After seeing Alexander Radulov’s complete attitude makeover in Montreal this season, many have grown to be more optimistic regarding players who depart and then seek a return to the NHL. When a team takes a gamble on a player, they never really know what’s in store — especially if they drop a decent chunk of change on him. The Montreal Canadiens certainly benefitted from Radulov’s homecoming this season, as he finished 1st on the team in playoff scoring after an unfortunately early exit in the postseason and finished second in point production during the regular season — with a respectable 54 points in 76 games. After seeing a complete turnaround, I’m sure many GMs are salivating at the idea of landing potential returnee Ilya Kovalchuk.
After coming off a Gagarin Cup victory, Kovalchuk has already won the most prestigious award in the Kontinental Hockey League — for the second time since his return, with the first one coming back to 2015. And back in 2012, he got a sour sample of what a Stanley-Cup victory could taste like, making him hungry to add Lord Stanley’s Cup to his impressive resumé. He currently holds a Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy from the 03/04 season, 2twoWorld Championship golds and awards, numerous all-star game appearances and is the franchise leader in goals scored in a season for the Atlanta Thrashers with 52 — not that that means anything nowadays. However, when he received the Gagarin Cup playoff MVP, he refused to accept it and handed the award off to teammate Evgenii Dadonov — showing that he is indeed a good teammate and has matured. Nonetheless, here are a list of 8 teams where Kovalchuk could end up and 7 where he won’t.
15. Will – Colorado Avalanche
Face it, the Colorado Avalanche need all the help they can get. After finishing with one of the worst points-per-game played since the salary cap era, a guy like Kovalchuk could certainly help spark their offense. Having him on the wing alongside promising Nathan MacKinnon, you can only imagine some of the damage they would be able to create in the offensive zone. On top of that, Kovalchuk would get the ice time he wants due to the lack of competition on the roster — not many players would take his spot on line 1.
14. Won’t – Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals will unquestionably be out on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Being hard pressed to sign key players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and trade-deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk, they’ve already accepted the fact that they’re going to lose a few players after this year. It wouldn’t make sense to keep developing players like Andre Burakovsky on the depth lines when he has shown glimpses of brilliance when put in the right situation. Because of this, Kovalchuk will not be making his way towards the nation’s capital and will likely be playing against them instead.
13. Will – New York Islanders
Could you imagine if the New York Islanders lose John Tavares to free agency this summer? That would be an absolute nightmare for the Isles and would leave the franchise in shambles. Although they do have a handful of effective players, like Anders Lee, it’s not a secret that Tavares is the heart and soul of the Islanders — and essentially the main reason why they were battling for a playoff spot towards the tail end of the season. They’re certainly looking to make a splash in free agency this summer to help boost their offense, which makes sense if they were to try and go after Kovalchuk.
12. Won’t – Pittsburgh Penguins
A team that is loaded up with skilled forwards like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel — not to mention various other young talents such as Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel — make it obvious that there’s not a chance that they could make room for Kovalchuk when their main concern is on the back end. Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup last year and will not be looking to make any drastic changes to their roster as they’ve proven it works. Not only that but would Kovalchuk even get the ice he needs with these big names in front of him? Certainly not. This leads me to believe that if Pens fans are hoping to see Kovalchuk in the black, white and yellow jersey to keep on dreaming.
11. Will – Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes have a bright future and could even be in a playoff position if they begin to click. With recently-acquired goaltender, Scott Darling, locked up for the next four years, it appears as though they have their man in between the pipes — meaning their roster is beginning to round into shape. In addition to their young stars, they also have a fair amount of cap space available if they were to try and throw a large contract Kovalchuk’s way. However, it all depends on if they’re going for a long-term fix or feel as though they can compete for the Cup now.
10. Won’t – Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks have been a fun team to watch these playoffs. With their gritty forwards, young defensemen, and stud goaltender John Gibson, they’re a team to reckon with — especially during the second half of the second season. However, their cap situation is awfully similar to that of the Chicago Blackhawks; which makes it seem as though they don’t have much money to throw at Kovalchuk. Not only that, but Kovalchuk plays a much different game than that of the Ducks; the Ducks like to chip pucks deep and grind their opponent down with their size, whereas Kovalchuk is more of a finesse-type player — leading me to believe he wouldn’t mesh as well in their system.
9. Will – Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres are looking for any possible way to help progress their stalled rebuild — and that means a guy like Kovalchuk could help them. The Sabres need help in almost all areas; right when you think they’re making progress, they seem to wash another season down the drain by finishing close to, or at the floor of the standings. The players are getting fed up and embarrassed; which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to consider landing Kovalchuk. If they’re able to trade team cancers such as Evander Kane to help free up some cap space, it could certainly happen.
And after the firing of both the head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray; I’m sure many are wondering if unofficial GM Jack Eichel will try to obtain the right-handed sniper this offseason.
