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Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Red Wings bring back Blashill; Hart for Giroux?

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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.

• Hockey fans on Twitter have been leaving sticks outside their homes in honor of the Humboldt Broncos. (CTV News)

• The Syracuse Crunch players will wear the name “Humboldt” on their back during an upcoming game. They’ll sell the jerseys and donate the money to the ambulance company that was on the scene after the bus crash took place. (Syracuse.com)

• Some news and notes out of St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko will undergo shoulder surgery, GM Doug Armstrong took the blame for the team’s failures this season, and Jake Allen will be back in 2018-19. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

• Despite missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the Detroit Red Wings will bring Jeff Blashill back next season. (Detroit News)

• Many hockey fans agree that Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon are the leading contenders for the Hart Trophy, but what about Claude Giroux? He was outstanding this year. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Despite what you may think, Ducks goalie John Gibson is not injury prone. (Anaheim Calling)

• According to reports out of Russia, Ilya Kovalchuk is headed to the New York Rangers. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• We’ve never seen anything like the Vegas Golden Knights. They’ve been an incredible story all year, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t facing pressure this postseason. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Even though Ryan Suter‘s injury will prevent him from playing in the playoffs, he’ll still be cheering for his teammates from afar. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

• Generals Managers take a good amount of the blame when things go poorly, but the owners who leave them employed are also a big problem. Vice’s Dave Lozo had some fun writing up a fake Q&A with some of these general managers. (Vice)

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.

Vladimir Tarasenko will have surgery on dislocated left shoulder

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Three days after missing the playoffs, the St. Louis Blues learned their star forward Vladimir Tarasenko will need surgery on Wednesday for a dislocated left shoulder.

Tarasenko was hurt in the first period of the regular-season finale on Saturday in Colorado. The Blues needed a point in the game to reach the playoffs, but lost 5-2.

Tarasenko revealed he had a dislocated shoulder while standing with his left arm in a sling Tuesday as teammates cleared out their lockers. The recovery after surgery can take up to six months.

”We’ll see how it goes,” Tarasenko said. ”It was a hard year all the way around.”

The 26-year-old led the team with 33 goals and 66 points. It was his lowest point total in four seasons. The Blues won 44 games this season and finished with 94 points.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Mike Yeo wrapped up his first full season as the Blues coach. St. Louis is 66-40-8 since Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach on Feb. 1, 2017. That’s the 10th-best regular-season record in the NHL in that period.

But it’s little consolation for a team missing the playoffs for the first time after six straight seasons. Two years ago, the Blues were playing for the conference championship.

”We understand we’ve taken a step back this year,” General Manager Doug Armstrong said. ”That lies firmly on my shoulders. My job is to deal in reality. The formula we had this year did not breed success and we need to find that formula.”

Armstrong said the play of special teams needs to improve.

The Blues were 30th on power-play success at 15.4 percent. They finished 18th in penalty killing at 79.7 percent. During the previous six seasons making the playoffs, the Blues ranked No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing with a rate of 84.3 percent.

However, the Blues scored only 38 power-play goals.

”As a coaching staff, I promise you we won’t just sit around and just assume things will get better next year,” Yeo said. ”We have to look at everything from the way we manage it, operate it and holding guys accountable and the personnel we’re using and the tactics.”

When Yeo coached the Minnesota Wild, the power play also was stagnant.

”I’ll take responsibility for it,” Yeo said. ”I don’t dodge that. That’s on me.”

Armstrong backs his coach.

”Mike and I are tethered together and we’re going to figure this thing out,” Armstrong said.

St. Louis was just 24-17 on home ice this season.

”You can’t have the home record we had and be satisfied,” Armstrong said. ”The people that come here work for a living and we need to send them home happy. If we’re in the top 10 in home records, we’re in the playoffs.”

The salary cap should increase about $4 million for next season. Armstrong said the Blues ownership will continue to spend to the cap.

”We spend to the cap,” Armstrong said. ”We’ve had a good run here. We’ve got to get back to that.”

Goalie Jake Allen was signed to a four-year, $17.4 million contract on July 1, 2016. He finished with a 27-25-3 record, a 2.75 goals-against average, a .906 save percentage and one shutout.

”I definitely need to be more consistent,” Allen said. ”I know I’m capable of it. I don’t think I need to change much. I’m a pretty good goalie.”

Backup goaltender Carter Hutton is an unrestricted free agent. Hutton was 17-7-3 with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He had three shutouts.

Armstrong said he wants to bring Hutton back.

Duncan Keith’s late winner helps strike blow to Blues’ playoff hopes

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Duncan Keith‘s goal with 8.5 seconds to go broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night.

The Blues are still in pursuit of a wild card spot in the Western Conference, but with the loss remain a point behind the Colorado Avalanche with two games to go, including a Saturday night tilt vs. the Avs.

Chicago wanted to play spoiler for their Central Division rivals, with Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat saying before the game, “They’re a good team and they’re fighting for a playoff spot right now. We’re not going out there and just letting them take it. We want to crush their hopes.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It was looking good for the Blues early in the second period when Vladimir Tarasenko gave the home side a 3-1 lead. But St. Louis and Jake Allen began to falter minutes later. Blackhawks rookie Blake Hillman jumped into the rush and scored his first NHL goal with Chicago on a power play to cut the deficit to 3-2 midway through the period.

With DeBrincat wanting to “crush their hopes,” he backed up his words and tied the game with 11:30 to go, thanks to some more questionable goaltending by Allen.

The self-destruction of the Blues continued as Chris Butler took a holding penalty with two minutes to go. The Blackhawks waited until the very end of that power play to capitalize, with Keith finally notching his second goal of the season and also sending the Los Angeles Kings to playoffs in the process.

Your thoughts, Doug Armstrong?

And as if the Blues haven’t been demonized enough by the Blackhawks, the two teams meet again Friday night at United Center. How soon will St. Louis be able to erase this one from memory and focus on the two biggest games of their season this weekend?

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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.