Ilya Kovalchuk: Which NHL teams could be a free agent fit?

Ilya Kovalchuk: Which NHL teams could be a free agent fit?
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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.)

Ilya Kovalchuk RAPM Chart Evolving Hockey
Not all bad, but disappointing power play impact. Via Evolving Hockey

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:

Ilya Kovalchuk: Which NHL teams could be a free agent fit? Hockey Viz
This Hockey Viz chart is even less friendly to Kovalchuk.

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 or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Barkov sets Panthers’ points mark in 5-2 win over Red Wings

    Florida Panthers Power Play
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    DETROIT – Aleksander Barkov set the Florida franchise record for most career points, Carter Verhaeghe scored two goals, and the streaking Panthers beat the Detroit Red Wings for the ninth consecutive time, 5-2 on Monday night.

    Barkov recorded a second-period assist, giving him 614 points, breaking a tie with Jonathan Huberdeau for the team record.

    Matthew Tkachuk had a goal and two assists, giving him 14 points over the last five games. Eric Staal and Gustav Forsling also scored for the Panthers, who are 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 20 shots.

    Pius Suter and Dylan Larkin scored for the Red Wings, who have lost 10 of their last 12 games. Ville Husso had 20 saves.

    The Panthers led 2-1 after the first period.

    The first Florida goal came after Lucas Raymond‘s turnover in his own zone. Sam Bennett made the steal and passed it to Tkachuk for his 33rd goal.

    Verhaeghe made it 2-0 with a slap shot that got past a screened Husso. The Red Wings challenged for goalie interference, but the goal was upheld after a video review.

    Just after killing off the subsequent penalty, Detroit got on the board when Suter jammed in a rebound of David Perron‘s shot.

    Forsling scored on shot from the point midway through the second period to restore Florida’s two-goal advantage. Barkov had the second assist, allowing him to break the franchise points record.

    Larkin scored on a delayed penalty off a pass from Raymond at 7:53 of the third to cut the Panthers’ lead to 3-2.

    Staal scored on a breakaway off a pass from Anthony Duclair with under four minutes left, and Verhaeghe added a power-play goal.


    Panthers F Eetu Luostarinen had an assist in the 200th game of his career. … Florida is 29-2-3 when leading after two periods. … The last time the Red Wings beat the Panthers was Feb. 20, 2021. … Barkov has 42 points in 38 career games against Detroit. … Andrew Copp notched his 150th career assist on Larkin’s goal.


    Panthers: At Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

    Red Wings: At St. Louis on Tuesday night to open a home-and-home set.

    Ferguson stops 47 shots, Senators top reeling Penguins 2-1

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    PITTSBURGH – Drake Batherson‘s power-play goal from in front with 2:09 left in regulation lifted the Ottawa Senators to a 2-1 win over the reeling Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night.

    The Penguins finally beat Ottawa goaltender Dylan Ferguson on a Rickard Rakell goal with 5:21 to play, but a hooking penalty by Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel gave the Senators the man advantage and Batherson responded with his 21st goal of the season.

    Ferguson, making his first NHL start and first appearance in the league in more than five years, made 47 saves to send Pittsburgh to its fourth straight loss. Thomas Chabot scored his 10th goal of the season for Ottawa as the Senators snapped a five-game slide.

    The Penguins fell behind Florida in the race for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. Tristan Jarry played well but couldn’t get in the way of Batherson’s jam shot from just outside the crease.

    Ferguson began the night having played nine minutes at the NHL level as a teenager for Vegas early in the Golden Knights’ debut season in 2017-18. He has bounced around various levels of the minors ever since and was in the process of being sent down to the ECHL by the AHL’s Toronto Marlies earlier this month when the Senators signed him to a two-way deal.

    Something clicked. He played well enough in six games for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Belleville to receive a call-up on Sunday. Just over 24 hours later, the Senators made the now 24-year-old Ferguson the sixth goaltender they’ve used this season when they gave him the nod against the struggling Penguins.

    Ferguson looked like he belonged from the opening faceoff. He made a series of sharp saves early, including a couple of stops from in close against Jake Guentzel and a flashy glove save on a slap shot by Malkin.

    Jarry, a two-time All-Star who has struggled to find any sort of consistency since returning from an extended stay on the injured list, took a step forward, turning aside multiple odd-man rushes and a breakaway by Brady Tkachuk in the second period.

    The lone goal Jarry allowed came 16:46 into the first when Chabot took a feed from Claude Giroux and rather than fire a shot from high in the slot skated down to the right circle and beat Jarry to the far post.

    Jarry was solid the rest of the way, though he spent most of the game watching Ferguson dazzle at the other end before Rakell broke through with just over 5 minutes to go.


    Senators: Travel to Boston on Tuesday to face the NHL-leading Bruins.

    Penguins: Start a difficult back-to-back on the road on Wednesday when they visit the Avalanche in Denver.

    Sharks goalie James Reimer declines to wear Pride jersey

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    San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t take part in pregame warmups, saying the team’s decision to wear Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community runs counter to his religious beliefs.

