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PHT Power Rankings: The best fit for Ilya Kovalchuk

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After spending the past five seasons in the KHL, former NHL All-Star Ilya Kovalchuk is planning on returning to North America for the 2018-19 season and along with John Tavares and John Carslon will be one of the top-three free agents available this summer.

Given that he has not played in the NHL since the 2012-13 season and will be 35 years old at the start of the season there is some mystery as to what a team will be getting when it signs him, but it should still be getting one heck of a good player.

For one, it is not like this is a “comeback” attempt. Kovalchuk has been playing high-level hockey every year and, for the most part, continuing to be a dominant offensive player.

He has been a point-per-game player every year in the KHL and is coming off of a 2017-18 season where he scored 31 goals and tallied 63 total points in 53 games.

Will he be the 40-50 goal scorer that he was in the NHL before leaving? No, he will not. But there is every reason to believe that he could still put 30 goals on the board and be a potential game-breaker.

So far we know of at least a handful of teams that have reached out, or will reach out, or will make a run at signing him.

Some of these teams make sense. Some of them do not.

Let us try to sort all of that out here with the PHT Power Rankings that take a look at the best fits for Kovalchuk in his return to the NHL.

When compiling the rankings I tried to take into account the likelihood of a team signing him, as well as how much sense it makes for that team to sign him.

Teams That May Have Interest and Also Make Sense

1. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings have some work to do financially to make room for Kovalchuk under the salary cap, but from a hockey perspective it simply makes a ton of sense. This is a playoff team in a weak division that is desperate for some talent offensively. And by “some” I mean any talent.

Once you get beyond Anze Kopitar and maybe two or three other forwards the Kings are a blackhole when it comes to creating offense and are coming off of one of the most pathetic postseason offensive showings in recent memory. And that is probably being kind to them.

It wasn’t just that they could not score against the Vegas Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury in their first-round sweep, it was that they never seemed to really even be a threat to score. It was like the two teams were playing an entirely different sport.

Kovalchuk reportedly already visited the Kings and, at least from a hockey and “need” perspective, there is perhaps no better match.

2. Boston Bruins — The Bruins are already one of the best teams in the NHL and will have an opening in their top-six assuming they do not re-sign Rick Nash (which seems to be a safe assumption). General manager Don Sweeney already said he has been in contact with Kovalchuk’s camp, telling Matt Porter of the Boston Globe, “I’ve been in contact with his group. For obvious reasons — he’s about 230 pounds and still scores goals. He is 35, so you have to factor that in, but he brings a lot to the table.” Yes. Yes he does, and he would make an already loaded team an even stronger Stanley Cup contender.

3. San Jose Sharks — This is a similar situation to the Kings. The Pacific Division is up for grabs and could be there for the taking, and Kovalchuk would be another big-time scoring threat to add to the lineup. Even after re-signing Evander Kane to a long-term contract they would still have the salary cap space to make it happen.

[Related: Kovalchuk would be fantastic fit for Kings, Sharks]

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — The Blue Jackets haven’t really been mentioned as a front-runner this time around, but they had interest in bringing him in a year ago when Kovalchuk flirted with a return to the NHL. Even with the huge year from Artemi Panarin they still only finished 16th in the league in goals and could use another game-breaking forward playing in a division that boasts the past three Stanley Cup winning teams. There also has to be pressure for this team — which is not far from being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender! — to finally advance past the first-round of the playoffs.

5. St. Louis Blues — The Blues need offense, both at 5-on-5 and on a power play unit that was positively dreadful all of last season. It would also be fascinating to see him and Vladimir Tarasenko playing on the same team.

6. Anaheim Ducks — There is already talk that significant changes could be coming to the Ducks roster this summer, whether it be trades involving Corey Perry and/or Ryan Kesler, or some other fix for a team that just got demolished in the first-round of the playoffs in a clean four-game sweep. Signing a player like Kovalchuk would qualify as a significant change.

