Exploring Ilya Kovalchuk’s Destination Options (And Some Updates)

So here we are again. Another offseason, more Ilya Kovalchuk NHL-return rumors except they’re no longer just rumors. Kovalchuk is (99%) returning to the National Hockey League, where he was drafted first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry-Level Draft. He was eventually traded to the New Jersey Devils on February 4, 2010, where he remained until he “retired” and crossed over to the KHL during the 2012-13 lockout season after signing a monstrous 17-year, $102 million contract (July 2010). Can you tell that I’m still a little bitter? Just a little bit. Here’s an article from ESPN on the day he signed his contract. It’s actually a pretty funny article, in retrospect, and you know that it’s old because they asked Zach Parise for comments.

But I’m getting off track. Every offseason since Kovalchuk left has been filled to the brim with return rumors but he’s never actually come back (or been serious about coming back). So when the rumors started up again, Devils fans in particular were naturally a little skeptical. I still am. But it seems as if he does want to return to the NHL and win a Stanley Cup, something he could have helped the Devils win if he had stayed. Sorry, I’m getting back off track.

But here we are and Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL is happening. The Devils hold all of the cards. Because they still hold his rights (remember that behemoth of a contract I mentioned earlier?), the Devils can do whatever they want with him. They can sign him as soon as this Saturday (July 1).

What they decide to do with him after that is completely up to them. They could choose to keep him, either short-term or long-term; they could definitely use his offensive prowess but they could also decide to trade him at the trade deadline in February after determining his trade value.

What is most likely, however, is a sign-and-trade. As soon as the Devils sign him to a contract, they can trade him to whomever they want. They can get a range of players, prospects, or picks, or any combination of the three. They probably already have a sign-and-trade in place because other teams are allowed to approach the Devils and ask about him. They could have a verbal agreement in place; they just can’t do anything about it until Saturday.

I think the Devils already have an agreement in place. GM Ray Shero said a couple of days ago that they should have a clearer idea of what Kovalchuk wants to do soon but I wouldn’t be surprised if New Jersey already has an agreement in place with a team. They could sign Kovalchuk to a contract that both parties agree on and go from there.

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Kovalchuk has said that he would like to go to New York or Florida so he’ll stay in the East regardless. He could go to the Panthers, who lost Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas, or to the Lightning, who don’t have depth at left wing. If New York is the likelier possibility, he’ll either go to the Rangers or the Islanders. The Rangers don’t really need left wings but more than that, a trade between these two teams seems highly, highly unlikely. The Islanders, on the other hand, seem like a more realistic option.

But one of the more attractive options right now is Columbus. The president of the Blue Jackets, John Davidson, said that “there’s interest” in regards to a deal for Kovalchuk, and Sportsnet reported on that. They haven’t started to 100% pursue him just yet but they are looking for Top 6 talent and if Kovalchuk’s numbers in the KHL and NHL prove anything,  he is.

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Columbus could be an interesting option. Right now, the Devils’ biggest need (okay fine, one of their biggest needs) is a top-4 (at least), puck-moving defenseman. One of the names being mentioned is Ryan Murray, a 23-year old defenseman (6′ 1″, 211 lbs). He’s missed a significant amount of times with injuries. He has 60 points in 220 career games but had just nine in 60 games this past season. He missed the end of the season with a broken hand and had an upper-body injury at the beginning of it. He played his first and only complete NHL season in 2015-16, picking up 25 points. He missed most of 2014-15 with knee and ankle injuries and most of his rookie season (2012-13) with a shoulder injury.

But it’s hard to evaluate how good a defenseman is based solely on their production. Yes, it’s nice when they can chip in with a point every now and then but that’s not what they’re getting paid to do. He’s not a bad defenseman. His development has been severely hindered by his injuries but he has the potential to become a solid blue liner. I haven’t seen him play enough to make a solid judgement but based on what I have seen, he’s someone the Devils could work with. And he’s young. That’s always a bonus.

The Blue Jackets also have a ton of young defensive prospects and they could consider packaging one of them in a deal. They don’t really have draft picks: six each in each of the next two drafts, but if they’re in a win-now mode, those don’t really matter. They could consider trading one of them too (at least a second-rounder, this is Kovalchuk we’re talking about). But this is all speculation. The Blue Jackets just traded for an excellent left wing in Artemi Panarin and they have several more on the roster. Do they really need another one?

There are a few teams that could be in the market for a left wing. Chicago just lost Panarin to Columbus but they received LW Brandon Saad in return. Minnesota could use a left wing; they have Parise and Jason Zucker on the roster, and they’re looking to trade defensemen. Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella could be good options for the Devils. Anaheim could also be looking for a top-line left wing; they lost defenseman Clayton Stoner to Vegas so I don’t know how many more blue liners they would be willing to part with but Kovalchuk fills a need for them. And then there’s Edmonton. They don’t really need another left winger but a second Edmonton/New Jersey trade feels almost inevitable and Kovalchuk could be a part of it.

But we still don’t know what Kovalchuk wants or where exactly he wants to go or if he’s changed his mind about returning (he wouldn’t be able to go to the Olympics in February if he does). But as we get more updates, and we will get more updates, I’ll write about them. Happy silly season!

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