Ilya Kovalchuk is coming back! So … how good is he?

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Ilya Kovalchuk is returning to the NHL after leaving for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in 2013 and is one of the most coveted offensive stars on the unrestricted free agent market. How did we get here, where is he going and what’s left in the tank for the 35-year-old?

Here’s an FAQ on the Kovalchuk Derby.


Q: Refresh our memories: Why did Kovalchuk leave?

A fair question, since July 2013 was 13 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies ago.

Kovalchuk had just completed his 11th NHL season, having spent parts of the first eight with the Atlanta Thrashers (RIP) before moving on to the New Jersey Devils. He was one of the NHL’s most prolific goal scorers in that span, with 417 tallies and 399 assists in 816 career games. After his first contract with the Devils was spiked by the NHL for cap circumvention, they inked him to a 15-year, $100-million contract in 2010. He was three years into that contract when Kovalchuk decided to “retire” to sign a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, walking away from $77 million due to him from the Devils.

He had soured on the NHL after the 2012 lockout while he played in Russia, for reasons that included escrow withholding and North American taxes, and expressed a desire to be closer to family. He also bailed out the Devils’ cap situation and cleared his contract before the team was sold … but that’s another FAQ.

Q: Why does Kovalchuk want to return?

First, because the timing is right. On April 15 of this year, he turned 35. That meant he could return to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent, removed from the voluntary retirement list and without the Devils holding any of his rights. He starred in the KHL for five years and won the Gagarin Cup (still the greatest hockey trophy named after a cosmonaut) and an Olympic gold medal, even if it was with the “Olympic Athletes From Russia” rather than under a Russian flag due to the doping scandal.

The next challenge: Return to North America, become a viable NHL player again and win the Stanley Cup to complete “Triple Gold Club” status, as he’s captured IIHF and Olympic championships.

Q: He’s 35 and hasn’t played in the NHL since 2013. What kind of Kovalchuk are teams going to be getting?

We asked two writers who watched him in the KHL.

It was sometimes difficult to gauge the state of Kovalchuk’s abilities in the KHL because the motivation wasn’t always there, according to Igor Eronko of Sport-Express. “He played for such a powerhouse like SKA. They set a KHL record this season with 20 wins in a row. It’s kinda easy to lose the motivation if you lead 3-0 after 20 in one of every two games,” he said.

That said, Eronko feels the biggest transformation in Kovalchuk’s game involves being a team player. “The Olympics were quite indicative in terms of how he’s progressed in that term. He played with two checkers on one line and was still productive. And when he couldn’t score, when he couldn’t do much with the puck, he still tried to be useful on the forecheck, winning battles, being physical,” he said. “When the really motivated Kovy was out there, he was a leader and a player you definitely want to be on your team.”

Aivis Kalnins, who covers the KHL for HockeyBuzz, sees Kovalchuk as a top-line player at 35 and an asset on the power play, where he can quarterback it or play in the “Ovechkin spot” as a sniper. While Kovalchuk has a lot of games under his skates, including international tournament play, Kalnins points out he “has always been very healthy, with not many injuries, and hasn’t really missed long chunks of time,” but that “he has to start feeling fatigue — he is only human.”

As for a stats projection? Kalnins thinks “anything under 50 points would be a disappointment for me. He is capable of putting up big numbers.” Eronko thinks “he’s a 60-point forward in the NHL. His shot is still lethal and 30 goals is a really achievable goal.” But if there was one concern about Kovalchuk for Eronko, it was as a postseason performer: “In every playoffs he had for SKA, there was a teammate or even a couple who were better than him. And he didn’t try too much to change that. But, he still won two Gagarin Cups.”

Q: What kind of contract might Kovalchuk receive?

Not 15 years and $100 million! (Which is fine, because what team besides the Devils would want to give their star player a cap hit of $6,666,666?) TSN’s Darren Dreger, who has been plugged into Camp Kovy, believes he’ll see a contract term of three years with an average annual value of around $6 million for Kovalchuk and agent J.P. Barry of CAA Sports. In Toronto they call that “The Marleau.”

Q: Does Kovalchuk have any geographic restrictions on his suitors?

That was always assumed to be the case. For years, speculation was that Kovalchuk wanted to return to play in the Northeast, preferably for one of the New York area teams.

But he’s already made a visit to the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, teams which, at last check, played in the Pacific Division.

Q: So how many teams are in the Kovalchuk Derby?

Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic believes there are upwards of eight teams contending for Kovalchuk: The Kings, Sharks, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers are the front-runners, while the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks are in the second tier.

Noticeably absent from that list are the New York Islanders, whom many linked to Kovalchuk due to their obvious needs and the hiring of GM Lou Lamoriello, with whom Kovalchuk has a great relationship from their days in Jersey together. But Islanders insider Arthur Staple believes Kovalchuk isn’t a priority for the Isles. (One dark horse, based on previous interest and population of Russian stars: The Columbus Blue Jackets.)

If term isn’t an issue, that opens up a number of possibilities, from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh to even potentially the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.


Q: OK, let’s look at the main contenders. Why would Kovalchuk work for the Rangers?

The Rangers are allegedly going younger and faster, but Kovalchuk’s north/south game and offensive flourish are something the team could certainly use on the left side for new coach David Quinn. Plus, having that kind of veteran scorer flanking promising rookie centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil can only help in their development. Kovalchuk is the best winger on the open market who isn’t going to cost the Rangers a long-term commitment. And if they don’t get him … hey, there’s always three more years of Rick Nash.


Q: What about the Bruins?

Speaking of Nash, the Bruins could slide Kovalchuk right into that second-line wing slot that Nash didn’t exactly fill sufficiently last season after the trade deadline: Next to David Krejci, across from someone like Jake DeBrusk. Or they could drop David Pastrnak to that line, and play Kovalchuk up with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

The Bruins’ special teams (third on the penalty kill, fourth on the power play) would get even better, as Kovalchuk plays on both. Just a really solid fit here, and GM Don Sweeney has confirmed the Bruins are in the derby.


Q: Do the Kings make sense?

Very much so. Los Angeles was a suitor for Kovalchuk back in 2010 before the Devils signed him. They have Alex Iafallo and Tanner Pearson on the left side, but Kovalchuk playing with Anze Kopitar is the stuff of Kopitar’s dreams: Both players have the same tempo and approach, and Kopitar is coming off the best offensive season of his career (92 points). A power play with Drew Doughty at the back, Kopitar at the half-wall and Kovalchuk in the circle? Yes please.

The main issue here is cap space: The Kings have 20 players inked for next season, and sit just over $4 million under the current ceiling. Also … do they really need to get older, considering their average age is already over 28?


Q: What about the Sharks?

Kovalchuk played for Peter DeBoer with the Devils, sharing memories of an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. The Sharks are all-in for next season, which could be Joe Thornton‘s last one in the NHL. The tricky part, financially: Evander Kane was just handed $7 million annually on left wing. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski both need new contracts after this season. They have $15 million committed to Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. They have no less than seven other free agents up next summer.

But, if they’re willing to create even more cap space for a run at John Tavares this summer, they could do so for Kovy. From an on-ice perspective, Kovalchuk would be an incredible fit. Pavelski and Kane clicked. Couture can anchor a line. If Thornton is healthy, he and Kovalchuk could give the Sharks three solid offensive units in a conference where depth is key.

Q: Is anyone from the field intriguing?

The Stars are an interesting contender. They’re a perilously top-heavy team, with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov each getting over 70 points — and the team’s next highest offensive player, Mattias Janmark, getting just 34. Kovalchuk is quite close with Radulov. He also doesn’t like to pay a lot of taxes on his salary, so God bless Texas.

The Blues have been chasing a left winger for some time, having been linked to players like Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens and Mike Hoffman of the Senators (whose situation has certainly gotten interesting recently). Kovalchuk makes a ton of sense here, especially as an influence on and off the ice for Vladimir Tarasenko.

The Red Wings make no sense as a Cup contender, but Craig Custance of The Athletic had a theory that seems more like informed speculation: “It’s a long shot, but the best pitch would have to be a one-year deal on a huge salary that also gives Kovalchuk complete control of where he goes at the trade deadline, with Detroit retaining some of the cost. Going that route would, in theory, buy Kovalchuk time to see which of the contending teams offer him the best chance to win.”

Q: So where does Kovalchuk end up?

There’s been so much smoke, so much linkage and so much speculation about Kovalchuk and the Rangers that it’s hard not to see them as the eventual choice. They have the want, the need and the cap space to entice him.

The only wrinkle is Kovalchuk’s desire to win a Stanley Cup, as others are obviously in better position than the reloading Rangers. If that’s the aim for Kovy, then the Bruins would seem like a more logical destination.



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