7. Dallas Stars — If there is a big name player available in the offseason you can be sure that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars will be calling. Heck, they will probably end up signing or acquiring that player because this is what they do. Every year. For all of eternity. Nill, the general manager of the yearly offseason champions, has already acknowledged that he is “kicking the tires” on all of the options available to him. Even with a top-heavy roster that boasts Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg as scoring threats they could use some additional offense.

8. New York Rangers — Ever since it was known that Kovalchuk would like to return to the NHL the Rangers have been mentioned as a potential landing spot, if not a favorite.

They are also entering a rebuilding phase with a first-year coach and a roster that isn’t particularly good. Still, they are the Rangers, they play in New York, and as long as the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist on the team it is hard to imagine them totally going in the tank, so they could very well end up getting him. But in terms of fit when it comes to Kovalchuk finding a winner the Rangers would seem to be at the bottom of the list of interested teams.

Potential Good Fits, But Probably Won’t Get Him

9. Vegas Golden Knights — I haven’t seen or heard anybody really mention the Golden Knights as a contender so this is just my own personal opinion here, but don’t they make some amount of sense? At least as a team that should have some interest? They were in the Stanley Cup Final, they will have a ton of salary cap space to play with, and they will have a need for talent on the wings with James Neal and David Perron set to become unrestricted free agents. Why not make a run?

10. Edmonton Oilers — They probably weren’t as bad as their record and they desperately need some secondary scoring and someone that can improve their dreadful special teams units. Do you know who can score goals and help both a power play and a penalty kill? Ilya Kovalchuk can. The issue here: Salary cap space and convincing Kovalchuk to want to play in Edmonton. A good thought, but probably not in the cards.

11. Carolina Hurricanes — A team that does everything well except when it comes to putting the puck in the net (finishers) and keeping the puck out of their net (goaltending!). It seems possible that Jeff Skinner could finally end up getting traded after years of rumors and speculation, a move that would only add to their problems scoring goals. They also have a ton of salary cap space. The problem: Would Kovalchuk have any interest in going there?

The Teams That May Have Interest But Don’t Make Much Sense

12. New York Islanders — It’s never a bad thing to add talent whenever you can, but the Islanders’ biggest issue this offseason is going to be adding talent down the middle if John Tavares leaves in free agency and committing whatever assets it has — salary cap space, trade chips, etc. — to fixing a defense and goaltending situation that absolutely sabotaged a great offense in 2017-18.

13. Detroit Red Wings — The Red Wings were recently mentioned as a team that has thrown their hat into the ring and … well … that just seems strange. They were one of the worst teams in the league a year ago, they have a pretty grim short-term outlook, and Kovalchuk wants to win. The Athletic’s Craig Custance wrote this week that the Red Wings want to rebuild in a way that gives their young players the feeling that they can compete on any given night, and adding a player like Kovalchuk would certainly help accomplish that. It is a good thought, it may even make sense as a strategy, but it is one that probably does not appeal to the player in this case.

The Field 

14-25: Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche — It is entirely possible that one of these teams could emerge from the pile and snag Kovalchuk in free agency, but there are issues with pretty much all of them, ranging from their own interest (or lack of interest), Kovalchuk’s interest, salary cap space, roster construction, and pretty much any other variable you could throw into the mix.

The Teams that make no sense

26-29 Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators — All of these teams are among the worst in the league and are going through some level of rebuilding phase. The Coyotes seem like a team that could be on the rise with their young talent, but aren’t really a fit for a free agent like Kovalchuk right now. The Sabres’ rebuild seems like it needs to hit the reset button and Vancouver is just … well … who really knows what’s going on there. And if you were Ilya Kovalchuk, or any other free agent in the NHL, would you want to go to Ottawa right now?

Already out

30. Philadelphia Flyers — Ron Hextall said on Thursday that he has not spoken to Kovalchuk’s agent and has no intention on doing so. Kind of hard to see that changing.

