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.
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?
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.