At age 35, Ilya Kovalchuk would normally be a very risky bet in free agency. There’s always the chance that things swerve from here, but at the moment, he instead seems like he could be one of the true gems to hit the market.
A fascinating report by TSN’s Darren Dreger really transforms the discussion, and should be fodder for plenty of NHL fans to daydream: one of the deadliest snipers of this generation may accept a deal like the one Toronto gave to Patrick Marleau last summer (three years, $6.25 million cap hit).
That would be one heck of a deal for a truly gifted shooter who dominated the KHL since the 2013-14 season after generating exactly a point-per-game (816 points in as many contests) during his outstanding NHL career.
Kovalchuk only taking up a modest chunk of cap space would really alleviate worries about how the aging curve might affect his game.
While it’s highly likely that he’s a step or two slower, he’s always been a crucial guy for his NHL teams, from his do-everything days with the Atlanta Thrashers to his impressive, too-short run with the New Jersey Devils. During his final NHL season in 2013-14, Kovalchuk averaged the workload of a top pairing defenseman, logging 24:44 TOI per contest. It often felt like he never left the ice when his team was on the power play, in particular.
By reportedly valuing winning over getting maximum dollars, Kovalchuk doesn’t just make his potential contract less risky. If he joins a team with other talented players, he won’t have to carry the same workload. If healthy but not what he once was from a transition/all-around standpoint, Kovalchuk could at least be a premium version of a “trigger” on a power play (see: Sam Gagner‘s greatest moments with the Columbus Blue Jackets).
Kovalchuk told Dreger that he expects to compete at a high level.
“If there was any doubt in my mind, I would never come here. I wouldn’t be running around just to collect the money,” Kovalchuk said. “I want to be productive and I want to play for the team that trusts in me and I will give them everything I can to make them proud and successful. I have three or four years left in my tank where I can compete at the highest level…that’s why I’m here and that’s why I want to sign in the NHL.”
We’ve seen examples of top-end players convert KHL dominance to significant NHL contributions, albeit with younger stars such as Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov, so it wouldn’t be shocking if Kovalchuk seamlessly returns to the NHL. For all we know, the shorter seasons in the KHL might revitalize him.
(And Jaromir Jagr showed that an older, big-name player can come back to the NHL and enjoy immense success.)
Beyond the “How good will he be?” questions, most fans want to know where he’ll go. Ultimately, we won’t know for sure until July 1 at the earliest (the first date where he can officially sign a new deal).
Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s negotiations will be handled by CAA Hockey/J.P. Barry, who happen to represent John Tavares, aka the biggest no-brainer of free agency … assuming he even really hits the market.
That connection is even more intriguing when you consider the very positive relationship Kovalchuk has with newly minted New York Islanders overlord Lou Lamoriello.
Islanders fans finally have some positive things to picture this summer, as Kovalchuk and Tavares could serve as enticements to draw each other to Brooklyn, while Lamoriello may very well improve the odds of one or more of those two things working out. Kovalchuk could potentially serve as the most entertaining linemate we’ve ever seen for Tavares, with all apologies to Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee.
There are plenty of other fun scenarios, and Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s reps have already been in discussions with at least eight NHL teams.
(That detail, honestly, is maddening. It would be disappointing if there were as many as eight teams who weren’t interested. Maybe some GMs are just taking early vacations?)
Anyway, there are a lot of fun scenarios. Imagine Kovalchuk going back to the Devils to help ease the burden of Taylor Hall, especially now that New Jersey’s style is about 10x more fun. The Islanders make a lot of sense considering recent developments, while the Rangers and Panthers also rank among the teams that have been connected to Kovalchuk in various rumors. Maple Leafs fans seem to be taking that Marleau comparison (and the team’s heaps of cap room) to the next level.
It’s all a lot of fun, particularly when you consider the fact that the NHL lags behind other professional sports when it comes to free agent frenzies.
Let’s just hope that Kovalchuk a) comes back to North America to dazzle us with his skills and b) chooses a contender so we can watch him deploy that world-class shot during the playoffs. He’s already been gone from the best hockey league in the world for far, far too long.