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PHT Morning Skate: 8 big questions heading into draft; First buyout of 2018

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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.

• Sportsnet tackles the eight biggest questions heading into tonight’s NHL Entry Draft. What will the Habs do with the third overall pick? Will anything happen with Columbus’ Artemi Panarin? (Sportsnet)

• Former NHL defenseman Nick Boynton has decided to join the NHL concussion lawsuit. He’ll also be donating his brain to science. Boynton has been battling substance abuse and depression. (TSN)

• There’s no denying that Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds could be on the move in the next hours/days, but will the team actually pull the trigger on a deal involving their talented forward? (Philly.com)

• The Canadiens will have an early selection in tonight’s draft, but will they hit a home run or swing-and-miss again? The Montreal Gazette looks at the Habs’ inability to develop their first-rounders over the last 33 years. (Montreal Gazette)

• Over the course of their history, the Sabres have done pretty well when they’ve selected defensemen in the first round. That run of success should continue on Friday night with Rasmus Dahlin. (WGR550)

• Stars GM Jim Nill confirmed that he expects to sign forward Valeri Nichushkin on July 1st. He’s been in the KHL for the last two years. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has been one of the best bargains in the NHL over the last few years (he’s been making $4.5 million per year). Now that he’s in the final year of his contract, expect him not to leave any money on the table even if it means changing addresses. (Sportsnet)

• You can now check out each PHWA voter’s ballot from this year’s NHL Awards. There’s some head-scratchers on there. (PHWA)

• Speaking of ballots, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Matthew DeFranks explains why he voted for Sean Couturier as his Selke winner instead of Aleksander Barkov. (Sun-Sentinel)

• And we have our first buyout of 2018, as the Edmonton Oilers decided to put an end to their relationship with Eric Gryba. That means that the Oilers will be carrying almost $2 million in dead money next season. (Edmonton Sun)

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.

Artemi Panarin involved in trade rumors again

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One reaction to the head-spinning series of trades that sent Mike Hoffman to the Florida Panthers was that the trade market for big-time forwards dried up considerably. Would the Montreal Canadiens see less interest in Max Pacioretty with Hoffman off the table and the Panthers no longer shopping, for example?

Well, we might not need to worry about the market drying up, depending upon how one very interesting situation plays out.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets are “testing the market” for Artemi Panarin after Panarin revealed that he’s not yet ready to discuss a contract extension.

Panarin, 26, can become an unrestricted free agent after his $6 million cap hit expires following the 2018-19 season. One can absolutely understand why Panarin would want to maximize his value during the summer of 2019. Despite earning a Calder Trophy in 2015-16 and basically being a star since he entered the NHL following a strong KHL career, Panarin’s been in a tough spot when it comes to leverage, whether it be during his Chicago Blackhawks days or now with Columbus.

So it makes a lot of sense that Panarin wants the freedom to “test the market” himself.

It also is sensible that Columbus wants to gauge its financial future regarding Panarin and others.

The 2019 summer stands as a terrifying obstacle for the Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky stands alongside Panarin as a pending UFA who could be in line for a big raise (even more than Bob’s current cap hit of $7.425M).

If that isn’t enough to make you mutter a “yikes,” consider that superstar defenseman Zach Werenski and coveted backup Joonas Korpisalo are both slated to become RFAs next off-season.

To recap: the Blue Jackets don’t know how much it would cost to retain Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Werenski after next season.

/insert another yikes.

By just about every measure, Panarin proved that he wasn’t merely Patrick Kane‘s running mate during his first season in Columbus. Panarin’s 82 points weren’t just a career-high, they also topped all Blue Jackets scorers by 25 points.

(Seth Jones came in second with 57. You have to reach all the way down to rookie Pierre Luc-Dubois’ 48 points to find the next highest-scoring Blue Jackets forward. Yeah.)

Oh yeah, Panarin was also a force during Columbus’ series against the Washington Capitals, scoring an overtime game-winner that oozed swagger:

That skill and swagger will come at a cost, and maybe the Blue Jackets would be forced to cut their losses via a trade? If Panarin is truly available, then any contender should go big to try to land him. His skills and affordable $6M cap hit make him a true game-changer.

Of course “testing the market” doesn’t mean that the Blue Jackets are likely to make a move. This could be more like dipping a toe in the water rather than diving in the deep end.

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the response you would expect:

“Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Still, it’s fascinating to imagine all of the possibilities. Could the Vegas Golden Knights absorb some of Columbus’ other cap worries to grease the wheels? Might the Penguins improbably move Phil Kessel in some sort of mega-trade? Maybe the San Jose Sharks would get in on the star winger, or could it be the offense-needy Blues? (Remember, Vladimir Tarasenko campaigned enthusiastically for Panarin before he signed his first NHL deal.)

