@FriedgeHNIC said Ilya Kovalchuk wants to return to NHL and he can either play for Devils or needs approval of all teams to play elsewhere.— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) April 23, 2017
While this is not set in stone yet, Elliotte Friedman is one of the most reputable reporters in the game today. If he’s hearing something, then there’s a good chance it’s legitimate. And Gulitti is not one to be a rumormonger either. What Friedman heard certainly was enough for Sportsnet to post the following article, which includes a video where Friedman quickly broke down what could happen. Apparently, Kovalchuk wants to come back to the NHL. And the process will have to involve the New Jersey Devils in some way or form.
Background: Who is Kovalchuk?
Here is a quick background on who he is and why this is a big deal for the unaware. Ilya Kovalchuk was the first overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft and spent most of his career with Atlanta as their ace scorer. However, Kovalchuk was unhappy with the franchise’s direction. As a pending free agent, he demanded a trade in 2010. Out of seemingly nowhere, Lou Lamoriello emerged as the winner of the Kovalchuk Sweepstakes. Seemingly minutes after reporters learned that the Devils were in on a deal with Kovalchuk, the trade was made. They sent forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, center Patrice Cormier, and their first and second round picks in 2010. In exchange, they received Kovalchuk, defenseman Anssi Salmela, and Atlanta’s second rounder in 2010. While the Devils crashed out of the postseason in 2010, Kovalchuk did average a point per game in his 27 games with the Devils and put up six points in five playoff games. The man is a producer and he produced.
Kovalchuk was a free agent in the summer in 2010 and it was a big story in the summer. After waiting a couple of weeks to hear out and turn down an offer from Los Angeles, the Devils announced a 17-year contract for Kovalchuk. The NHL rejected this contract and the whole thing had to be sorted out in arbitration. The “Spirit of the CBA” was apparently violated and an arbitrator agreed. As a result, that contract was voided, the Devils had to re-sign Kovalchuk to a new deal. Despite initial reports, the Devils were assessed a penalty: a $3 million fine, lose their third round pick in 2011, and to give up a first round pick in a draft of their choosing between 2011 and 2014 (this pick was restored in 2014, but only at 30th overall - it was used to get John Quenneville). Kovalchuk was re-signed to a second contract approved in August 2010: a 15 year, $100 million contract. The CBA was eventually updated to limit how much a salary could change from year to year as a result of this whole issue.
Kovalchuk proceeded to play three seasons for the Devils. His apex was the 2011-12 season where he posted 37 goals, 46 assists, and 310 shots. His 83 points made him a top-ten scorer in the NHL and it remains as the most productive season by any Devil since 2009-10. On the ice, the man had a second gear and skill on the puck that hasn’t really been seen until Taylor Hall came along. This was a winger who wanted to do what it took to succeed and managed to do so, from killing penalties to carrying the puck into the zone (even to just dump it in) to taking on big minutes in tough situations. He did some folk-hero things, like be a part of a three-goal comeback over Toronto in the third period in one of his early games a Devil. Or crushing Michael Del Zotto on a forecheck prior to a big CGBG goal at the World’s Most Overrated Arena. Or crashing the net prior to Henrique telling Our Hated Rivals It’s Over. Or destroying Brayden Schenn in a fight. All amid many goals, dangles, and sweet highlights (video example). He was becoming the face of the franchise - until he wasn’t.
On July 11, 2013, Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the Devils. It was absolutely stunning news then. It was best encapsulated by Mike’s headline about the news: What? Kovalchuk then finished a season where he was paid $11.3 million. According to Cap Friendly, he was entering the peak years of his contract whereupon he’d make over $11 million in each of the following four seasons and $10 million in 2017-18. Kovalchuk just said “Nope,” left the Devils and the NHL, and went on to sign a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersberg in the Kontinental Hockey League. Fans were dealing with anger, shock, and wondering what the Devils will do next. The retirement nulled the contract, though the Devils have and will pay a $250,000 recapture penalty in each season until 2024-25. A small price to pay as a result of a star winger leaving the team with a massive gap up front that arguably hasn’t been filled in to this day. It’s also a small price to pay after all of assets, legal work, and effort it took to obtain and retain Kovalchuk’s services to begin with.
That four-year deal is now up. Now at age 34 and two Gagarin Cups later (KHL’s championship trophy), Kovalchuk wants to come back.
Friedman and Gulitti laid out the three options for Kovalchuk to come back to the NHL.
#1 Kovalchuk signs a new deal with the New Jersey Devils and plays in 2017-18. The Devils still have Kovalchuk’s rights. It’ll require a new contract, but Kovalchuk can sign back up with the Devils right away.
When Kovalchuk left, Jeff Vanderbeek was the owner and Lou was the GM. In August 2013, Josh Harris and his group bought the Devils. In May 2015, Ray Shero was named the general manager of the Devils. Kovalchuk and his people would effectively have to negotiate with a new organization. I think this would favor his cause if he wants to be a Devil. Neither Harris or Shero were directly involved in the trade or the issues with his contract in the summer of 2013. It’s more or less a blank slate with them. I trust they can and will evaluate Kovalchuk’s services in a more objective way. Of course, if either don’t favor the man, then it’ll be more of a challenge.
