After a five-year absence, Ilya Kovalchuk is preparing to return to the NHL.
The left winger “retired” in 2013, allowing him to break his 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils to sign with KHL club SKA St. Petersburg.
Having won two KHL championships and an Olympic Gold medal, Kovalchuk is now an unrestricted free agent. On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Craig Custance cited former NHL defenseman and current KHL assistant coach Dmitry Yushkevich saying his belief is Kovalchuk wants to win a Stanley Cup.
As per the NHL collective bargaining agreement, the 35-year-old is now eligible to sign with any NHL club on July 1st.
During his previous 11-year NHL tenure, Kovalchuk tallied 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in as many games. He scored 30-plus goals nine times and won the Maurice Richard Trophy in 2003-04.
On June 1, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Kovalchuk seeks a two- or three-year deal similar to the one Patrick Marleau signed last summer with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The annual average value of that deal is $6.25 million.
Kovalchuk’s now at an age when his best years are behind him. There could also be concerns over how long it might take him to readjust to the NHL pace.
Despite these issues, there are reportedly several teams interested in Kovalchuk.
On Apr. 28, the New York Post‘s Larry Brooks reported New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton confirmed they’ve had preliminary discussions with Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk’s North American agent. Gorton didn’t rule out revisiting those talks.
The Rangers are a rebuilding club. However, Gorton could consider adding a skilled veteran or two to help take some of the burdens off his young players. While the Rangers aren’t considered a Cup contender, the lure of playing in New York could be enticing to the Russian winger.
On June 9, Curtis Zupke of the Los Angeles Times reported Kovalchuk had met with Kings officials last Friday. In July 2010, the Kings had courted the winger before he eventually signed with the Devils.
While the Kings are now under different management, they still have a need for scoring depth. Cap Friendly indicates they have over $71 million invested in 20 players. It could be a tight squeeze, but they have enough room for Kovalchuk at a reasonable price if the salary cap reaches $80 million as projected.
The Kings weren’t the only California club Kovalchuk met with. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported he also met with the San Jose Sharks on Monday. He also believes the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues could be interested.
Kovalchuk has ties to Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer dating back to their days with the Devils. However, the Sharks could make pursuing New York Islanders center John Tavares as their priority via free agency. Kovalchuk could merely be a secondary target for them.
The Bruins, meanwhile, could be looking at a possible replacement for pending free-agent Rick Nash. With just over $67 million invested in 18 players, they have room to sign Kovalchuk. They can also be considered a potential Stanley Cup contender.
Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic believes Kovalchuk could make sense for the Blues. He’s a right-handed shot who could bolster the Blues woeful power play and could be a good fit alongside countryman Vladimir Tarasenko.
Rutherford also notes the Blues have the cap space to sign him. However, he feels they could be reluctant to invest too much for too long in an aging forward.
On Wednesday, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill told Sportsnet he’s doing his “due diligence” on Kovalchuk, though he wouldn’t confirm or deny meeting with the winger. Secondary scoring woes contributed to the Stars missing the 2018 postseason. Adding Kovalchuk could provide that much-needed boost to get them into the playoffs next season.
Dreger also reported Tuesday the Detroit Red Wings were among the suitors. That might seem unusual, as the Wings are in the midst of rebuilding.
Like the Rangers’ Jeff Gorton, GM Ken Holland could be considering adding a skilled veteran to tutor his younger players. However, the Red Wings aren’t even close to Cup contender status and won’t be for a while, making them an unlikely destination for Kovalchuk.
The New York Islanders recent hiring of Lou Lamoriello as director of hockey operations sparked some talk suggesting Kovalchuk might make them a destination. Lamoriello acquired Kovalchuk in 2010 and signed him to that lengthy contract that the winger eventually broke. So far, however, there’s no indication the Isles are in the mix.
Don’t expect the Devils to have any interest in bringing Kovalchuk back. On June 3, NHL.com’s Mike G. Morreale reported GM Ray Shero said he hadn’t reached out to the winger’s representatives nor had he heard from them.
If Kovalchuk seeks a Stanley Cup contender that can pay him $6 million annually, his best bet could be the Bruins. Whether he ends up there, however, remains to be seen.