With the countdown to NHL’s unrestricted free agency lacking some of the zip of last year’s Stamkos Watch, the introduction of a potential Ilya Kovalchuk bidding war provides a welcome wrinkle to the hockey off-season.
New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero confirmed with Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, that the KHL sniper wants to return to North America for 2017-18.
In order to do so, Kovalchuk must sign with the Devils, who could then deal him to any one of the other 30 clubs.
“He’s coming off a great year at 34 years old. He won the KHL championship with St. Petersburg, and he was a huge part of it,” said Shero recently, priming the pump.
Kovalchuk exploded for 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games with Gagarin Cup–winning SKA this season. He cannot officially sign an NHL contract until July 1, so there is plenty of time for potential suitors to make their offers.
Who would like to add a bona fide left-wing sniper and former NHL 50-goal man to their lineup in 2017-18? Uh, everyone.
But based on cap and roster situations, we've narrowed the Kovalchuk Sweepstakes down to a shortlist of eight teams Shero could seek as trade partners.
All of this is purely speculation of which destinations would make good fits. Chances are, he ends up on one of the other 23 teams.
It’s no secret the Canadiens need a little O to go with their D. They finished 15th in the league with 2.72 goals per game. GM Marc Bergevin has already made a coaching change. Carey Price, we needn't remind you, is an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Max Pacioretty hits the open market one summer later. Their opportunity, if it hasn't already zoomed by, is certainly nowish.
The Habs need only look back one summer to see how a gamble they took on an NHLer-turned-KHLer-turned-NHLer paid off lovely. Also, Montreal hold three second-round picks in 2018. Package one of those with a prospect and they might have a deal.
When a skilled forward becomes available Jim Nill's Spidey senses go haywire. Like the Kings and Panthers (see below), Nill's Stars underwhelmed this season, falling out of the playoffs, and scoring much fewer goals than expected (a mediocre 2.71 per game).
Three—count 'em, three—Dallas wingers come off the books this summer: Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler. Kovalchuk falls into their age range, but he's healthier and, frankly, better. The type of shooter that could re-energize the power-play and get a Ben Bishop team back to the dance.
The Wild experienced an abnormal spike in offence during the regular season only to have their shooters' mitts go icy in their very short playoff run. Strong up the middle, Minnesota could use a natural winger to create in the O-zone.
This is an experienced forward core—Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Eric Staal are all 32 or older—with a closing window. A short-term boost from Kovalchuk could arrive at the right time.
Los Angeles Kings
When the Kings cleaned house this spring after failing to make the playoffs, the message from the rearranged front office was two-fold: We believe we have a championship-calibre core and We can't score goals. At least half of that is true. The Kings finished a miserable 25th overall in offence. Every team scoring fewer than L.A.'s 2.43 goals per game has outwardly embraced a rebuild.
So until Rob Blake blows this thing up and trades Drew Doughty to the Toronto Maple Leafs already, we'll take them at their word.
That means the Kings are buyers this summer. Kovalchuk should be able to deliver more than the 10 goals Marian Gaborik did as a top-line winger.
Even after locking up Tanner Pearson at a reasonable rate, the Kings are tight to the cap and must re-sign RFA Tyler Toffoli. If serious about contending for a Cup in 2018, L.A. should buy out Dustin Brown or Gaborik (if Vegas can't be coerced to draft one) and take a hard look at Kovalchuk.
The man who traded both Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin is no stranger to bold moves. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli is expected to try and trade another $6-million man this off-season: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle.
He and Shero already pulled off one blockbuster and could take their relationship to the next level here. Big Leon Draisaitl plays wonderfully on Connor McDavid's wing, but long-term you'd have to envision them as a one-two punch up the middle.
Edmonton has proven itself a contender, and Kovalchuk is reportedly looking to join a winner.
The Hurricanes now hold the NHL's longest playoff drought. Early indications from management—such as the aggressive targeting of Scott Darling to upgrade in net—suggest 2017-18 is the year they start selling some of their stockpile of picks and prospects to make a run at the post-season.
The Hurricanes averaged a ho-hum 2.59 goals per game this season. Only the Senators qualified for the playoffs with an offence that anemic. Also: the 'Canes were among the NHL's worst shootout teams, winning just 33 per cent of their skills contests. Kovalchuk could help pick up a couple standings points there.
No NHL team has more cap space than Carolina, so they may be willing to take on a bad contract (Ryane Clowe?) if Shero is looking to shed. The Hurricanes also have a surplus of high draft picks (six in the first three rounds) and defence prospects they could dangle.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon has been reasonably forthcoming with his plans this summer. He's set in goal, he's happy with his defence, and he's looking for a goal-scorer. The Panthers finished 23rd in goals this season (2.5 per game) and tumbled from first in the Atlantic to out of the picture. Not acceptable in a market where sellout crowds are far from guaranteed.
Tallon & Co. rented winger Thomas Vanek at the March deadline. He'll be gone in free agency. Jaromir Jagr and his 46 points might be out the door, too. Kovalchuk will be more expensive but better. Why not upgrade at that position? And we already know that aging European scorers are welcome in this room.
Oh, and then there's this:
Vegas Golden Knights
GM George McPhee has already signed Russian free agent Vadim Shipachev to presumably slide into the expansion team's top six. Why not try to add a familiar face in Kovalchuk, who was Shipachev's teammate for four seasons in St. Petersburg?
Vegas could use a couple name-brand players to plaster on their off-Strip billboards and help sell excitement over the new team. A nine-time 30-goal scorer can do that.
Plus, with the picks and prospects he may reap from expected expansion-draft deals, McPhee could sell the rebuilding Devils on futures.