The off-season is coming, which means reports of Ilya Kovalchuk’s potential return to the NHL are starting to pop up. However, this time around, it could really happen. No, really. Seriously. We’re not kidding. It sounds as though Kovalchuk could be leaving the KHL and heading back to North America.
Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Kovalchuk wants to come back, and Friedman added to that report Tuesday when he wrote that Kovalchuk, who has spent the past four seasons in the KHL, has “informed the Devils of his desire to return.” And while that may not seem like much and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to hold their breath on his return, the truth of the matter is it’s seemingly a step further than this has gone in any off-season prior.
That Kovalchuk could be on his way back is intriguing for a few reasons. The first is that it’s plain old interesting to see him spend the better part of the past decade in the KHL only to decide that as his career is winding down he wants another crack at the NHL. Beyond that, though, it’s going to be fascinating to see what Kovalchuk has in the tank at the NHL level.
There was reason to question where he was health- and production-wise across his first three campaigns in the KHL. In SKA St. Petersburg, Kovalchuk was expected to be a consistent league leader and all-out star, and while he certainly had star power, he didn’t often have the stellar points total to match. Across the first 149 games he played in the KHL, Kovalchuk scored 57 goals and 144 points, never accumulating more than 55 in a year. The league leaders were often piling up 70-plus points.
Kovalchuk had a resurgence this year, though, and was the scoring dynamo many expected. He fired home 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games and finished second in league scoring on a high-powered SKA team. Kovalchuk helped St. Petersburg to the Gagarin Cup, too, the second league title the franchise had won since his return. The cherry on top was that Kovalchuk scored the Cup-winning goal this year.
More compelling than anything, however, is the way in which Kovalchuk will have to return. Because Kovalchuk voluntarily — and shockingly, considering he was in the third season of a 15-year, $100-million deal — retired from the NHL following the 2012-13 season, his rights are maintained by the Devils and they will hold exclusive rights to Kovalchuk until the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Kovalchuk can sign with another team, but only if all 30 teams sign off on his new deal. Seems unlikely to happen with New Jersey there to veto the deal.
And that could mean wherever Kovalchuk ends up isn’t necessarily where he signs. That’s to say he could be New Jersey bound when he puts pen to paper to sign a new deal, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where he’ll be suiting up when the campaign starts. So, if he is on his way back, where does he play?
The Canadiens are a fun fit to consider if only because they could form a line of Alex Galchenyuk, Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk. While Galchenyuk represents Team USA on the international stage, it’d be interesting to watch a line with entirely Russian roots terrorize opposing defenses. Throw a blueline pairing of Andrei Markov and a rookie Mikhail Sergachev out there with the line and you’ve got Montreal’s pseudo-Russian Five. The Canadiens need the scoring, too, as evidenced by the post-season.
One also has to consider the trade potential, however. What can Montreal give New Jersey? The Devils could use a blueliner, but who fits the bill? Moving Alexei Emelin would be nice, and free up some cap space, but he alone probably won’t make the deal happen. It’ll take more.
The difficulty with making the deal work, though, is the Canadiens aren’t likely to have the cap space. There’s no telling what Kovalchuk signs for, but a deal that mirrors Radulov’s $5.75-million pact wouldn’t be out of question. If that’s the case, Montreal would have to remove that roughly $6-million cap hit from the $22 million they have available this summer, leaving them $16 million to lock up Radulov, Galchenyuk, Markov, Nikita Nesterov and potentially add a player or two up front. Tough to make it work.
Los Angeles Kings
Another fun one, but one that would also serve a big time purpose. The Kings need scoring and they need it bad. Only five teams scored fewer goals than Los Angeles in the regular season and all the talk in La-La Land has been about how to bring some offense into the lineup. The obvious answer would be attacking the free agent market, but the Kings don’t have the cap space to make that work. They have $14 million to work with and have to sign Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Only after that will they able to make some moves.
That said, shipping out some salary in order to bring some offense in might work. The trick for the Kings, though, is deciding what exactly to send the other way to acquire Kovalchuk. If it’s a defenseman they have to part with to land Kovalchuk, they have the pieces to make that possible in Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez.
However, it doesn’t really make a whole whack of sense for the Kings to give up on either rearguard in exchange for a 34-year-old winger who hasn’t played in the NHL in four years. He would bring scoring, but Los Angeles would have to be awfully certain with their decision if they choose to move someone out to bring in Kovalchuk.
