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Kovalchuk watch: Who’s in the running and who makes sense

Ilya Kovalchuk has reportedly drawn interest from several NHL franchises, but his suitors range from teams building towards a brighter future to those that could be on the cusp of winning it all.

Here’s what we know when it comes to Ilya Kovalchuk: after five seasons in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg, over which time he was the league’s third-highest scoring player and won two Gagarin Cups, the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner and two-time 50-goal man is ready to come back to the NHL.

What we don’t know yet, though, is where he’s going to land. After finally running out his time on the Voluntary Retirement list and wriggling free from his obligations to the New Jersey Devils, he could be bound for any of the league’s 31 teams come July 1 when free agency opens. Of course, due to cap restrictions, team needs and Kovalchuk’s own desires, there are likely only a few teams in true contention for his services. However, that hasn’t stopped his list of suitors from becoming crowded and, in some cases, a tad confusing.

Earlier this week, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that there aren’t just one or two or three teams kicking the tires on Kovalchuk. Rather, per FRS Hockey, Dreger said he believes there are several teams — nine of which he listed — who are interested in bringing the Russian winger aboard, including the Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues. That’s a wide array of teams, each in a unique situation with potentially different uses or fits for Kovalchuk.

Truth be told, however, not all of the above listed teams make sense as a destination for Kovalchuk given a few factors. First, it has long been reported that Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL for one reason and one reason only: to win a Stanley Cup. On a resume that includes the aforementioned KHL championships and Rocket Richards, Kovalchuk has also captured world juniors gold, World Championship MVP honors to go along with bronze, silver and gold and he put a stamp on his international career with Olympic gold and tournament MVP honors this past February in PyeongChang. The Stanley Cup has eluded him, though, and his one final appearance with the Devils in 2011-12 saw New Jersey come two wins short of the big prize.

With that in mind, if winning truly is a desire of Kovalchuk, it’s difficult to see how exactly he sees any of the Red Wings, Islanders or Rangers as a real fit.

Let’s start with Detroit, which finished with the fifth-worst record in the league. Heading to the Red Wings would almost undoubtedly give Kovalchuk the opportunity to play top-line minutes and allow him to suit up for an Original Six franchise for the first time his career, but it’s difficult to fathom how he can see Detroit as a team that is even on the cusp of contention. While the NHL is chock full of parity and we’ve seen teams go from bottom feeders to playoff contenders in one short season, it seems a stretch to suggest the Red Wings will be that team. The issues run deep in Detroit, from the thin blueline and lack of depth up front to the absence of a suitable backup or 1B netminder to Jimmy Howard’s presumptive 1A. As colleague Matt Larkin in late May, Kovalchuk doesn’t need to be with a win-now team but one that will win soon. Hard to say the Red Wings fit into either category.

The situation isn’t quite the same for either the Islanders or Rangers, surely, but both have their own issues. The Blueshirts enter this season with a rookie bench boss and the youngest, most inexperienced roster that they’ve had in a long, long time. There doesn’t appear to be a true rebuild mandate for the Rangers and there are still enough pieces in town that coach David Quinn could get this team to flirt with a playoff spot, but solidifying this roster with enough pieces to win a Stanley Cup could take more than a few seasons. Likewise, the Islanders have issues in goal and on defense that need to be taken care of before they’re a Stanley Cup contender. Scoring was hardly an issue for the Islanders last season, so adding Kovalchuk doesn’t do much to address any area of concern, and if John Tavares does in fact decide to leave New York for greener pastures, the Islanders shouldn’t be spending money on a veteran winger but instead doing everything they can to add down the middle to give youngster Mathew Barzal some support.

There are, however, teams in that win-soon position that do seemingly make sense for Kovalchuk from a winning perspective. That said, when it comes to the financial reality of signing Kovalchuk, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense, particularly if he ends up commanding in the neighborhood of $6 million annually. Of the nine teams Dreger noted, the three that would most fall into that category are the Sharks, Ducks and Bruins. With the salary cap set to rise as much or more than $5 million, it’s not that fitting Kovalchuk into the salary structure is necessarily a deal breaker for any of the three, but landing with any comes with its own challenges. 

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When it comes to San Jose, signing Kovalchuk would certainly give the offense a jolt, but if he signs a short-term contract, say, three years, Kovalchuk will remain on the books as San Jose heads toward some important negotiations. For instance, seven roster players are free agents of varying degrees this summer and another nine will see their contracts end ahead of 2019-20. Among that group is Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Chris Tierney and Joakim Ryan. So, sure, the Sharks may have considerable cap space now, but it could dwindle fast and there could become a logjam come next summer. The Ducks face a similar problem, with several players set to hit the market this summer. With more than $9 million available before the cap even rises a cent, Kovalchuk might not put Anaheim in a tight spot now, but what happens when Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg need new deals ahead of 2019-20 and when John Gibson is in line for his first big raise that same summer.

Boston may have the least concerns financially with about $8 million to spend and maybe more than $13 million once the cap increases. That’s especially true when you consider Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are all locked up to solid, team-friendly deals, and none of Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo will have arbitration rights next season. The concern in Boston, though, might be age. Already, Boston has $6 million per season tied up in 34-year-old David Backes for each of the next three seasons. That’s going to be a difficult deal to move out, and the last thing the Bruins should want is a sum of $12 million tied up in two mid-30s players for the next three seasons, particularly in the off chance Kovalchuk’s return doesn’t go as swimmingly as projected.

That may realistically leave three teams as the most readymade destinations for Kovalchuk, and that’s the Blues, Kings and Stars.

The one thing that became abundantly clear this past season is that St. Louis needed to add offense in some way this summer, which is why Kovalchuk makes all kinds of sense for the Blues. Financially speaking, St. Louis has about $13 million — or $18 million given cap projections — to spend with no major free agents to retain this summer or next. And with their window open right now, the Blues could add Kovalchuk to boost what was the NHL’s eighth-worst goals-per-game rate in 2017-18, 2.72, and second-worst power play, which operated at 15.4 percent. He’d be a natural fit on the first or second line, a triggerman for either power play unit and even 20 goals would be an incredibly welcome addition. 

The same goes for the Kings, of course, as Los Angeles was bereft of top-flight offense outside of captain Anze Kopitar this past season. Cap-wise, the Kings’ situation is somewhat (read: a lot) tighter than that of the Blues, but the cap increase and some maneuvering — maybe trading blueliners Dion Phaneuf or Alec Martinez or a mid-tier, mid-earning forward such as Tyler Toffoli or Tanner Pearson — could open up just enough room to bring Kovalchuk into the fold while still keeping more than enough money in the coffers to get Drew Doughty’s all-important extension done.

Dallas could be seen as the dark horse here, but they would be a great sleeper contender for Kovalchuk. Yes, the Stars have some work to do and need to get Tyler Seguin inked to an extension, one that will probably be worth north of $9 million per season, in time for the 2019-20 campaign. But Dallas also has $42 million in projected cap space for that campaign, so keeping Seguin and adding Kovalchuk would probably eat little more than one-third of what’s available. There are no big-name, top-contributing free agents pending besides Seguin, too, so Dallas should be able to work out the rest of the salary structure without too much concern. As it stands, too, the Stars, Kings and Blues are probably the closest to winning anything important with their given rosters, even if the window may slowly be closing on all three. 

What Kovalchuk ultimately decides, however, will tell us more about what exactly he was looking for in a fit than any amount of reported team interest ever could. And for that we’ll have to play the waiting game, and we may not know his final decision until the clock strikes noon on the East Coast come July 1.

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