Cap Comparables: Ilya Kovalchuk returns to NHL on big-ticket contract

Ilya Kovalchuk won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics as a member of the Olympic Athletes From Russia team. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Although it can’t become official until the UFA market opens on July 1, Ilya Kovalchuk and the Los Angeles Kings came together on a three-year contract with a reported $6.25 million cap hit.

“We are excited to add Ilya to the LA Kings organization. He gives us an added element of skill and scoring along with a desire to win,” said general manager Rob Blake.

The Kings are a team still trying to reinvent themselves in an NHL evolving more towards speed and skill all throughout the lineup. Los Angeles won two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 and became a powerhouse with a heavy hockey style that has become less ideal in the past couple of seasons.
The Kings were a middle of the pack team in goals and power play last season and by adding the KHL’s scoring champion they hope Kovalchuk will bring some scoring punch.

But there are risks with this deal.

First off, Kovalchuk hasn’t played an NHL game in five years and although he has 417 goals in 816 career games, he’s past his prime. At 35 years old, there are some questions as to how his skating will hold up against today’s competition.

Second, and most importantly for the long-term success of the Kings, is that since Kovalchuk signs the contract at 35 years old, the Kings would not get any cap relief from a future buyout, if they wanted.

This gives the aging team even less wiggle room at the moment. The Kings now have a little more than $41 million committed to seven players who are 30 years of age or older, with 28-year-old defenceman Drew Doughty due a hefty raise before July 1, 2019. The new salary cap for 2018-19 is set at $79.5 million.

It remains to be seen just what Kovalchuk will bring to the Kings, but in terms of his contract value, here are the players whose production he’ll be compared to:

Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs: three years, $6.25 million cap hit
This is the comparable Kovalchuk and his agent wanted from the outset.

Marleau will turn 39 in September so he’s four years older than Kovalchuk but there is no question that the Maple Leafs is still a superb skater. He’s also remarkably durable and hasn’t missed a game since the 2008-09 season when he still played 76 times — it’s possible Marleau will retire with the NHL games played record currently held by Gordie Howe.

Marleau has also had back-to-back 27-goal seasons so it’s worth noting that in Kovalchuk’s last NHL season, the lockout shortened 2012-13, he managed 11 goals in 37 games. It may have been a relatively small sample size from five years ago, but by this measure Marleau had the better goals per game rate.

Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks: six years, $6.875 million cap hit
Signed ahead of the 2016-17 season, Kesler was 32 years old when the first season of this contract kicked in, so it didn’t come with the same buyout restrictions Kovalchuk’s does. He also never had the offensive upside the Kings hope Kovalchuk does, as the Duck usually hovers around the 20-goal mark. Kesler’s main value to Anaheim is his strong two-way play.

Kesler is coming off an injury-riddled season in which he scored just eight times, though, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported recently that it’s possible Kesler will sit out next season to fully recover.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins: eight years, $6.125 million cap hit
The Bruins agitator/scoring star was under 30 years old when he signed his contract, but when it expires he’ll be 36 years old. Coming off back-to-back 85-point seasons, Marchand was getting some Hart Trophy buzz at points through the season and is a key and productive part of one of the NHL’s top lines.

This deal screams value. As the cap rises through the life of this deal, Marchand’s share of the cap will get smaller and smaller and there’s no reason his offensive totals can’t be maintained for at least a few more years.

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