    Reimer said in a statement Saturday that he made the decision based on his Christian beliefs, adding that he “always strived to treat everyone with respect” and that members of the LGBTQ community should be welcome in hockey.

    “In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in life,” Reimer said.

    Reimer is the second NHL player this season to refuse to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys, with Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov declining to in January. Reimer was not slated to start in Saturday night’s home game against the New York Islanders, which is Pride night.

    Additionally, the New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

    The Sharks said in a statement that they are proud to host Pride Night, saying the event reinforces the team’s commitment to inclusiveness.

    “As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic,” the team said in a statement. “As an organization, we will not waver in our support of the LGBTQIA+ community and continue to encourage others to engage in active allyship.”

    The You Can Play Project, which works to promote inclusiveness in sports, said the organization was disappointed in Reimer’s actions.

    “Religion and respect are not in conflict with each other, and we are certainly disappointed when religion is used as a reason to not support our community,” the organization said. “Wearing pride jerseys, like any celebration jersey worn, is not about the personal feelings of an athlete; rather the communication from the team that a community is welcome in the arena and the sport.”

    Panarin, Shesterkin lead Rangers to 6-0 rout of Penguins

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    NEW YORK — Mika Zibanejad had a goal and two assists, Artemi Panarin scored twice and Igor Shesterkin made 33 saves as the New York Rangers routed Pittsburgh 6-0 on Saturday night for their second win over the Penguins in three days.

    Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba also scored for the surging Rangers, who have won nine of their last 11 home games and are 12-4-0 in their past 16 at Madison Square Garden.

    Shesterkin won his fifth straight and posted his second shutout this season. He nimbly denied Pittsburgh forward Mikael Granland with a sprawling save five minutes into the third period to preserve the shutout, the 10th of his career. His other one this season was a 1-0 home win over Philadelphia on Nov. 1.

    “When you put in hard and honest work, miracles happen,” Shesterkin said through a translator. ”We played wonderfully today – scored many, many goals. Honestly, I hope the fans loved it. We’re playing for them.”

    The Penguins lost their third straight and trail the Rangers by 12 points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh, still in wild-card position, is trying to reach the playoffs for the 17th straight time.

    “Tonight was a humbling experience for all of us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”At this time of year, you have to have a short memory. We still have control of our destiny.”

    Patrick Kane and defenseman K’Andre Miller also had two assists apiece as New York improved to 7-1-1 in its last nine home games against Pittsburgh. The Rangers are five points behind the second-place New Jersey Devils, who lost at Florida on Saturday.

    “This was a big game for our goalie and our team,” Panarin said. “If you work at playing the right way, you have opportunities for goals.”

    Since Dec. 5, when they turned around their season with a 6-4 comeback win at home over St. Louis, the Rangers are 29-9-5.

    As he did on Thursday when the Rangers beat the Penguins 4-2, Zibanejad opened the scoring. He got his team-leading 36th goal at 5:10 of the first, beating Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry. Trouba and Miller assisted.

    Panarin made it 2-0 at 19:49 on the power play, whipping the puck past Jarry from the left circle off a pass from Adam Fox.

    Tarasenko increased the lead at 3:54 of the second with his fifth goal since joining the Rangers in a trade with St. Louis on Feb. 9. Tarasenko has points in 10 of his first 18 games with the Rangers.

    Kreider made it 4-0 at 6:43 with his 31st goal and third in two games against the Penguins. Kane and Vincent Trocheck assisted on Kreider’s 260th career goal, which moved the Rangers forward within two of Vic Hadfield for fifth place on the franchise list.

    New York won Thursday when Kreider scored the go-ahead goal in the third and added an empty-netter.

    After Casey DeSmith replaced Jarry in net following Kreider’s goal, Trouba beat the replacement with a sharp-angle shot at 8:39 for his eighth to increase the margin to 5-0. Trouba has points in six of his last eight games.

    Panarin scored again at 16:38 of the second – his 22nd goal of the season – to make it 6-0, with assists to Kane and Filip Chytil.

    “We’re building chemistry, building every day and every game,” Kane said.

    Panarin has points in eight of his last 10 games and leads the Rangers with 77 points overall, while Kane has seven points in his last six games.

    “It’s nice to see that many great players on your team,” added Panarin, whose first two NHL seasons were played alongside Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks. “We’re happy tonight.”

    Zibanejad assisted on goals by Tarasenko and Trouba and has 25 points – including 14 goals – over his last 20 games.

    “It was just one of those nights when the puck goes in for us,” Zibanejad said. “And obviously Igor gives us a boost making all those saves.”

    NOTES: The Penguins were missing defenseman Jeff Petry after he was hit with an unpenalized elbow from Rangers forward Tyler Motte on Thursday. … Pittsburgh also scratched defenseman Jan Rutta and forward Dalton Heinen and played defenseman Mark Friedman for the first time since Feb. 11. … The Rangers were without injured defenseman Ryan Lindgren for the 10th straight game.


    Penguins: Host the Ottawa Senators on Monday.

    Rangers: Host the Nashville Predators on Sunday night.