Around this time last year, word got out that former NHL superstar Ilya Kovalchuk was considering a comeback. The big, Russian sniper retired from the league in 2013, before even his 30th birthday and just three years into a massive (and now patently illegal) 15-year, $100MM contract with the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk returned home to Russia and had played with the KHL’s powerhouse club, SKA Saint Petersburg, every year since. However, his NHL ambitions had him thinking about a return trip across the Atlantic last summer. For much of the latter half of the season and into the off-season, Kovalchuk’s potential return was one of the hottest topics in hockey circles. Then, on July 4th, mere days into unrestricted free agency, Kovalchuk re-signed with SKA and his triumphant return was no more.
Now, a year later, it seems Kovalchuk is up for round two. The veteran scorer has shown no signs of slowing down in the KHL, already racking up 63 points through 53 games this season, and with the Olympics about to begin, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman believes talk of a potential return is about to heat back up (Thought 27). As Friedman alludes to, Kovalchuk’s re-entry into the NHL will be much simpler this summer as the Devils will no longer possess his rights. Last off-season, Kovalchuk’s only chance of a return – outside of signing with the Devils – was to find a team both willing to sign him to an expensive contract and then trade for his rights from New Jersey. Devils GM Ray Shero remarked after Kovalchuk decided to stay in Russia that Kovalchuk never came to him with a contract offer and no team came to him with a trade proposal, so clearly the interest was low in having to acquire a free agent via trade, especially an older one who had been out of the NHL for several years. This time around, that risk will be much less painless as the Devils will no longer hold his rights. Once he turns 35 on April 15th, Kovalchuk will be removed from the “Voluntary Retirement” list and will be made an unrestricted free agent, capable of negotiating a deal with any team in the league.
So where will he end up? The Hockey News clearly expects him to draw a lot of attention, as they ranked him ninth on their 2018 free agent board. Here at PHR, Kovalchuk was an afterthought in our Mid-Season UFA Rankings, not cracking the top 20. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle with certain teams having specific interest in his skill set and others unwilling to take the risk on an aging player with a notoriously selfish playing style. As for Kovalchuk himself, Friedman believes that he would prefer to land in New York City. You can cross the Devils off that list; they’re paying $250K in recapture penalties every year until 2025, so they’re not giving Kovalchuk another dime. Plus, if New Jersey really wanted him, the two sides would have struck a deal last year. So that leaves the Rangers and Islanders as Kovalchuk’s Big Apple options. With John Tavares and possibly Josh Bailey and Calvin de Haan to re-sign, the Isles are not likely suitors. The Rangers on the other hand tend to be a team that’s often interested in the headline-making acquisition and, with Rick Nash coming off the books, have the cap space to add some salary. Kovalchuk and the Rangers could be a pairing to watch for this summer.