New York Islanders
The assumption here is that the Devils would be at all willing to move Kovalchuk to a divisional opponent. That’s never a given. However, as noted, New Jersey desperately needs to bolster their backend and New York would be able to provide an NHL-quality defender. That could make all the difference here.
Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic probably aren’t going anywhere, but Thomas Hickey or Calvin De Haan could be trade options for the Islanders if they’re after Kovalchuk. And if the Islanders need to sweeten the pot — and clear up more cap space — there are a few young forwards who could be thrown into the mix to make this deal more than a one-for-one swap.
While things improved for the Islanders once Doug Weight took over, it sure would be nice if John Tavares could have a sniper on his wing all season that can provide the offensive punch that was lost when Kyle Okposo left town. With his shot alone, Kovalchuk still possesses 30-goal potential. And after the Islanders had the third-worst power play in the league, it couldn’t hurt to add someone with Kovalchuk’s offensive acumen.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus is coming off of their best season in franchise history and were one of the more intriguing teams in the league this past season. What they could use to keep up with the East’s best, though, is someone who can score in bunches. They don’t have an offensive horse with quite the power of Kovalchuk, so adding him could make some sense. There’s a potential trade fit, too.
Over the past few seasons, Ryan Murray has struggled in Columbus, and the 2012 second-overall pick seems to be in dire need of a change of scenery. He has yet to become the top-pairing blueliner the Blue Jackets were hoping for and he managed just two goals and 11 points in 60 games this past season while skating less than 20 minutes per game. Murray is only 23 and still has potential, but moving somewhere where he has the chance to really find his game might be best for him. He’s been passed — and possibly lapped — on the depth chart in Columbus by Zach Werenski.
The money will be tough to make work, of course, but maybe Columbus makes the package sweeter in order to send some salary to New Jersey. And the deal working out would bring the Blue Jackets some additional offense that could pay dividends if they’re back in the post-season in 2017-18.
Kovalchuk won’t get to pick where he goes. There’s no doubt about that. The last thing anyone in New Jersey is going to really care much about is accommodating Kovalchuk after he left the franchise in the lurch following the 2012-13 campaign. That said, working out a deal with Minnesota could be a big win for Kovalchuk, the Devils and the Wild.
Let’s start with the Devils. New Jersey could get a defenseman who is ready to play in the NHL, and possibly on their top pairing, tomorrow if they completed a deal with Minnesota. Arguably the only team with a stronger defensive corps than the Wild is the Predators. The only unmovable defenders in this situation are likely Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba and, given the way he played this past season, Jared Spurgeon. But that still leaves at least two great options open for the Devils in Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin.
As for the Wild, they get the one thing they were missing in the post-season, and that’s a sniper with game-breaking ability. Maybe with a Kovalchuk-esque scorer, Minnesota breaks Jake Allen in the opening round and we’re not talking about a shocking first-round exit. There’s also another way it works for the Wild, though. With the expansion draft looming, there’s a good chance Minnesota is going to lose a defender and get nothing in return. Making a deal with the Devils, given Kovalchuk signs pre-expansion draft, would allow Minnesota to ship a defender out and get something useful in return.
As for Kovalchuk, it would give him the chance to go to a team that has the ability to win and allow him to reunite with Zach Parise. The last season the two played together, back in 2011-12, Kovalchuk put up 37 goals and 83 points, while Parise scored 38 goals and 69 points of his own. New Jersey made the Stanley Cup final that season and maybe the two could find some magic together once again in Minnesota.
New Jersey Devils
All right, so it’s not as fun to think about, but there’s a chance the Devils bring Kovalchuk back and keep him around. If that were the case, he’d bring a boost to their offense and he’s always been better than average in his own end. That gives New Jersey a nice two-way winger addition for the cost of his cap hit alone, not to mention someone to potentially play on Taylor Hall’s wing if he suits up down the middle.
New Jersey can use all the help they can get in almost every facet of the game, so while Kovalchuk doesn’t do anything to shore up the backend, he can certainly provide some punch. The Devils finished 29th with a mere 180 goals for and the power play was among the 10 worst in the league. Kovalchuk could improve both those numbers if he were to return.
But the best thing Kovalchuk can do is be a tradable asset for the Devils, and that’s not just because we want to see where he’d end up. The Devils aren’t built to compete right now, so bringing in a veteran sniper doesn’t do the team much good. Trading him allows the team to create a foundation that a winning team can be built upon.