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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.

NHL over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

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.

Flyers remain one of NHL’s biggest mysteries

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General manager Chuck Fletcher spent his entire offseason overhauling the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

New coaching staff, new players, big trades, a big free agent signing, and everything else the team’s ownership was looking for when it wanted a “bias for action” in its new GM. Even with all of the changes the Flyers remained a gigantic mystery because it wasn’t entirely clear if they were actually any better than before all of the movement started. If anything, it seemed like a perfect representation of everything the Flyers have come to represent over the past decade where they have enough high-end players on the roster to make you want to buy into them, but just enough questions to give you pause in doing so because there were so many “ifs” attached to their success.

If Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere can rebound and take big steps forward as top-pairing defenders.

If Carter Hart can be a star in goal.

If Kevin Hayes is actually worth $7 million per year.

If Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun still have something left in the tank.

Usually the more “ifs” you throw at a team the worse it tends to turn out for them because pro sports is rarely kind enough for every “if” to work out in a team’s favor. Through the first seven games of the season there still isn’t much clarity on what the Flyers are. On Monday night they snapped a four-game losing streak with what was perhaps their best all-around performance of the season, completely demolishing one of the league’s best teams — the Vegas Golden Knights — in a 5-2 win to bring their record to 3-3-1, the type of record you might expect from the type of mediocre team you expect the Flyers to be. Still, there are some early signs that maybe this team has played better than its early record might indicate and that there could be some hope here.

The process has been good — And by “process” I mean there are strong signs that they are controlling games even if they are not yet turning into wins. They are third in NHL in shots on goal per game, they are allowing the fewest shots on goal, they are the NHL’s best team in both shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick), and they dictating the pace of almost every game they have played. This is, at the very least, a positive sign because the most important part of scoring goals is generating shots, and the most important of preventing goals is preventing shots. It’s common sense, and if you can keep doing that over a full season the odds are going to be in your favor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they might be a little unlucky at this point. And not to make too big of an excuse here, but their early schedule was about as brutal as it could have possibly been playing three games, in three different countries, in three different time zones (going from Switzerland, to Philadelphia, to Vancouver for a three-game Western Canadian road trip) across the stretch of one week.

Hart hasn’t been all that good (yet) — This was always the big wild card for this Flyers team. He is supposed to be the savior of the position and the one to finally stabilize the position long-term. His rookie season was extremely promising and expectations were high entering the season. Through his first five starts, he hasn’t yet found his game yet with an .890 save percentage. The fact the Flyers are still 2-2-1 in those games is kind of accomplishment. He can be better, he needs to better, and there is every reason to believe that he will be better. Once that happens, and if the Flyers are still able to play in front of him the way they have, this could be an interesting team.

Some of their top forwards have been unlucky. There are three forwards in the NHL this season that have recorded at least 24 shots on goal and failed to score — two of them (Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk) play for the Flyers. Add Jakob Voracek (two goals on 17 shots) and three of the team’s top offensive players have scored on two of their first 76 shots on goal this season. That is a shooting percentage of just 2.6 percent. All three may be on the wrong side of 30, but none of them have completely fallen off a cliff yet as players and are still capable of producing like first-liners (as they did as recently as a year ago).

Basically, everything that could have gone for the Flyers right now has gone wrong. Their travel schedule has brutal, their starting goalie and arguably their most important player has struggled, and their best forwards have been unable to find the back of the net. Through all of that they have still managed to collect points in four of their first seven games and continue to tread water.

In the end, it still leaves the Flyers right where they were when the season started — a team that has given us plenty of reason to buy into them, yet one that we still don’t fully know anything about with a lot of “ifs” following them around.

Such is life with the Flyers.

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.

Bruins place David Krejci on injured reserve

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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins have placed forward David Krejci on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Krejci has missed the past two games since he was hurt in the first period of a 4-2 win over Anaheim on Oct. 14. He has one assist this season.

General manager Don Sweeney also said Tuesday the team has recalled forward Anders Bjork from Providence on an emergency basis.

Boston (5-1-1) hosts Toronto (5-3-2) Tuesday night.

Space Needle time capsule includes NHL Seattle’s final five name choices

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Seattle NHL’s expansion franchise will have an official name sometime in 2020, but as of Monday the team is down to five choices ahead of their entry to the league for the 2021-22 season.

On Monday, a time capsule that was sealed and won’t be opened until the famed Seattle Space Needle’s 100th birthday included items such as Nirvana records, Twinkies, one share of Amazon stock, and signed baseballs from Seattle Mariners legends.

The stainless steel and aluminum capsule stands over three feet tall and weighs more than 160 pounds. It will hold over 100 items, including one hockey-related inside.

While we’ll know what the NHL Seattle franchise will be called some time next year, come April 21, 2062, when the time capsule is opened, inside will be an envelope featuring the final five options for the team’s nickname. The odds are low, but we may have a long wait to learn what choices were debated before the ownership group landed on something like Emeralds, Sockeyes, Cougars, Kraken, Rainiers, Totems, or something else.

“Every name has a nuance,” NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke told the team’s website in August. “Our job is to think through the nuances. Sometimes the best intended names can mean one thing to one group and another thing to another group. It is important the name reflects the values of the Pacific Northwest.”

“Those who think we are sitting on a predetermined name, nope,” Leiweke added. “We work on this every day. We are right on time with the naming process. We are still on a journey of self-identity but also on a journey to understand not just what we are but what we aren’t. Names that might have made sense a year ago, today don’t make as much sense.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.