Don Waddell

Ilya Kovalchuk free agent
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Would Ilya Kovalchuk make sense for Bruins, other NHL contenders?

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It’s over. The Ilya Kovalchuk era has mercifully ended for the Los Angeles Kings, as Kovalchuk cleared waivers on Tuesday. The 36-year-old is now an unrestricted free agent.

So, would and should another NHL team see if they can make it work with Kovalchuk where the Kings failed? Let’s consider questions that are almost as tricky as Kovalchuk’s peak-era shot.

Kovalchuk unlikely to cost many bucks

Sports-Express’ Igor Eronko reports a few crucial points:

For the most part, then, a Kovalchuk signing would be low-risk. It sounds like he’d sign a cheap deal, and wouldn’t cost the team assets they’d lose in a trade. That said, there is some risk, as he’d stand as a 35+ contract.

Kovalchuk might be washed

The good news is that it sounds like Kovalchuk wouldn’t cost much. The bad news is that it might be a “get what you pay for” situation.

Consider this perspective from the Boston Sports Journal’s Conor Ryan, which is especially relevant since Eronko reports that the Boston Bruins are “interested” in Kovalchuk:

Kovalchuk doesn’t really shine by many metrics, including this middling heat map from Hockey Viz:

Kovalchuk left the NHL an elite player, but just about every sign points to him being “meh” at best since returning, with 43 points in 81 games as a member of the Kings.

A team signing Kovalchuk either needs to have low expectations (“Kovalchuk could at least be better than what we have now”) or a belief that they can get more out of the once-elite sniper.

Let’s quickly consider a few potential bidders of varying likelihood.

Boston Bruins

Again, Eronko reports that the Bruins are interested, while LeBrun noted (sub required) that the Bruins and San Jose Sharks were among the top bidders for Kovalchuk when he chose Los Angeles.

So, the Bruins have been eyeing Kovalchuk for a while. One could also argue that he’d be an upgrade over, say, Brett Ritchie on the second line with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. On the other hand, Kovalchuk’s defensive lapses might not make him enough of a net positive for a Bruins team with high aspirations, and it would probably be tough for Kovalchuk to get much more than secondary power play opportunities considering Boston’s firepower.

New York Islanders

The Isles could use a little more “pop” in their offense, and Lou Lamoriello’s history with Kovalchuk is undeniable. One can only imagine the fury Kovalchuk would cause for Barry Trotz, though.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus needs to scratch and claw for everything post-Artemi Panarin. Maybe Kovalchuk could be a power play specialist for Columbus like Sam Gagner once was?

Of course, Kovalchuk might not exactly view the Blue Jackets as contenders, and John Tortorella … well, just picture Torts and Kovalchuk for a minute. Entertaining for everyone except the Blue Jackets, right?

Dallas Stars

Dallas is somewhere between the Blue Jackets and Islanders when it comes to being competitive despite meager scoring. It makes sense, then, that the Stars would face a similar Kovalchuk conundrum: they need offense, but would Kovalchuk take so much off the table defensively that he wouldn’t be worth a potential bump in skill?

Carolina Hurricanes

Adding some finish could be a big boost for Carolina, and there’s the Don Waddell Thrashers connection. LeBrun reports that the Hurricanes are still waiting on Justin Williams’ decision, however.

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Signing Kovalchuk makes at least some sense to quite a few teams, including some who weren’t mentioned in this post. Even so, Kovalchuk also has plenty of flaws in his game, likely shrinking the list when you factor in teams that are more than merely curious.

Would Kovalchuk make your team better? That’s debatable, but it sure would be fun to see a great player author one more strong run. We’ll find out soon enough if someone decides to roll the dice.

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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.

Hurricanes announce Justin Williams is taking break from hockey

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It seemed likely that there were only two real possibilities for free agent forward Justin Williams at the start of the offseason: Either a return to the Carolina Hurricanes for another season, or retirement.

For now, he seems to have met in the middle.

The Hurricanes announced on Monday that Williams is “taking a break” from hockey and that he will not play at the start of the 2019-20 NHL season.

This is not a retirement announcement and does leave the door open for a potential return at some point, either with the Hurricanes or someone else.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” said Williams in a statement released by the Hurricanes. “For as long as I can remember, my whole off-season until this point has been hockey and doing what was necessary to prepare for the upcoming season. Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game.

“It’s important to me that the focus of attention is on the current, very talented group the Carolina Hurricanes have assembled, as they prepare to build on the momentum and growth we established last season.”

Added general manager Don Waddell: “We appreciate Justin’s honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision. He’s been an important part of our team, but we did prepare our roster with the understanding that he might step away. We are confident in the group we’ve assembled.”

Williams, 37, was still an excellent player this past season with 20 goals and 53 total points in 82 games for a Hurricanes that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. Even as his career went deeper into his 30s he remained as reliable and durable (missing just three games over the past eight seasons) as any player in the league.

In 1,244 games over 18 seasons Williams has 312 goals and 786 total points for the Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Los Angeles Kings.

He also owns three Stanley Cup rings, including one with the Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season, and has developed a reputation for being one of the best big-game players in the league.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Hurricanes sign GM Waddell to long-term contract extension

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Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell had been working much of the summer without a contract after his most recent deal had expired at the end of June. That created some speculation that he could be a contender for the now-vacant Minnesota Wild job.

That possibility is now gone.

The Hurricanes announced on Monday afternoon that the team has signed Waddell to a long-term contract extension to remain as the team’s general manager.

“Don’s leadership and experience are invaluable to our organization and I’m happy we were able reach an extension,” said team owner Thomas Dundon in a statement released by the team. “Don and I have a great relationship and he is someone I trust. I’m excited to continue to build a championship team with Don.”

Added Waddell: “I’m thrilled to sign an extension with the Hurricanes and I look forward to continuing the success we experienced last season. We have a first-class organization, a great fanbase and a team we feel is built to contend for the Stanley Cup. My family and I are excited to stay in Raleigh for years to come.”

The 2018-19 season was Waddell’s first full year as the general manager of the Hurricanes and it was a tremendous success. The team qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season and reached the Eastern Conference Final. The emergence of Sebastian Aho as an all-star scorer and Waddell’s mid-season trade for Nino Niederreiter were two of the biggest driving forces behind the Hurricanes’ success.

Waddell was a finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award.

There is a great foundation of young talent in place for the Hurricanes to build on and as long as they can get competent goaltending should continue to be a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

Last season, the Hurricanes became a “bunch of jerks.” In 2019-20, they’re now a bunch of people under heightened pressure.

Rather than going with one single person, here are a few of the Hurricanes who must wrestle with heightened expectations next season.

Sebastian Aho: For those who follow how much players get paid, particularly ones who are potential faces of franchises entering the mere beginning of their primes, Aho is a ludicrous steal at $8.454 million per year.

But then, there are those sharks who circle any sports situation that might loosely be termed a “disappointment.” When those sharks smell blood, they usually also seek out the richest targets, even if those players aren’t really at fault for a team’s letdowns. (See: basically Phil Kessel‘s entire stay in Toronto.)

If the Hurricanes falter, don’t be surprised if their newly minted most expensive player ends up being the scapegoat, whether that ends up being fair or not.

… On the other hand, hey, at least Aho’s already got paid.

Justin Faulk: Faulk, on the other hand, enters a contract year with a lot of money that could be earned or lost.

At least, potentially he does. The Hurricanes could also decide to sign the 27-year-old to a contract extension, something that was at least hinted at somewhat recently.

If Faulk enters 2018-19 with his situation unsettled, he’ll enter a year with a lot on the line, though. The free agent market rarely sees quality right-handed defensemen become available before they’re 30, and sometimes teams go the extra 26.2 miles and overpay guys like Tyler Myers. At the same time, injuries can cool the market for a UFA blueliner, as we’ve seemingly seen with the perplexing Jake Gardiner situation.

You don’t even need to look at defensemen to see how much a season can swing how teams view a UFA. Faulk merely needs to look at his former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, a forward who was traded for precious little in the summer of 2018, only to have such a strong season that he was handed a lengthy contract with a $9M AAV one summer later.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | X-factor: Hurricanes owner]

Petr Mrazek: Honestly, Mrazek’s under less personal pressure this season than he was in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, years where he was merely trying to prove that he was worthy of maintaining an NHL career, at least one beyond a backup or even third goalie role. Getting two years at a $3.125M AAV represents more stability than Mrazek’s experienced in quite some time.

Still, if the Hurricanes fail this season, don’t be shocked if it’s because the goaltending that finally worked out in 2018-19 reverts back to the problem that kept Carolina out of the playoffs for a decade. A lot of Carolina’s hopes still hinge on Mrazek, and James Reimer, who comes in with a higher cap hit but lower expectations.

Rod Brind’Amour: During his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes made the playoffs. That’s great, but it also sets a new bar in the eyes of fans and owner Tom Dundon, so a big drop-off might inspire critics to be a bunch of jerks to Brind’Amour.

Whoever is the GM: If too many of the above situations don’t work out, a GM might be tasked with finding fixes — and if Dundon isn’t interested in spending much money to make those fixes, it could require some serious creativity.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.