Yeah, remember him? It’s hard not to.
Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the New Jersey Devils and the National Hockey League has been rumored for a while but speculation reached its peak yesterday, when Elliotte Freidman (Hockey Night in Canada) confirmed that Kovalchuk does, in fact, want to return to the NHL after spending the last five years in the KHL.
Freidman talks more about it here: http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/headlines-kovalchuk-considering-nhl-return/
Kovalchuk’s career numbers in the NHL are pretty impressive. He has a point per game: 417 goals and 399 assists (816 points) in 816 games played. He had 89 goals and 112 assists (201 points) in 222 games with the Devils, including 11-20-31 in 37 games in the 2012-13 lockout season. He did go to the Stanley Cup Final with New Jersey in 2012, and tallied 37-46-83 in 77 games that season.
He’s been good in the KHL too. He has 124 goals and 173 assists (297 points) in 299 games played between 2012-17. He signed a temporary contract with them back during the 2012-13 lockout season but opted to return on a four-year contract when the Devils season ended just short of the postseason. He’s won the Gagarin Cup twice with SKA (Saint Petersburg), once in 2014-15 and the other just recently (2017). Devils prospect Yegor Rykov also plays for SKA. Kovalchuk tallied 32 goals and 78 points during the 2016-17 regular season, and six goals (nine points) during the postseason.
But it’s hard not to be bitter. He signed a monstrous contract with the intention to stay in New Jersey but left the team instead. Remember that 17-year deal he inked in 2010? Worth $102 million? He would have theoretically been with the team until 2027. 2027. He also signed the longest ever NHL contract at the time, and it was unfathomable. He rejected a 12-year, $101-million contract with the Atlanta Thrashers (yeah, remember them too?), the team that drafted him 1st overall in 2001, before they traded him to New Jersey. A player only signs and an organization only offers a contract that big if the player intends to remain the team for the entirety of their career and even then, 17 years is a bit much. Kovalchuk would be 44 at the contract’s end.
The rumors of his return have been there ever since he left but this is a confirmation. His intention is to come back to the NHL (whether this means coming back to the Devils too is something else entirely) and his return could go any number of ways. The Devils could sign him to a new contract because his old contract would be invalidated. New Jersey can opt to keep him; the hockey gods know that the team could use someone with his offensive capabilities. Imagine a top line with him and Taylor Hall, just imagine. Kovalchuk’s production hasn’t dropped since going to the KHL and he definitely isn’t past his prime. His numbers make it hard not to entertain the idea of him returning to the team and helping them out offensively (a category in which they’ve struggled virtually since his departure). The Devils could also ink him to a new contract just to use him as a trade piece. I’m sure there will be plenty of teams interested in trading for him with what he brings to the table (to the ice?) and because the Devils are still in a rebuild, he could bring back a nice (and useful) return (think players and picks). And if his intentions are not to stay in New Jersey and he wants to play elsewhere from the get-go, he would have to get every single NHL GM’s seal of approval (which, realistically, probably won’t happen).
As a Devils fan, I’m torn. I’m still bitter about him leaving and I don’t know if I’ll ever not be bitter. But he’s a good trade chip, especially for the Devils and with the upcoming Vegas expansion draft. The team could net a lofty return for Kovalchuk, players and picks that could help them in the long-run. If they don’t trade him and instead keep him, his offensive production would go a long way to help New Jersey return to the postseason for the first time since 2012. Any team would be lucky to have a player of his caliber.
Looking at the bigger picture, let him come back. Let him play for New Jersey. Let him play for someone else. I really don’t know how I would react either way. I can see every argument for and against him returning. I’ll come to terms with him eventually. The Devils can really only benefit from him returning, whether it’s him helping their offense or getting traded for picks/prospects/players. It’s a win-win situation for the team but for the fans? That’s a little harder. All I do know is that if he does come back, the NHL better be paying attention.