Top 5 most likely NHL destinations for Ilya Kovalchuk (plus the KHL)

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kovalchukjuly1.jpgAlmost a month ago, I wrote a series of posts about Ilya Kovalchuk’s impending free agent status. In the first one, I advised NHL general managers to be careful about throwing big money at Kovalchuk. I followed that up with early speculation on where the talented but pricey left wing might land. With NHL free agent mania just one day ahead, I thought I’d take another look at which teams seem like logical choices for the Russian goal scoring machine.

Naturally, once the events open up at noon ET on Thursday, this post could end up looking really dumb. You never know with this crazy, money-spending league.

I’m going to keep the salary cap in mind with this post, but it’s important to note that NHL teams don’t need to be under the cap right away. They have much of the summer to go over a little bit, although obviously that will force their hands with waiver moves and salary dump trades.

Still, I want to keep this within the realm of reason, so teams such as the Penguins and Blackhawks will be left out. I think the Devils are out of the running, too, thanks to the Jason Arnott trade. The Colorado Avalanche have the space for a big move, but they are also out of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes according to Adrian Dater. My guess is that the budget-conscious Anaheim Ducks will re-sign Bobby Ryan instead of going after Kovalchuk.

Anyway, with all that out of the way, here are some of the most sensible destinations for the gem of this year’s free agent crop.

KHL – My guess is that if all things were equal (and by things I, of course, mean money), Kovalchuk would stay in the NHL. Still, the KHL doesn’t have a salary cap and has some tax-related perks too. Which means, in other words, the foreign league could throw a crazy deal Kovalchuk’s way.

1. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings are in a big market with beautiful weather and … oh yeah, they have a pretty good team as well. Los Angeles is well-stocked with young talent (Drew Doughty is almost insultingly skilled) but could use a forward deep in his prime. As long as the Kings are wise with the amount of years they offer, this could be the ideal match for Kovy.

2. St. Louis Blues – As of this time, the Blues have the most cap space in the NHL according to CapGeek.com. That will change if they sign restricted free agents Erik Johnson and Jaroslav Halak, but with more than $32 million they could still afford Kovalchuk. But would he want to play in still-building St. Louis? And do the Blues want to make such a big investment in a transition period?

After the jump, some suitors who have a chance (but a slimmer chance) to land the Russian sniper.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for kovalchukkhl.jpg3. Vancouver Canucks – This would be a tighter fit, but it makes
sense in some ways. Kovalchuk might not fit in with a team that grinds
it out so much (even the whipped-cream-soft Sedin twins tend to wear
opponents out in their own way with their patented cycle). Then again,
his world-class hands don’t fit in with that team either, with all
apologies to the surprisingly potent Mikael Samuelsson. Kovalchuk could
be the missing piece for the Canucks, but it would take a salary cap
Houdini act to fill out their roster.

4. New York Islanders – Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do in
Long Island. Still, the Islanders are just a few bucks behind St. Louis
but don’t really have any big free agents. Of course, there’s a reason
for that; the time barely has any NHL players to begin with.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs – I’m not sure the money makes complete
sense, but never – ever – count Brian Burke out of a big deal. My
bet is that the bombastic GM only enters swimming pools by way of the
cannon ball.

So, those are the five teams I’d say are the most likely to land the
big-ticket item of this summer (plus the KHL, obviously). If I had to
wager on it, I’d pick the Kings or the KHL. Like I said before, though,
you never know with the NHL. Logic flies out the window on July 1.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators and Wild wrap up their season series to start the penultimate week of the regular season. Both teams come in off blowout losses on Saturday that had major impacts on their respective playoff races.

Nashville lost 5-0 in Winnipeg, putting a major dent into the Predators’ quest to win a second straight Central Division title. A win would have moved the Preds even on points with the Jets atop the division, but instead Nashville suffered one of their worst losses of the season.

The Wild were handed a much more crucial defeat, falling 5-1 at Carolina. Minnesota came into Saturday’s game on a high after winning 2-1 at Washington the day prior. Devan Dubnyk started a second straight night as the Wild looked to take control of the second Wild Card spot in the West.

The Predators’ loss to the Jets on Saturday not only hampered their hopes to win the division, but it also allowed the Blues to pull closer to Nashville for second in the Central. What was a six-point lead just over a week ago has now dwindled to a two-point advantage, with St. Louis having a game in hand.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Monday, March 25, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiKyle TurrisMikael Granlund
Brian BoyleNick BoninoWayne Simmonds

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayLuke KuninRyan Donato
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskJoel Eriksson Ek
Matt ReadEric FehrJ.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jones and Patrick Sharp.

Drew Doughty continues beef with Flames’ Tkachuk

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The Los Angeles Kings are in Calgary on Monday night and that means it is time for defenseman Drew Doughty to continue what has become a longstanding feud with Matthew Tkachuk.

The 21-year-old Tkachuk has only been in the league for three years but has already earned himself quite the reputation as being one of the NHL’s most irritating players to play against, and no one seems to share that opinion more (publicly, anyway) than Doughty.

On Monday, he was asked about the “rivalry” that currently exists between the Flames and Kings only to downplay it as nothing more than Tkachuk going after him all the time.

“Our rivalry is not even close with this team compared to other teams,” said Doughty. “I think most of it is just because of Tkachuk going after me is why the rivalry kind of started. We never really had a playoff series against this team, never really had any big games against this team, so I think the rivalry just kind of started with all that [expletive].”

He did not stop there.

Doughty also said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Francis, that he has “no respect” for the Flames’ forward and that he will never talk to him off the ice, while also adding that Tkachuk is not respected by most  players in the league.

This is not the first time Doughty has publicly sounded off on Tkachuk or cited other players in the league not respecting the Flames’ forward.

A lot of this started during Tkachuk’s rookie season when he earned a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the head, sparking this reaction from the Kings’ defender.

“He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid. To be a rookie and play like that is a little surprising. I don’t know exactly what happened because I got hit in the head, but I thought he elbowed me. I can’t tell you for sure, so I’m not going to say if I think anything should happen, but whatever it was, it hurt pretty bad, and it’s going to hurt for a little bit.”

This is the play that resulted in the two-game suspension.

The feud has only continued to escalate from there, including this little exchange in the penalty boxes early in the 2017-18 season…

… which was followed by Doughty saying later in that year that he is “pretty sure” Tkachuk is the most hated player in the NHL.

“I’m pretty sure he might be,” Doughty told Francis back in January, 2018. “I have lots of friends on other teams and they don’t love him either. But whatever, that’s how he plays.”

If nothing else, this might add some heat to what would be an otherwise dull game between a team (Calgary) that is rolling toward a division title and another team (Los Angeles) that is rolling toward the draft lottery.

It is also worth keeping in mind this fact about Tkachuk: For all of the talk about him as a pest and agitator, he is also one heck of a hockey player that has developed into a top-line player. His production has consistently improved across the board every year he has been in the league and he enters Monday’s game with 76 points (34 goals, 42 assists) in 75 games and is one of the league’s leading scorers.

He is one of four Flames players in the top-25 in the points race, joining Johnny Gaudreau (7th), Elias Lindholm (21st), and Sean Monahan (25th). Together they are a big part of why the Flames have emerged as a surprising Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference.

Doughty, meanwhile, is having what might one of his worst seasons in the NHL and enters Monday’s game with five goals, 36 assists, and a minus-30 rating that is among the league’s worst.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.