Ilya Kovalchuk still hasn't decided on where to play if he makes his NHL return, but the Columbus Blue Jackets could offer him the money, minutes and a chance to win.
When reports began to circulate that Ilya Kovalchuk was strongly considering a return to the NHL, the belief was the Russian winger would have made his decision by now, some expecting the 34-year-old to have found himself a new home by the time July 1 rolled around. But as the first weekend of this summer’s signing season has come and gone, Kovalchuk, who has to decide where to go before the New Jersey Devils move him, is still without a destination for the 2017-18 campaign.
That a decision from Kovalchuk has taken this long will have some believing that this will be yet another instance of a teased NHL return resulting in another contract in the KHL, but rest assured that there has been reported interest from a few clubs about when it comes to bringing Kovalchuk aboard this summer. And among those teams, there may not be a more intriguing possibility than Kovalchuk landing with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like the most obvious fit, with potential for Kovalchuk to also end up somewhere on the East Coast, possibly even with the New York Rangers, but it seems awfully clear that the Blue Jackets are looking to add some offense this summer. If that wasn’t the case, Columbus wouldn’t have gone out and made the blockbuster pre-draft deal with the Chicago Blackhawks that brought Artemi Panarin to town in exchange for Brandon Saad. But the Blue Jackets could add even more offense — and a former SKA St. Petersburg one-two punch — by bringing Kovalchuk into the fold, as well.
It’s impossible to know exactly what level of production Kovalchuk can bring or whether he can score at the same 30-goal, near point-per-game rate he was during his final seasons with the Devils, but the fact is Kovalchuk, even as he gets into his mid-30s, has produced at a pretty stellar clip in the KHL. Better yet, he’s coming off of his very best KHL campaign in 2016-17. In 60 games with SKA, Kovalchuk scored 32 goals and 78 points, finishing second in the league in scoring and posting the third-best points per game rate.
And even if Kovalchuk is 34, there’s recent history of KHL imports having success in their return to the NHL. Look no further than Alexander Radulov. Before coming back to the NHL this past season, Radulov was consistently putting together seasons where he eclipsed the point per game rate. The expectation was he’d be a consistent scorer in the NHL when he returned for his first full season in North America since 2007-08, and that was absolutely the case. He put up 18 goals and 54 points for the Montreal Canadiens, finishing as their second-highest scorer, and there’s no reason Kovalchuk couldn’t do similar for the Blue Jackets.
Anything that resembled a season close to that of Radulov’s would make Kovalchuk a great addition for Columbus, too. While the Blue Jackets did have one of the most effective offenses in the league this past season — their 247 goals were sixth-most in the NHL — keeping pace with the highest flying teams in the Metropolitan Division won’t be easy. The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, led the league with 278 goals. The Washington Capitals, who will look largely the same, finished third with 261 goals. Also in the top 10 in goals for were the New York Rangers, fourth with 253 goals, and the New York Islanders, 10th with 239 goals. In the fast-paced, high-scoring division that is the Metropolitan, adding scoring to keep pace is a must.
That said, some might suggest Kovalchuk will need to bring more than scoring ability if he wants to play in Columbus, and that’s absolutely true. Coach John Tortorella loves his teams to play strong at both ends of the ice, and a two-way game is a necessity in his systems. What some might be forgetting about Kovalchuk, however, is that his defensive game was showing signs of improvement as his career wore on. Is he stronger offensively than defensively? No question, but he can chip in on both sides of the puck and averaged nearly one minute of shorthanded ice time per game over his three full seasons as a Devil. He even received a vote for the Selke Trophy in his final season in New Jersey. Take that to mean what you will.
There’s really nothing stopping Columbus from going all-in to get Kovalchuk, either. While some may balk at the reported asking price of $6 million-plus per season on a short-term deal, it’s not as if the Blue Jackets are in a place where inking Kovalchuk to that type of contract is going to completely handcuff them. As it stands, Columbus has more than $12.8 million to work with throughout the remainder of the summer and only two restricted free agents, Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg, who are still without new deals.
Additionally, it’s the long-term outlook of, say, a three-year, $18-million deal doesn’t really put Columbus in an awful spot. Cam Atkinson could be looking for a new deal next off-season, as will Boone Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand, but the Blue Jackets are currently projected to have more than $29.7 million in cap space next off-season, which would still be $23 million-plus if Kovalchuk was signed at $6 million per season.
It’s not as if the Blue Jackets have made many splashes this off-season, either. While they’ve reportedly chased Matt Duchene, it appears those trade talks have hit a snag, and adding offense to keep pace in the Metropolitan may come down to looking at the open market. And while Kovalchuk isn’t exactly a free agent, he’s as close as it gets and it seems like he could be persuaded into suiting up for the Blue Jackets.
The fit, the money and the opportunity exist in Columbus, and though they wouldn’t have been the early frontrunner, the Blue Jackets could be the perfect destination for the veteran sniper.
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