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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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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