When you’re this deep into NHL Free Agency, there’s usually a logical reason why a player hasn’t found a team. In many cases, it’s because there isn’t a natural fit, and Ilya Kovalchuk falls into that category of NHL free agents.
For those wondering where things are at for Kovalchuk, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the 37-year-old is waiting for the right opportunity. From what Kovalchuk’s agent Pat Brisson told LeBrun (sub. required), it sounds like the once-elite winger is waiting for offers to surface, as much as he is sorting through choices.
“Ilya played well last year when he got to Montreal,” Brisson said. ” … He proved to people that he still had juice in his tank so to speak. More importantly, he wants to continue playing. Under the current climate, things are a little bit different now. Once we find out a return date and an official plan, I think things will open up a little bit more and hopefully, we can explore a couple of options for him.”
First, let’s take a moment to chuckle at “juice in the tank.” Would that affect a car (or, er, tank?) much like sugar in the gas tank would?
Anyway, ribbing aside, that last sentence seemed a little troubling. In particular, the phrasing: “hopefully, we can explore a couple of options” doesn’t sound great for Kovalchuk.
Yet, later on in LeBrun’s story, an anonymous Eastern Conference GM said that if Kovalchuk’s willing to sign at the league minimum, “a team will definitely sign him.” Granted, that mysterious GM didn’t say “we’re going to knock down his door to sign Kovalchuk, mind you.
So, armed with that murky look at Kovalchuk’s situation, let’s break this down. Is there an NHL free agent fit for Kovalchuk?
How much value does Kovalchuk really bring?
Time and time again, we see NHL teams break from underlying stats to assess players, whether that be through free agency or head-scratching trades. That stubbornness probably pays off with the occasional find, yet you also see unforced errors. (See: Jack Johnson, for the latter.)
Kovalchuk could end up being a fascinating test case. Basically from the moment Kovalchuk returned to the NHL, things have been scattershot.
By just about any measure, Kovalchuk’s Kings tenure was a mess. Frankly, it’s not that surprising, though. The still-defense-oriented Kings and Kovalchuk mixed like oil and water.
While Kovalchuk’s big moments with Montreal probably inflated his Canadiens’ sojourn at least a bit, it was exhilarating to see him with a skip in his step. Or, some juice left in that tank.
Interestingly, as you can see from Hockey Reference listings, Kovalchuk’s possession stats really took off between that Canadiens signing and his brief time with the Capitals. That’s where teams need to start to be careful. On one hand, it’s promising that Kovalchuk looked a lot better from a variety of angles. On the other hand, he was in good situations. The Capitals and especially the Canadiens put Kovalchuk with linemates who could drive play. His bumpy season makes it less legible, but his Natural Stat Trick teammate listings show a lot of time with the likes of Nick Suzuki, Phillip Danault, and Lars Eller.
Two areas where Kovalchuk may or may not help as much as free agent suitors might hope
There are two crucial points any NHL free agent bidder should consider with Kovalchuk.
First: he might not be as much of a boon on the power play as expected. There’s good in his 2019-20 RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, but his power play impact wasn’t so hot. (His 2018-19 season was pretty much just a disaster.)
The second point, and one that may dovetail into his power play usefulness, is that Kovalchuk’s shot may no longer be deadly. By the way, this mere thought saddens me. At one point, you could argue that Kovalchuk’s shot was the deadliest in the NHL. (Alex Ovechkin was the deadlier sniper overall, mind you, but made up some difference by volume of shots. That’s the potential argument, anyway.)
Now? Kovalchuk might be best used as a cagey veteran and puck distributor. Consider that his shooting percentages haven’t been impressive during his return. Also, by Hockey Viz’s measures, Kovalchuk might be a hair below average shooting-wise:
Does this mean that Kovalchuk can’t be useful? Not necessarily. Perhaps he just needs the right situation to be a power play asset and rekindle his shot. Again, he’s bounced around, and that may not help his results.
Even so, the evidence indicates that he’s not a guaranteed boost to a power play, or sure thing as a sniper. Maybe NHL teams are aware of that, thus the lack of juice for Kovalchuk in the free agent market?
Some NHL teams who might take a free agent shot at Kovalchuk
• Montreal Canadiens: Hey, why not try to relive that brief magic from 2019-20? Few teams got a better look at what Kovalchuk can bring to the table, right about now, than the Habs. Marc Bergevin even spoke glowingly about Kovalchuk in that article from LeBrun.
Of course, not signing Kovalchuk already probably isn’t the best sign for a Montreal redux.
• Nashville Predators: OK, we established that Kovalchuk may not be the balm that soothes a team’s power play. Even so, teams might believe that he could be, or at least willing to roll the dice on a low-risk investment for a lack of better answers.
The Predators could very well shrug their shoulders and say, “hey, maybe that could work?”
Really, beyond all else, the Predators have been a big bummer lately. A Kovalchuk revival would be a lot of fun.
• Dallas Stars: At first, signing Corey Perry didn’t work out so well, but Perry brought some playoff value. Kovalchuk’s a very different player, yet maybe the Stars want to dust off another aging former (cough) star?
• New York Islanders: Much like with the Stars, Kovalchuk and the Islanders might not be a stylistic fit. One can only imagine the fits he could cause for Barry Trotz. Yet, it’s basically an obligation to acknowledge the Kovalchuk – Lou Lamoriello connection. Our hands are tied here, folks.
• Florida Panthers: They lost a lot of goals in saying goodbye to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. Maybe they’d believe Kovalchuk could replace some of them?
• Carolina Hurricanes: Rumors indicate they’ve been turning over a lot of different stones in 2020 NHL Free Agency. As a bonus, Thrashers fans could see Kovalchuk and … Don Waddell reunited?
With just about all of the above ideas, you can throw out objections. And your rebuttals would likely be sustained. But it’s worth pondering such possibilities, and it’s plausible that a different team could also spring up for Ilya Kovalchuk’s free agent services.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.