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Shero not ruling out Kovalchuk returning to Devils — but he should

Devils GM Ray Shero said he's not ruling out Ilya Kovalchuk's return to New Jersey. But with New Jersey rebuilding, it might make the most sense to ship the returning Russian winger elsewhere.

Since word came that Ilya Kovalchuk was going to return to the NHL — and for real, this time — speculation has run rampant about his next destination. Some have suggested New York, be it the Rangers or Islanders, or potentially joining forces with Alexander Radulov in Montreal. Others believe a move to Florida, where he could join an upstart Panthers group, might be what works for Kovalchuk, while the left-field candidates, the Vegas Golden Knights, made their case stronger when they landed one big fish from the KHL in Vadim Shipachyov.

But don’t count out a possible return to the New Jersey Devils.

As has been discussed at length, the Devils currently hold all the cards when it comes to Kovalchuk’s return next season. Given that Kovalchuk, 34, voluntarily retired in the summer of 2013 in the midst of a 15-year, $100-million contract with New Jersey, it’s the Devils who currently hold his rights with Kovalchuk ineligible to become an unrestricted free agent until next summer. And while Kovalchuk could sign anywhere he wishes, any of the league’s teams — including New Jersey — could veto the deal.

The result has been a long-held belief that Kovalchuk would re-enter the league and resume his NHL career via a sign-and-trade, which is to say he’d deliver to New Jersey a list of potential destinations and the Devils would work out a deal to send Kovalchuk to his new home. And, at least in part, that is where things stand right now.

In speaking with TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Devils GM Ray Shero said that he’s playing the waiting game, holding off on making any calls until he hears where exactly Kovalchuk wants to land. But what has caught some by surprise is the fact that Shero said it doesn’t exactly mean Kovalchuk is going to be shipped out with no questions asked. In fact, Shero suggested he’d ask one important question before even pursuing a trade, and that’s whether Kovalchuk would consider a return to New Jersey instead of heading elsewhere for the 2017-18 campaign.

“I haven’t ruled out anything but they’ve got to do the due diligence and find out where they want to play, the team that might make the most sense both financially and otherwise with his family,” Shero told LeBrun. “Then, compare that with the Devils and then, at the end of the day, he can’t sign a contract until July 1 or after, so there’s some time there.”

One can understand why Shero would want to at least test the waters on a Kovalchuk return. Over the 245 KHL games he has played over the past four seasons, Kovalchuk put up 107 goals and 264 points, including an excellent 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games this past season. He finished second in league scoring, proving again that he could be the dominant on-ice force that he had been during his best years early in his career.

And bringing in a consistent scorer like Kovalchuk is something that Shero definitely needs to do. The Devils’ acquisition of Taylor Hall last off-season was a boon to the club’s offense, but there are still significant pieces missing up front. More specifically, New Jersey desperately needs someone who can help Hall out on the team’s powerless power play. This past season, the Devils finished with the ninth-worst power play, running at 17.5 percent, and Kovalchuk’s history would suggest he could definitely aid in a turnaround. During his best years, Kovalchuk was good for double-digit power play goal totals, and he racked up 21 goals and 64 points with the extra man in 195 games as a Devil.

Kovalchuk would also bring with him two-way talent, some veteran leadership and speed and skill that few others in New Jersey possess. All of those are things that the Devils need, especially after consecutive seasons as one of the league’s bottom feeders.

The reality is, though, that it’s hard to see Kovalchuk agreeing to return to New Jersey.

With Kovalchuk coming back, there’s likely no way he wants to be part of what is a rebuilding Devils franchise. This is a team that finished with 70 points in 2016-17 and has, over the past three seasons, finished with the fourth fewest points of any franchise. Some of the pieces of a competing team are in place — Hall, Kyle Palmieri and goaltender Cory Schneider make up a decent foundation — but the rest of the squad isn’t ready to take the next step yet. The incoming first-overall pick, which could bring Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier to town, isn’t going to turn the Devils into an instant contender the way Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews would have. So, for Kovalchuk, to rejoin New Jersey would be to spend a few years toiling away hoping to help ignite a rebuild.

At his age, that doesn’t sound all that appealing, especially given that he left the NHL when he was one season removed from playing in the Stanley Cup final. Time is running out for Kovalchuk to get back there, and that’s why teams such as the Panthers, Rangers, Islanders and Canadiens have been kicked about as potential options. Those all seem to be clubs ready to hold down post-season spots and compete for the Stanley Cup. That, as much as anything, could be what Kovalchuk is after.

This isn’t to mention that it’s probably a good thing for the Devils that Kovalchuk will be seeking a trade. Yes, Shero holds less power in a swap given that his trade partner will no doubt understand that Kovalchuk wants to move on, but given New Jersey’s situation, Shero should be after as many pieces to bolster his roster as possible. 

Trading Kovalchuk, especially with his talent level, stands to land the Devils a piece or two that can help down the line when the organization is ready to compete for a playoff spot again, be it in three or four years’ time. On that same timeline, Kovalchuk would be on his way to a second retirement, and New Jersey can’t be putting the present ahead of the future right now. This isn’t a club that’s going to be good overnight, no matter who comes through the doors.

So, even if Shero hasn’t ruled out Kovalchuk’s return, it might be best that he does.

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