#2. Kovalchuk wants to be a free agent - and every NHL team approves of his return as a free agent. This was something highlighted by Larry Brooks back in 2013 in the wake of Kovalchuk’s retirement. Once Kovalchuk turns 35, he wouldn’t be on the voluntary retired list and would then be an unrestricted free agent. Kovalchuk is 34. Therefore, for him to talk and sign with other teams, he needs to get every single teams to agree with reinstating him in this manner. This would include the Devils. While much has changed in four years, it would only take one “no” out of thirty teams (Aside: Or would it be thirty-one? Would Las Vegas have a say in this?). It could be for any reason, really. Whether it’s out of principle or not wanting someone to get his services, one rejection means Kovalchuk’s options are limited to New Jersey or sitting out until he’s 35.
#3. Kovalchuk signs a new deal with the New Jersey Devils - and is traded. A sign-and-trade is absolutely possible and perhaps would be desirable. The Devils have the cap and roster space to give Kovalchuk a deal to his liking and can do so in exchange for someone or something the Devils would actually want. His value is an open question, but I doubt it would be something small like a low or a middle draft pick. Depending on who is interested, Shero may be able to acquire some much needed help right away for his roster. In effect, the Devils would turn Kovalchuk’s return into filling another need for the team.
What Could be Kovalchuk’s Value?
Most of the excitement for Kovalchuk has to do with the player he was prior to his retirement. He was excellent at possessing the puck, he was an offensive weapon all over the zone, he shot at a high volume while creating shots for others, and he wasn’t a ghost on defense. He was a serious producer in the NHL. However, I caution those who expect Kovalchuk to pick up where he left off in 2013. Then, he was 31 years old. Now, Kovalchuk is 34 years old and he just finished 299 regular season and playoff games for SKA St. Petersburg, one of the top teams in the KHL. He also represented Russia on several occasions. That’s additional mileage on a body that played a lot of minutes at a high level throughout his career. As far as I know, he didn’t suffer a significant injury that set him back in the KHL. That’s good, but it’s a legitimate question as to whether he can re-acclimate to the NHL game as he’s nearing 35.
There are two important points that would definitely drive interest in Kovalchuk. First, Kovalchuk went to the KHL and was a top player. While he was on a stacked SKA St. Petersburg team, Kovalchuk scored 107 goals and 267 points in 245 regular season games over four seasons. His point per game rate of 1.08 ranks ninth all-time at Elite Prospects - which includes a number of players who didn’t play nearly as much as Kovalchuk did in Russia. I’m not familiar with any advanced stats for the KHL, but given that Kovalchuk’s calling card is that he’s an offensive producer, that he was consistently one of the best in the KHL would drive interest in his talents. He certainly did not lose them when he was with SKA for the last four seasons. Especially in this past season, where he led SKA in points with 32 goals, 46 assists, and 78 points and finished only behind Sergei Mozyakin in league scoring. 2016-17 was a big season for Kovalchuk and it would help him get a deal in the NHL for 2017-18.
Second, the success of Alexander Radulov in Montreal in this past season helps Kovalchuk’s cause. Radulov was known for having plenty of skill as an offensive winger, but he managed to play his way out of favor in Nashville. After four years with Salavat Yulaev Ufa followed by four more years with CSKA Moscow, Montreal took a chance on the 30-year old winger with a one year, $5.75 million contract. He made good on that deal. Radulov finished second on Montreal in scoring in this past season with 54 points, he averaged over 18 minutes per game, and a 54% CF% as per Corsica. He was one of Montreal’s best forwards in 2016-17. Talk about a redemption story. If he doesn’t get re-signed to a big deal, he’ll likely get a big deal from someone else this summer as a UFA. Radulov was in the KHL longer and put up an amazing 1.26 point-per-game rate; a rate that dwarfs Kovalchuk’s excellent 1.08 rate. But Radulov’s success will likely lead to other teams to seek out other productive players from the KHL - especially those that were in the NHL before. Kovalchuk fits that bill.
Radulov also provides a potential template on what a potential new contract would be for Kovalchuk. It’ll likely be a short contract just to see what will happen. If Radulov’s success in the KHL would garner $5.75 million (with a $3 million signing bonus), then I could see Kovalchuk earning something not too much lower than that. $5 million with a significant signing bonus may do it. Another sort-of comparable contract would be Jaromir Jagr, who went to the KHL after the 2008-09 season and returned to Philadelphia in 2011-12. Per CapFriendly, he had a $2 million salary with $2 million in performance bonuses for a cap hit of $4 million. It’s sort-of comparable as Jagr was over 35 then; he wasn’t as productive as Kovalchuk - although, I wouldn’t sneeze at a 0.96 point per game rate; and the cap wasn’t as high as it is now. Considering all of that, I think Kovalchuk would likely clear $4 million easily.