8. Won’t – Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks, as poor as their season was, are not looking for a player like Kovalchuk; they need young talent to ensure that their rebuild goes according to plan. They already have the aging Sedin twins and cannot afford to acquire the 34-year-old — they need to commit to a rebuild or buy in. This awkward-limbo stage that the Canucks have been in the past few years has left not only the fans but also seasoned NHL analysts confused and has shown that it does not work. The Canucks would be wise to consider trading both Henrik and Daniel Sedin so that they can get the most value out of them before their age catches up with them even more. With Willie Desjardins getting axed after the regular season, they will finally get a fresh start and will certainly not be looking to add an older player to their roster.
7. Will – Florida Panthers
What NHL player wouldn’t love to live in the Sunshine State that is Florida? Especially coming all the way from Russia, Florida would certainly be a nice change of scenery. With a team loaded with potential, it’s only a matter of time until the Panthers break out and go on a deep playoff run. Although loaded up front, they would certainly benefit from Kovalchuk’s presence and could have him on the top line alongside Finnish ace Aleksander Barkov. They would need to trade a good player or pick, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out Kovalchuk being in a Panthers’ jersey.
6. Won’t – Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lighting have had a Stanley-Cup worthy team for a couple years now. With depth down every position and their goaltending conflict finally solved, they will most certainly be looking to have a rebound year next season. And with numerous RFAs that need to be resigned, like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin, they’re going to want to keep guys that clearly work for them, particularly since they’ve already made it to the Eastern Conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals as well. This leads me to believe that Kovalchuk will not be joining the Lightning.
5. Will – Montreal Canadiens
Kovalchuk’s Russian national teammate Alex Radulov looked as though he loved his time in Montreal this season and (if he re-signs there) will certainly try to lure Kovalchuk to the City of Saints as well. With a team lacking offense for some strange reason, their window to win a cup isn’t getting any bigger — if they’re going to win a Stanley Cup it will be with Carey Price in the net. They’re in “win now” mode and need to become a more active team if they are to have any hopes of adding another Stanley Cup to their already-impressive collection.
They could potentially dangle the young Alex Galchenyuk in order to gain control of Kovalchuk’s rights. I wouldn’t suggest they do so, but as we all saw during the last offseason in MTL when P.K. Subban was dealt for Shea Weber, anything is possible.
4. Won’t – Chicago Blackhawks
For those Chicago Blackhawks fans out there hoping that (if) Kovalchuk returns to the NHL in a Hawks’ jersey, think again. Their cap situation is far too close to the limit due to the massive contracts GM Stan Bowman has signed core players to, such as the $10.5-million-dollar contracts tied up in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews — that’s the price of success. And because of these big contracts, their core is already set in stone and it seems as though the Hawks landing Kovalchuk would be nothing more than a dream.
Not to mention Artemi Panarin earned the maximum-performance bonuses and will cost the Blackhawks an extra $2.575-million dollars towards the cap hit. We’ll have to sit tight and see how cap-wizard Bowman can solve the Hawks’ cap woes.
3. Will – Las Vegas Golden Knights
With the Las Vegas Golden Knights being in desperate need of star power, it seems as though Kovalchuk would be a perfect fit for the franchise. He would play top-line minutes, most likely get a letter and essentially be the poster boy there. If they were to land the Russian sniper, then they would actually be able to compete somewhat in their first season as they have a bonafide 30-goal scorer in Kovalchuk. With his exact point-per-game production he would certainly help the Golden Knights out and with his KHL teammate, Vadim Shipachyov, being their second player signed in franchise history, it would certainly appeal to Kovalchuk.
2. Won’t – Toronto Maple Leafs
If you think Lou Lamoriello — the GM of the New Jersey Devils at the time Kovalchuk abruptly ‘retired’ from the NHL — would want to bring back the double-crossing Russian, then you have another thing coming. It makes logical sense for Lamoriello to have cold feelings towards Kovalchuk after he abandoned the team he helped lead to the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2012. In addition to that, Kovalchuk is 34 years old, so it wouldn’t make much sense to bring an aging veteran into one of the youngest teams in the league. The Leafs have shown just how loaded up front they are, so Kovalchuk’s services wouldn’t be needed.
1. Will – New Jersey Devils
If an Ilya Kovalchuk-NHL reunion is going to happen, New Jersey will have the final say on whether he is able to return or not. Don’t forget, when he left the Devils, there was different management than there is now, so the cold feelings felt towards the Russian are more than likely swept under the rug. New Jersey has also become a much more appealing franchise as of late. Between their winning of this year’s number-one pick in the NHL Draft Lottery and last year’s acquisition of Taylor Hall, they’re surely in good shape for the future. They have their starting goalie in Cory Schneider and are in need of a few pieces before they can become a regular in the postseason.
Even if it’s a sign-and-trade deal, Kovalchuk has a very high chance of returning to the city he has ties with.
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