No 2018 UFAs will rack in the coin and term like John Tavares and John Carlson will. The summer belongs to them. But for pure intrigue, there’s no more fascinating UFA than Ilya Kovalchuk.
On resume alone, he should be as coveted as any player. He sniped 417 goals in his 11 NHL seasons from 2001-02 to 2012-13, more than any other player over that span. His 0.51 goals per game rank 18th all-time. He owns a Rocket Richard Trophy, nine seasons of 30 or more goals, six seasons of 40 or more goals and two seasons of 50-plus goals. After retiring from the NHL five years ago and heading to the KHL, he won two Gagarin Cup titles and enters the 2018 off-season as the league’s reigning scoring champ. He even took home Olympic gold and tournament MVP honors in Pyeongchang this past winter.
So, yes, Kovalchuk won’t have any trouble finding NHL suitors now that he’s decided to re-enter the market, but signing him still comes with questions. Will he still be a dominant NHL player at 35? Is it possible the KHL has dulled his skills? And what type of contract will he seek?
Kovalchuk’s age isn’t likely to scare any teams off, especially because he won’t be seeking a monster commitment term wise. For comparison: Jaromir Jagr returned to the NHL in 2011-12 at 39 and played another 460 NHL games, amassing 120 goals and 322 points. That’s not to say Kovalchuk is Jagr – no one is – but Kovalchuk doesn’t have to be considering he’s four years younger than Jagr was after his KHL hiatus. And Kovalchuk is no slouch. Three more productive NHL seasons could get him to 500 goals and warrant Hall of Fame consideration.
There’s also little reason thus far for teams to worry about Kovalchuk having “lost it.” The KHL is a highly competitive league, second best in the world, and Kovalchuk has been arguably its best player since he left the NHL. He’s handled a big leadership role there, too, with SKA St. Petersburg. More importantly, Kovalchuk has earned the benefit of the doubt. He isn’t an unknown coming over such as Roman Cervenka – nor is Kovalchuk another Alexander Radulov, who is the most logical comparison point. Radulov had just 154 NHL games and a career high of 26 goals when the Montreal Canadiens signed him in 2016. His sample size was small enough that he had to “prove it.”
That’s why Radulov inked a one-year deal when he came back to North America. Kovalchuk won’t necessarily have to given he’s an established commodity. On the other hand, Kovalchuk is 35. He’s at best on the downslope of his prime and more likely past it. So while Kovalchuk won’t sign a one-year deal like Radulov did, Kovalchuk also likely won’t command a five-year pact like the one Radulov did with the Dallas Stars last summer at 30. Based on what I’ve gleaned from talking to people around the league, the best bet for Kovalchuk is something in between. Think two- or three-year contract on a team with mid-range playoff aspirations. His new team doesn’t have to be “win-now,” it has to at least be “win-soon.”
So which destinations make the most sense for Kovalchuk, then? Consider these five options.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Hiring Lou Lamoriello as director of hockey ops sparked rumors galore of a reunion with his old salary-cap-circumvention guinea pig Kovalchuk. Does it make sense for a struggling team like the Isles, though? Maybe it does in the context of a Tavares pitch. Could the Isles lure their captain back with the added promise of Kovalchuk joining the fray for a few years? There are some holes that theory. The Isles need help in defense and goal far more than they need more expensive scoring wingers. Kovalchuk typically plays the left side, and Tavares has a great running mate there already in Anders Lee. So the idea isn’t perfect. But any knowledgeable person I’ve spoken to has suggested not to rule out the Lamoriello connection, so here we are.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
We know Drew Doughty (a) is a UFA next summer and (b) wants to play for a winner above all else. The Kings are a good team, not a great one, and they don’t score nearly enough to join the elite. Adding Kovalchuk on, say, a two-year pact wouldn’t jeopardize the Kings’ future much and could help keep them in a contention window long enough to re-sign Doughty. Kovalchuk would be an immediate upgrade over everyone else the Kings have on the left wing. He, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown could form a bulldozer of a line.
The Stars are all-in under the Jim Nill regime, having missed the playoffs this past season despite loading up with expensive free agent upgrades last summer. There’s likely no turning back for a team with Jamie Benn, Ben Bishop and Radulov signed long term and Tyler Seguin a UFA in summer 2019. The Stars’ top need is scoring on the wings, as they rely far too much on the powerhouse trio of Benn, Seguin and Radulov for offense. Kovalchuk would fit beautifully on a two- or three-year pact. Better yet, he and Radulov are buddies. There would be a natural comfort there as Kovalchuk transitions back to the NHL from the KHL, just like Radulov did a couple years ago. As a big, powerful attacking winger, Kovalchuk would also be a perfect mentor for two Russian Stars prospects who play similar styles and haven’t yet realized their potential: Valeri Nichushkin and Denis Gurianov.
The Atlantic Division remains hockey’s weakest, and the Panthers missed the playoffs by one point. Their core remains young, and they’re on the cusp of contention. Adding one or two impact players in free agency could make the difference, and they can probably fit Kovalchuk under the salary cap considering it’s projected to rise to between $78 million and $82 million. He’d solidify a nice top six with Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck centering the first and second line and Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad holding down the wings, with Kovalchuk filling the fourth wing spot. The Panthers could then deploy big-time prospect Henrik Borgstrom on the third line next season.
Rick Nash, a pending UFA, didn’t set the world on fire after coming over in a trade but filled an important role as a scorer and forechecker in their top six. The Bruins need to replace that production and maybe even upgrade it as they push for a Stanley Cup next season. Kovalchuk brings a nice blend of heaviness at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and pure goal-scoring ability. Adding Kovalchuk would make Boston a Cup frontrunner in 2018-19.
Keep an eye on…
Carolina Hurricanes: Following the Lamoriello logic, Hurricanes GM Don Waddell obviously knows Kovalchuk well from their Atlanta days. A Kovalchuk signing wouldn’t make too much sense from a hockey standpoint, though. Carolina needs centers, not wingers, and is a team in major transition. We can’t call a franchise that just replaced its coach and GM a contender.
New York Rangers: Scuttlebutt has already linked Kovalchuk to the Blueshirts. But this team sent a letter to its fans committing to a youthful rebuild and just hired an NCAA coach in David Quinn. Signing Kovalchuk would contradict the Rangers’ supposed new credo. So I don’t buy the rumors.
Vegas Golden Knights: We know now to expect the unexpected from this franchise. Nothing the Golden Knights do this off-season should surprise us. But GM George McPhee has a lot of work to do between re-signing RFA William Karlsson, deciding on UFAs James Neal and David Perron and resuming the (reported) pursuit of Erik Karlsson. Kovalchuk feels more like a luxury, so I wouldn’t put Vegas at the front of the pack.