Of course, one must look at what he just made in the KHL. According to this October 2016 article at Sportfakt.ru by Andrey Kuznetsov, Kovalchuk was the KHL’s highest paid player. He was receiving the equivalent of a $5.5 million salary. There’s an angle I’ve been thinking about as I’ve written this. Could this all be leverage for a new deal with SKA St. Petersburg? While that wouldn’t rank as a high salary in the NHL, it speaks to his stature within the KHL. Plus, depending on the taxes and any escrow fees, Kovalchuk may have been able to take home more of that salary than he would have with in the NHL. I’m not sure, but the point remains: he was a big-money player. That may mean that unless he’s willing to take a pay cut to play in the NHL, then he needs to get at least $5.5 million.
Would teams be interested in Kovalchuk at $5.5 million for a season to see if he can bolster their left wing position, their power play, and their offense in general? I would think that many organizations would, having seen what Kovalchuk did in his time in the KHL and how Radulov was an asset after being a productive player in the KHL for many years. Considering that the upcoming free agent class isn’t full of very productive left wingers, and I think many organizations would be very interested.
Should the Devils Want Kovalchuk Back?
My heart says no. The Devils went through a lot to get him, they effectively made him a face of the franchise, and he retired to get away from it. I wouldn’t hold it against him forever; I’ll likely cheer if/when he scores goals for the Devils like many of the other fans. That said, I’m not at all happy with the thought that he could just come back as if nothing ever happened. He’s older, he’ll need to be re-acclimated to the NHL, and it’s questionable whether he fits with the style of play the Devils want to go in. A 34-year old Kovalchuk certainly doesn’t help the youth movement either. Yes, he’s a name but he’s likely not the same player that wowed many from earlier in this decade.
My mind doesn’t care so much about feelings. While the team added Taylor Hall last season, they were still near the bottom in many offensive statistical categories. Generating shots and scoring goals remained as foundational problems for the team. With Adam Henrique spending plenty of time at center, the left wingers featured for the Devils last season were Hall, Michael Cammalleri, Joseph Blandisi, Pavel Zacha when he wasn’t at center, and Miles Wood. Hall is an all-star. Is Kovalchuk better than Cammalleri, Blandisi, and Wood? I would hope so, especially if he’s expecting a deal around $5.5 million. Is Kovalchuk better than Henrique and Zacha as wingers? Quite possibly. Would his scouts in the KHL agree that Kovalchuk’s skills are still intact and that he could handle the NHL and the style of play the Devils want to have? If so, then it would behoove Shero to give Kovalchuk a deal to improve his roster for the short term.
That does raise a larger question: Should the Devils want to make a big move for the short term? This would likely be a short term signing. Kovalchuk would turn 35 after next season and so whatever deal he would get would stick to the cap. If Shero doesn’t plan on the Devils being a playoff team in 2017-18, then getting Kovalchuk doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The team doesn’t need to spend a lot to reach the cap floor and there are arguably other needs on the roster more pressing than left wing (like left-handed defensemen, right wingers). It’s questionable to see how he fits in a larger picture for this team. There is one big move I think Shero should pursue, but it wouldn’t be this one if only because doing this makes that one more challenging (I’ll explain more about what I’m thinking on Monday). All of this makes me hesistant.
It also makes me more in favor of a sign and trade. It would yield the best of both worlds. Kovalchuk would get to come back and play on a team that would really be able to use him without needing every NHL organization to approve it. The Devils could afford to give him a contract he wants and then trade him for an asset or assets they really could use in their rebuild whilst not committing a lot for even a short time. I see it as a potential win-win. My mind and heart would be fine with this option.
One Last Bit of Speculation
While writing this post, I have to question whether this could be a ploy to get leverage for a new contract with SKA. Kuznetsov’s article notes that Radulov turned down an offer to be paid the equivalent of $7 million to go play for Montreal. The Canadiens paid him more than Radulov’s previous contract (and more than Kovalchuk was being paid anyhow), which I’m sure helped Radulov’s decision. But that shows a real desire to want to play. I don’t doubt Kovalchuk’s desires; if he didn’t want to do it, this news probably doesn’t come out. Still, as far as I know, SKA St. Petersburg is one of the richest teams in the KHL. They could afford to give a raise to their team captain, who just helped their team win a championship and was second in the league in scoring. I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question that Kovalchuk could get offers from the NHL, go back to SKA management, and ask if they can match it. If they come back with a big offer like Radulov received, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he took that instead. I would like to think Kovalchuk’s desire to return is legitimate and it likely is, but this is another possibility that could play out in this offseason. Until he signs a NHL contract, of course.
I apologize for the rushed, general nature of this post but it appears the Devils will have another big offseason story. I hope this covers all of the aspects of what could happen with Kovalchuk. What do you think? Would you want him back with the Devils? Would you prefer he is a part of a sign-and-trade instead? Or perhaps he should want to get approval from other teams or wait another year before becoming a free agent?