In what is shaping up to be one of the biggest stories already this offseason, the former nine-time 30 goal sniper Ilya Kovalchuk may very well be making a return to the NHL. The Russian star left the New Jersey Devils after the 2012-13 season to head back home to play in the KHL for St. Petersburg SKA, where he has spent his playing days since. But he has recently expressed legitimate interest in coming back to North America to play in the NHL.
Kovalchuk, 34, has spent 12 seasons in the NHL. In his NHL career, he’s netted 417 goals and added 399 assists, totaling 816 points. That’s an average of just under 35 goals and 33 assists per season. Not too shabby. In Kovalchuk’s last four seasons in the KHL, he’s played in 209 games, scored 89 goals and assisted 133 times. In the 2016-17 KHL season, Kovalchuk had KHL career highs in goals (32), assists (46), and points (78). Despite being 34 years of age, Kovalchuk still has it.
The New Jersey Devils still own his NHL rights, as he signed a long-term extension with the team before leaving for the KHL. That means whatever team may want him will have to acquire his rights via a trade (draft picks most likely) with the Devils. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that among interested teams are the San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the St. Louis Blues, but the interest stems much further than these three teams.
Would the Blues make a move to get Kovalchuk? It’s obvious they need scoring help alongside Vladimir Tarasenko, who has scored 37 or more goals in each of his last three seasons. In those last three seasons, the Blues have only had four other players score 20 or more goals. Former captain David Backes is responsible for two of those four 20 goals seasons and is obviously no longer with the team. The two other 20-goal scorers was Patrik Berglund last season with 23, and Jaden Schwartz with 28 in the 2014-15 season. Kovalchuk could help boost the offense so that Tarasenko isn’t the Blues only primary option when it comes to goal scoring.
The Blues do have connections with Kovalchuk. He and Tarasenko played together on Team Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Kovalchuk also played with current Blues Assistant GM Martin Brodeur with the Devils from 2009 until 2013. In the 2011-12 season, both helped lead the way to a Devils team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, before being defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in six games. The connections are there.
It is reported that Kovalchuk will command about $6-7 million per season and is looking for a two or three-year deal. The Blues have some bad contracts on their roster, such as Jori Lehtera, who is scheduled to make nearly $10 million over the next two seasons. It has also been reported that the new expansion team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, would be willing to take on players with bad contracts in exchange for draft picks. But on the other side, the Devils also likely want draft picks in return for Kovalchuk’s rights.
The Blues do have a surplus in draft picks and prospects, but they also need money freed up to sign current restricted free agent Colton Parayko to a long and likely lucrative contract. Forward Robby Fabbri will also be a restricted free agent after the 2017-18 season, and will also need to be re-signed eventually, so a Kovalchuk contract may not be able to work. Blues GM Doug Armstrong is not known for making huge offseason splashes, and it is customary of Blues fans to not expect big transactions from Armstrong very often.
There’s no doubt that Kovalchuk still has a lot left in the tank, and could easily help the Blues offense. But can/will the Blues front office make a contract for Kovalchuk work? According to CapFriendly.com, the Blues have just under $4.5 million cap space available for the 2017-18 season. If the Blues want Kovalchuk bad enough, they can make some moves to make it happen. But as for if they actually want to do it, the only ones who know that is Armstrong and his close associates in the front office. If you’re high on Kovalchuk, I wouldn’t exactly get your hopes up for seeing the sniper land in STL, but at the same time, there is a slight chance. Stay tuned for what should be an interesting summer with the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.