The prospect of Ilya Kovalchuk returning to the National Hockey League this summer remains a possibility shrouded in mystery filtered through a translator.
While reports out of Russia this week suggested that SKA St. Petersburg might be on the verge of re-signing its star winger, New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero said Thursday at the Scouting Combine that he understands Kovalchuk is still aiming for a North American return.
“As far as I know, that’s still the plan,” Shero told NHL.com.
“Kovalchuk kind of drives the bus on this in terms of talking to teams or where he could want to play.”
Even though the Devils own Kovalchuk’s NHL rights and are interested in either signing him or orchestrating a sign-and-trade for the once-retired star, Kovalchuk’s option to remain in the KHL allows him a take-it-or-leave-it mind state.
“I can’t go out calling teams because that’s a waste of my time,” Shero said. “He’s going to tell [us] where he wants to play, and in the end, if that does work out and it’s not the Devils, then I’ve got to see if that makes sense for us to do that.”
Russian hockey reporter Slava Malamud tweeted earlier this week that SKA and Kovalchuk, who won the KHL’s Gagarin Cup this spring, are still open to an extension.
The 34-year-old exploded for 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games in 2016-17, the final season of his KHL deal, and would present a tempting addition to many NHL teams’ top six.
Shero told NHL.com that he spoke with Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, on Wednesday.
“If tomorrow he decides to stay in Russia, OK, but who knows?” Shero said. “That’s his call in the end. Right now nothing, according to [Grossman], has changed and he would like to pursue [NHL] opportunities.”
Kovalchuk cannot officially sign an NHL contract until July 1, so there is still time for this to shake out.
If a sign-and-trade cannot be consummated this off-season, Kovalchuk could wait one more year and return to the NHL as a 35-year-old in 2018. At that point, the Devils lose all rights and the player will be an unrestricted free agent.