NHL Roundtable: The return of Ilya Kovalchuk

He hasn’t played in the NHL since 2013, but former All-Star Ilya Kovalchuk is prime to return to the league next season.

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 (Photo credit: S. Yume)

He may not have played in the NHL since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but all signs are pointing to the return of the All-Star forward to the league he abandoned at the age of 30 in the middle of a long-term contract with New Jersey.

But as the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and teams will be more than willing to give Kovalchuk a contract to come in and help win a Stanley Cup in 2019 and beyond.  

It’s a hot topic and one worthy of discussion, so the NHL team at RealSport felt it was the right time to debut our NHL Roundtable. So, with no further delay it’s time to talk about the return of Kovalchuk.

With Kovalchuk saying he’s 100% coming back to the NHL next season, should a team give him the high-priced contract he’s going to want despite being 35-years old?

Connor:  If I was a NHL GM I would not offer Kovalchuk a huge deal. If a team could sign him to a deal similar to that of Alexander Radulov when he signed for the Canadiens last summer then the deal is a no-brainer. But anything more than a two-year deal seems silly to me. 

But will teams? Of course they will. NHL teams will be throwing themselves at Kovalchuk because he has proven in his career that he can score at better than a point per game pace. He is older now – but he would improve virtually every teams top six depth.

Riccardo: Kovalchuk is an interesting case because of his age. At 35 years old almost no NHL team wants to contribute a lot of money to a guy who’s put that many miles on his body. I see him finishing up his time in the NHL with a bunch of smaller term deals in the 1-2 year range not going above 6-7 million at max. I could see the price point of a potential deal being a sticking point in terms of negotiations

Do you think there’s still bad blood between Kovalchuk and the NHL with the way he left? What teams do you think avoid him because of what he pulled?

Connor:  I think the NHL likes to have star players. Both sides will see this as good business so I guess the league and Kovalchuk will learn to live with each other again. 

The Devils at the time were in huge financial difficulties and it was probably convenient for both parties that Kovalchuk ‘retired’. I think teams will take the risk on him, he is a pretty fine player. 

Mike: Now, naturally, I’m a grudge-holding guy. Hell, if I was in the position of team owner or GM, it would be hard for me to offer him a deal. That being said, there will be enough teams that want to win that will certainly forget everything from the past and look at what he can contribute in the future. 

Riccardo: I think there may be some but it won’t be enough to keep him from coming back. Regardless of how good he is, there was first his ugly exit from Atlanta which was only compounded by the NHL rejecting the first contract him and the Devils tried to sign before signing that mega deal later on. 

Now that he and the Devils have gone their separate ways that is about the only team I see not trying to get in on him. Despite his age, Kovalchuk has shown time and time again that he has elite level offensive skills and can seemingly beat any goalie he faces with ease. 

These skills would make him a valuable asset on any team but what price would be the major question.

What team do you see him as a fit with?

Connor:  That is an interesting question because I believe Kovalchuk is coming back to the NHL to win. Therefore that rules out sides like the Rangers and the Canadiens who I suspect would be looking at Kovalchuk. 

Tampa Bay seemed a good fit for me but obviously they cannot afford to take his contract on. I honestly would not be surprised to see Kovalchuk playing somewhere in the south, maybe Nashville or Dallas. They are both strong teams who may see Kovalchuk as someone who can push them over the edge. 

If not them, then maybe one of the three California teams. In fact the more I think about, the more I believe Vegas could be a viable option. They are contenders and have bundles of cap space – plus they could do with the star name that Kovalchuk brings.

Riccardo: Kovalchuk would be a fit on a lot of teams but especially those who like to push the pace of play like Tampa Bay Lightning where he could step in and make an already excellent offense with Stamkos and Kucherov that much more dangerous.

Where do you ultimately think he signs?

Mike: Well, the reports are that he’s apparently set to sign with the Rangers, but until pen goes to paper, I’m going to stick with the belief that somehow he ends up in Pittsburgh. They have the best player in the game in Sidney Crosby and country mate Evgeni Malkin. It just makes too much sense for him at this point in his career.

Connor: I have talked myself into thinking he will end up in Vegas. I mean it makes sense right? Cap space, weather, and a contending team. Vegas will get a star player who their fans can get excited about while solidifying their position as a contender.

It’s a win-win!

Riccardo: The thing with Kovalchuk is that he is going to want to sign with a contender, but a lot of those teams are going to be close to the cap to pay the players that are making them a contender.

Kovalchuk is not going to want to go to a rebuilding team that has tons of cap space and any contender that signs him will likely have to get rid of their larger contracts or sending players down to the minors.

I’m going to join Connor and say the Vegas Golden Knights could end up being a destination for him to play. He already has experience playing on a new team in the NHL based on his history in Atlanta and the team is already playing well and would likely be able to create the room to sign him.

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