, though, and if chasing the Stanley Cup is as important to the veteran winger as he says it is, we might need to pump the brakes on the Kovalchuk-to-New-York speculation. The Rangers missed the playoffs this season and the organization is in something of a transitional period.
What the Rangers can offer, however, is a contract hefty enough to entice Kovalchuk. Come the off-season, New York will have upwards of $25 million — maybe as much as $30 million — to spend. Hand Kovalchuk $5 million or more per season and he might not be able to say no. It’s not as if the Rangers need to commit much of their off-season budget to maintaining their own talent, either. Ryan Spooner, Kevin Hayes and Vladislav Namestnikov need new deals, as do Brady Skjei, John Gilmour and Rob O’Gara. And if New York wants to prove they’re interested in getting right back into Stanley Cup contention, they can use whatever money is left over retool their roster in a hurry with some big free agent signings.
The Panthers shed salary by letting Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault walk in the expansion draft, but they haven’t been able to replace the scoring that was lost. One way to do so would be to bring in Kovalchuk. Is he going to be the 40-goal scorer he was in the past? Highly unlikely. But you can confidently put a healthy Kovalchuk down for about 25 goals and 50 points. That alone makes him an intriguing addition for Florida.
Kovalchuk really seems as though he could be a good fit with the Panthers, too. If he were to play in Florida’s top-six, and chances are he’d be given every chance to find his fit at the top of the lineup, Kovalchuk would play alongside either Aleksander Barkov or Vincent Trocheck, two of the better young pivots in the entire NHL and two players who scored 78 and 75 points, respectively, this past season. There’s also a top-six connection in Evgeni Dadonov, who was Kovalchuk’s teammate in St. Petersburg from 2014-15 to 2016-17.
Admittedly, money is going to be a bit tighter for the Panthers than for other teams. They’re currently projected to have $9.6 million in cap space, but salary cap inflation could give Florida more breathing room and more money to throw at Kovalchuk in hopes he’d help bolster their attack.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Kovalchuk has said time and again that he wants to chase a championship in the NHL, and given the Golden Knights have burst onto the scene as one of the top teams in a mediocre Pacific Division, Vegas could be a choice destination for Kovalchuk. He’d be joining a well-coached team in a white-hot market and an organization that seems dead set on doing what it takes to be successful.
Signing Kovalchuk might make a ton of sense for Vegas, too, depending on how the early part of the off-season shakes out. James Neal and David Perron are currently set for unrestricted free agency on July 1, and if one or both choose to test the market, the Golden Knights could be looking for some replacement scoring. The good news is the departure of one or both would result in anywhere from $4 million to $9 million in open cap space, and given Vegas has a projected $27 million in cap space entering the off-season, Kovalchuk would fit the budget.
Now, there is one potential reason for pause: Vadim Shipachyov. Vegas made a splash last season by signing the veteran center after his standout KHL performance, but the move quickly backfired and he was headed back to Russia in short order once the season began. That Shipachyov’s signing backfired could mean GM George McPhee hesitates to sign Kovalchuk, even if he does have a much more proven NHL track record.
If this season proved anything, it’s that the Canadiens are desperate for some scoring punch as only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes finished the campaign with fewer goals than Montreal. But the Canadiens might be able to reverse the impact of losing Alexander Radulov via free agency last summer by bringing in Kovalchuk, who should still have some sharpshooting left in him.
It’s not as if Montreal is exactly hard up for the cash to sign Kovalchuk, either. Even with Carey Price’s $10.5-million contract set to kick in, Montreal is projected to have upwards of $13 million in cap space to work with in the off-season and only have secondary pieces to lock up, all of whom are RFAs.
That said, the Canadiens might not be a fit for Kovalchuk if he doesn’t see much opportunity to win in Montreal. Sure, they’ve got important pieces in Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin, but the Canadiens don’t appear to be a true contender at the moment. If Kovalchuk is looking to join a team that can contend next season, he might decide to steer clear of Montreal.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
St. Louis isn’t the sexiest of landing spots for Kovalchuk. It doesn’t have the bright lights of New York, the storied history of Montreal or the excitement of Vegas. Heck, it doesn’t even have the intrigue of Florida, because signing with the Panthers would be somewhat unexpected and a big get for that organization. But what team makes more sense than the Blues as a suitor for Kovalchuk?
Let’s consider St. Louis’ needs this off-season. The Blues finished with the eighth-fewest goals, the second-worst power play and the offense was the opposite of spread out. Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko combined for 195 points. The other 27 players who suited up for St. Louis scored a combined 415 points. So, nearly one-third of the total offense came from the top line. Kovalchuk can score. He can be effective on the power play. He can also give the Blues more depth of scoring and give St. Louis a second line that can contribute in much the same way as the first unit.
The Blues realistically check the rest of the boxes, too. Can they afford to sign Kovalchuk? Well, depending on RFA deals for Joel Edmundson, Jordan Schmaltz, Dmitrij Jaskin, Nikita Soshnikov and Oskar Sundqvist, St. Louis should have somewhere in the range of $8 million to with which to work come the off-season. Are the Blues a contender? Finishing one point out of a playoff spot suggests St. Louis is only a piece or two a way from the playoffs, at the very least. And judging by the Blues’ needs, Kovalchuk seems a fairly good fit.