It’s all a lot of fun to think about, as people arguably still don’t realize how great Panarin is.

Well, it’s fun to get your imagination going unless you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then you’re fearful that your team’s first true “gamebreaking” forward might just break your heart.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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.

Kovalchuk could be other no-brainer of this free agent summer

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At age 35, Ilya Kovalchuk would normally be a very risky bet in free agency. There’s always the chance that things swerve from here, but at the moment, he instead seems like he could be one of the true gems to hit the market.

A fascinating report by TSN’s Darren Dreger really transforms the discussion, and should be fodder for plenty of NHL fans to daydream: one of the deadliest snipers of this generation may accept a deal like the one Toronto gave to Patrick Marleau last summer (three years, $6.25 million cap hit).

That would be one heck of a deal for a truly gifted shooter who dominated the KHL since the 2013-14 season after generating exactly a point-per-game (816 points in as many contests) during his outstanding NHL career.

Kovalchuk only taking up a modest chunk of cap space would really alleviate worries about how the aging curve might affect his game.

While it’s highly likely that he’s a step or two slower, he’s always been a crucial guy for his NHL teams, from his do-everything days with the Atlanta Thrashers to his impressive, too-short run with the New Jersey Devils. During his final NHL season in 2013-14, Kovalchuk averaged the workload of a top pairing defenseman, logging 24:44 TOI per contest. It often felt like he never left the ice when his team was on the power play, in particular.

By reportedly valuing winning over getting maximum dollars, Kovalchuk doesn’t just make his potential contract less risky. If he joins a team with other talented players, he won’t have to carry the same workload. If healthy but not what he once was from a transition/all-around standpoint, Kovalchuk could at least be a premium version of a “trigger” on a power play (see: Sam Gagner‘s greatest moments with the Columbus Blue Jackets).

Kovalchuk told Dreger that he expects to compete at a high level.

“If there was any doubt in my mind, I would never come here. I wouldn’t be running around just to collect the money,” Kovalchuk said. “I want to be productive and I want to play for the team that trusts in me and I will give them everything I can to make them proud and successful. I have three or four years left in my tank where I can compete at the highest level…that’s why I’m here and that’s why I want to sign in the NHL.”

We’ve seen examples of top-end players convert KHL dominance to significant NHL contributions, albeit with younger stars such as Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov, so it wouldn’t be shocking if Kovalchuk seamlessly returns to the NHL. For all we know, the shorter seasons in the KHL might revitalize him.

(And Jaromir Jagr showed that an older, big-name player can come back to the NHL and enjoy immense success.)

Beyond the “How good will he be?” questions, most fans want to know where he’ll go. Ultimately, we won’t know for sure until July 1 at the earliest (the first date where he can officially sign a new deal).

Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s negotiations will be handled by CAA Hockey/J.P. Barry, who happen to represent John Tavares, aka the biggest no-brainer of free agency … assuming he even really hits the market.

That connection is even more intriguing when you consider the very positive relationship Kovalchuk has with newly minted New York Islanders overlord Lou Lamoriello.

Islanders fans finally have some positive things to picture this summer, as Kovalchuk and Tavares could serve as enticements to draw each other to Brooklyn, while Lamoriello may very well improve the odds of one or more of those two things working out. Kovalchuk could potentially serve as the most entertaining linemate we’ve ever seen for Tavares, with all apologies to Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee.

There are plenty of other fun scenarios, and Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s reps have already been in discussions with at least eight NHL teams.

(That detail, honestly, is maddening. It would be disappointing if there were as many as eight teams who weren’t interested. Maybe some GMs are just taking early vacations?)

Anyway, there are a lot of fun scenarios. Imagine Kovalchuk going back to the Devils to help ease the burden of Taylor Hall, especially now that New Jersey’s style is about 10x more fun. The Islanders make a lot of sense considering recent developments, while the Rangers and Panthers also rank among the teams that have been connected to Kovalchuk in various rumors. Maple Leafs fans seem to be taking that Marleau comparison (and the team’s heaps of cap room) to the next level.

It’s all a lot of fun, particularly when you consider the fact that the NHL lags behind other professional sports when it comes to free agent frenzies.

Let’s just hope that Kovalchuk a) comes back to North America to dazzle us with his skills and b) chooses a contender so we can watch him deploy that world-class shot during the playoffs. He’s already been gone from the best hockey league in the world for far, far too long.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.