I know what you’re thinking and no, this isn’t April Fools day. There are legitimate rumours that Ilya Kovalchuk is ready to make a return to the National Hockey League, as Elliotte Friedman reported in Saturday night’s edition of Headlines on Hockey Night in Canada. Here’s what Friedman had to say:
The word is out that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to come back, that this is starting to be put in motion. Now, this is how it works: the New Jersey Devils own his rights. He could sign and play for them with no problem. If he wants to play for somebody else, technically, all the other NHL teams would have to approve it.
But, and here’s the way I think that this is going to work.. if he doesn’t want to play for New Jersey, or New Jersey doesn’t want him playing for them, and neither the agent or the team is commenting on this, Ron, I think whoever gets him is going to work out a sign and trade with New Jersey or they’re going to trade for his rights.
But Kovalchuk has let it be known, he wants to come back, and I think there will be significant interest.
Kovalchuk’s departure from the league is arguably one of the most famous retirements in the history of the NHL, given how much was at stake, the circumstances, and the suddenness of the situation. Kovalchuk retired just three years into a 15-year contract, leaving $77 million on the table on what was one of the longest and most substantial signings in history.
Some felt that money was the reason for the departure, but the crash of the ruble quickly threw that from slight to nowhere close; the reality of the matter is that Kovalchuk had family issues to take care of and had held them off until it became a must-address situation. He’s done just that over the past four years, along with playing in the KHL.
Kovalchuk’s first few years in the league with SKA St. Petersburg were a mixed bag, seeing him perform well compared to your average forward but not to the degree you’d expect from a star player of his calibre. He looked lazy and uncommitted at times and struggled with a long-term back injury. Personal and physical issues came to a head at the end of last season, and the winger was scratched throughout the Gagarin Cup playoffs as a result and had his C passed over to Pavel Datsyuk upon his entry into the league.
This year, however, Kovalchuk has been physically and mentally reinvigorated and had his best season by far. In 60 games, Kovalchuk has set KHL career highs with 32 goals, 46 assists, and 78 points, leading arguably the best team in league history in scoring en route to their mind-boggling 46-8-6 record and his second Gagarin Cup victory. While his scoring tapered off a bit in the postseason, his commitment earned him back his C after Datsyuk’s season was ended by injury.
While many would look to another KHL year as a safe bet given the current Olympic situation, this is the right time for Kovalchuk to re-audition himself to NHL suitors. It’s unlikely that he’ll dominate to this extent next year, both due to natural ageing curves and the high risk of SKA taking a step back. Core pieces Vadim Shipachev and Evgeny Dadonov are both reconsidering the NHL route, Nikita Gusev’s best bet to cross over to his rights-holding Tampa Bay Lightning is a little over a year away, and there’s some doubt whether they’ll get the same quality of goaltending out of Igor Shesterkin and Mikko Koskinen again.
Which leads us to his options. Would the Leafs be a fit?
As far as management goes, there’s an easy line to be drawn here in Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello was the General Manager in New Jersey when they acquired Kovalchuk at the 2010 trade deadline, he was the GM who orchestrated (and paid the price for) his contract, and he was the GM who helped him through the retirement process, which we can all admit probably helped the Devils due to the length of the term as much as it helped Kovalchuk’s personal situation.
Thankfully, whoever gets him (or if he returns to New Jersey, the Devils), don’t have to deal with the eight years that were supposed to be remaining in the deal, as it was mutually terminated when he departed. Most likely, given his age and the question marks behind him from many different angles, he’d be looking at a one or two year deal. The idea of a long-term “cash out” in this situation seems to not fit his history, given what he left on the table to leave. It’s more likely that Kovalchuk is coming back the bit of club reward that’s evaded him; a Stanley Cup Ring.
This would be ideal for the Leafs, who are in a unique, ELC-driven window where they’ve got cap flexibility, be it through natural space and a limited (but not entirely free) ability to use Long Term Injured Reserve on Joffrey Lupul next year and Nathan Horton in the next several. While trading heavy assets for 30-something stars isn’t exactly a move that aligns with the “Shanaplan”, giving up something minimal for the rights to the player and effectively getting them for free is a different story.
Make no mistake, a Kovalchuk “bidding war” would be much different than your normal trade race. With no contract currently in place, it’ll be up to him and his agent to figure out his preferred destinations, and the Devils will go from there to talk to those teams. If his list is short, the cost might be as low as a 2nd-3rd round pick, or a B level prospect. If it’s longer, then the story obviously changes and the Leafs would be wise to back away.
But as long as asset costs stays low, he’d be a great fit. Kovalchuk still has one of the cleanest and most lethal shots in the hockey world and knows how to get himself into position to use it; something that might be valuable to the Leafs on the powerplay, or on cycle driven lines that can eventually get the puck to an open net. Combining him with a Mitch Marner or William Nylander type at even strength to be their triggerman to could lead to deadly results if executed properly.
While I don’t think expecting what NHLe tells us his season was worth this year (87 points!) is in any way, shape, or form realistic, Kovalchuk would be a huge add to an already stacked forward core, and perhaps allows for an already present veteran winger to be sold at a high to address other positions of need. While this might not be a slam dunk move, it’s one that makes a lot more sense than it did a year ago (for both the team and Ilya), and one that should be at least considered by the team in the coming weeks if the price is right.