31. New Jersey Devils — The most recent team that Kovalchuk played for in the NHL, general manager Ray Shero told NHL.com that he has not reached out to Kovalchuk’s representation and he has not heard from them. Do not expect a reunion here.

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.

The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Oilers’ Lucic ejected after dangerous cross-check to Blues’ Sundqvist

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Milan Lucic is paid a lot of money for a lot of nothing these days, but he may have some of his $6 million per season salary taken away from him after a nasty cross-check on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues holding a 6-2 lead with just over five minutes left in the third period — garbage time, as they say — Lucic made his presence felt as he drilled Oskar Sundvist from behind long after he had shot the puck on Anthony Stolarz.

The needless hit sent Sundqvist flying into the boards, who needed some assistance from the trainers before leaving the game. He did not return after favoring his right arm as he skated off hunched over.

Lucic was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and given a game misconduct on the play. The senselessness of the hit is likely to land him in hot water with the NHL, too.

The Oilers still have four more years of this to endure, too.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time this season (if you count preseason games) that Sundqvist has been on the receiving end of a bone-headed and dirty hit.

Tom Wilson got the book thrown at him for this awful shot.

Earlier in the game, Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon — good friends — went toe-to-toe in a friendship-testing heavyweight tilt.

There were some haymakers thrown in this one.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals prepare for Lightning test with warm-up win against Devils

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The Washington Capitals didn’t have to expend a lot of energy on Tuesday night, and that’s a good thing.

Washington will play the second half of a back to back against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (live on NBCSN), so the New Jersey Devils were the warmup, and Washington made quick work of them in a 4-1 win.

Washington led just 2:52 into the first period before giving up a goal with one second left in the frame. The late adversity didn’t phase the defending Stanley Cup winners, however. Brett Connolly regained the lead 5:57 into the second with his 20th (which stood as the eventual game-winner) and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson scored a 1:12 apart to ice the game with a period to play.

The rest of the game was a cure for insomnia.

Pheonix Copley got the start in this one as the Caps rested Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s big game. Copley made 19 saves for his sixth straight win. He barely looked like he broke a sweat.

With the New York Islanders losing 5-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals moved two points ahead of their Metropolitan Division rivals for first place. The Caps have won nine of their past 11 as they try to win another division title.

Much of the game was centered around Alex Ovechkin and if he’d hit 50 on the night.

He came into the game with 48 career goals and faced a mouthwatering matchup against a poor Devils team. But Ovi was held at bay, collecting just an assist in the game on a nice dish to Wilson.

The Devils have had a rough March thus far.

They’ve won just twice and have been shutout three times as the race for Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) continues for them. They’re on 63 points, fifth worst in the NHL and entered Tuesday with a 9.5 percent chance of taking down the first pick on April 9’s NHL Draft Lottery.

Kenny Agostino, who scored New Jersey’s lone goal, now has six points in his past six games — in a bright spot in a lot of darkness this season for the Devils.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fight involving Bruins’ Chara plays out exactly as one might expect

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Ever try to punch a giraffe in the face? Me neither, but New York Islanders forward Matt Martin has a story to tell.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a man few want to fight. He towers over everyone in the NHL and his reach is close enough to double that of his nearest opponent that the best you can often open for is a good shadow boxing practice because the odds of connecting are so terribly low.

Martin got exactly that when he and Chara dropped the glove just four seconds into the second period off the opening faceoff.

The two exchanged rights before Chara threw a nasty, downward-directed bomb that caught Martin flush, knocking him to the ground. To Martin’s credit, he bounced back up and tried in vain to hit Chara. He had no such luck.

Chara ended the scrap by basically stiff-arming Martin to the ground followed by the congratulatory pat on the back from the 6-foot-9 man.

It’s respectable that Martin wanted to try and give his team a boost, although they were only down 1-0 at that point of the game. Ambitious, but respectable.

Chara, meanwhile, just turned 42 on Monday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck