We have another Russian returning to the NHL, this year, it’s former Atlanta Thrasher and New Jersey Devil Ilya Kovalchuk who left us all back in 2013 to head back to his homeland.
Before he left, Kovalchuk had just played in a shortened NHL season where he racked up 31 points in 37 games. The season before that, he had also made his first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals with the Devils but unfortunately couldn’t come out of it with a ring. During that season, Kovalchuk reached the 80 point mark for the first time since 2009 when he was part of the Atlanta Thrashers organization.
Kovalchuk actually just came off his best season with the St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL. The former NHLer scored more than 30 goals for the first time in that league, along with 48 assists putting him at a total of 78 points.
When you compare that to Alexander Radulov, who moved back to the NHL last summer, he had very similar numbers with 73 points but did play seven less games. Either way, Radulov came into the NHL this season and became arguably the Canadiens’ best offensive player. There is no reason to think that Kovalchuk could not achieve the same.
The only real question mark with all of this is where he will play. The New Jersey Devils do currently own his NHL rights and as of right now are the team that he would join, should he return to the league.
In order for him to become a free agent all 31 teams have to agree on allowing that to happen, which seems highly unlikely.
The most likely scenario would be that Kovalchuk is signed by the Devils and traded to the team of his choosing.
With all that being said, let’s take a look at the teams that would have high interest in the Russian.
The Capitals have a great track record with European players, taking up a bulk of their current roster. The addition of Kovalchuk would only add more skill/power/offensive prowess to a lineup that already contains names like Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov. Once the off-season rolls around, Washington will have a little more than $22 million available in cap-space. It’s likely that the Capitals will have to say goodbye to either T.J. Oshie or Justin Williams offensively if they did want to pursue Kovalchuk. Along with that, they also have to sign Evgeni Kuznetsov to a new deal as he becomes a restricted free-agent. Over the next couple of years, the Capitals don’t have too many players to sign besides John Carlsson. Their core trio: Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby are all locked up for the next three seasons. With all that being said, plenty of pieces have to be put together in order for this to go through. In the end, this would be 100% worth it for the Capitals especially if they don’t win the Cup this year. They’d be replacing Oshie or Williams with a proven elite NHL scorer to go alongside Alexander Ovechkin, you can’t really ask for a better replacement.
Kovalchuk is coming to the NHL to win, why not join the team that’s just swept the best team over the last eight years. Nashville will have $17 million to spend this offseason with Mike Fisher, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson being the only real deals that need to be made. If the Predators wanted to make a move for Kovalchuk this would be the perfect time. This roster has been built to be contenders for years to come. They’ve got elite goaltending in Pekka Rinne, stud defensemen like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, and even quality forwards in Filip Forsberg, James Neal, and Ryan Johansen, to name a few. By adding Kovalchuk to the mix Nashville could be a dominant team in the West for years. The time is now for Nashville to win, what more could Kovalchuk want.
This move would be more of a need for the Canadiens than the other teams we’ve spoken about. Last season, the Canadiens finished right in the middle of the pack with 223 goals which was a slight improvement over the year before (216). During their short stint in the playoffs this year, Montreal set a franchise record for the fewest goals scored (11) in a six game series. Despite the lack of goals, one player that did seem like a threat was Alexander Radulov. A player that the Canadiens brought over from the KHL – exactly like what Kovalchuk wants to do. With the recent news that Carey Price wants to stay with the team, it’s time that management figured out their goalscoring situation. Kovalchuk could be the answer to all their prayers.
When a great talent like Kovalchuk wants to come back everybody is going to be interested. The question isn’t are you interested in him, it’s is he interested in you.
Over the next few months, we’ll be seeing plenty of speculation about where he will land.
The only thing that is certain about all of this is that Ilya Kovalchuk is returning the the NHL.