One of Ilya Kovalchuk’s last NHL memories is a tough defeat in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, when his team, the New Jersey Devils, lost to the Los Angeles Kings in-game six.
Now, after five long years spent in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia, Kovalchuk has finally returned-and he’s signed with the team who beat him in his last go-around, the LA Kings.
The Kings announced Saturday that they had signed the 35-year-old Kovalchuk to a three-year, $18.75 million deal, winning his services over other teams like Boston and San Jose.
The veteran sniper adds some much-needed scoring depth to a Kings roster that was swept this spring by NHL newcomers Las Vegas in a series which saw them score only three goals in four games, making scoring a big concern or Kings GM Rob Blake to address in the offseason. The Kings still see themselves as contenders for the Stanley Cup, and they clearly wanted to make a roster addition with the potential to have a big impact.
Kovalchuk was originally drafted first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He went on to become the highest-scoring player in franchise history, spending eight years in Atlanta and recording six straight 40-goal seasons between 2003-04 and 2009-10, including a pair of 50-goal seasons and earning a Rocket Richard Trophy. In February 2010, Kovalchuk was traded to the Devils after a dispute between him and the Thrashers organization over his next contract.
He ended up signing a new contract that September- a whopping 15-year, $100 million deal, which remains the biggest contract in NHL history. He would suit up for 185 games across three and a half seasons for the Devils and recorded 170 points, remaining one of the NHL’s top producers and helping to lead the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Controversy struck in 2013 season when Kovalchuk chose to quit the NHL, citing a desire to return home to Russia and be closer with his family.
At the time, he still had $77 million and 12 years remaining on his contract. This created an uproar, with many vindicating Kovalchuk for simply abandoning the Devils-the only positive result was that his retirement from the NHL allowed the team to avoid paying him out the remainder of his contract, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of the Devil’s brass and fans around the league.
Despite his pedigree and excellent scoring track record, it remains to be seen just how much Kovalchuk has left in the tank and what he can bring to the Kings. In the last 2 seasons playing for St. Petersburg SKA, Kovalchuk has been one of the KHL’s top scorers and point producers. He suited up for 113 games and scored 141 points.
He was also the MVP of the 2018 winter Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang where he won a gold medal with the Russian team (referred to as the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” due to the widespread doping scandal). However, it’s well-known that KHL numbers don’t necessarily transfer over to the NHL.
Plus there’s the added factor of age-Kovalchuk is past his prime, and he will definitely not be the elite scorer that he was when he played for the Devils-point-per-game numbers should not be expected from Kovalchuk.
That being said, Kovalchuk’s time in Russia has shown that he still has a certain level of ability while the KHL isn’t at the same level of the NHL, being one of the top scorers for two years and being pretty consistent during his 5-year tenure (scoring at least 40 points every season) clearly shows that he still retains some of his offensive capabilities.
That being said, there’s so many factors that play into Kovalchuk’s potential scoring output next season, such as linemates, power-play time (he should be on the positive end of both those factors) and, most importantly, foot speed. Since his last time in the NHL, the game has changed to a much quicker style with emphasis on foot speed. Being beyond his prime, Kovalchuk is almost certainly not as fast as he was, and one of his biggest challenges in the upcoming season will be adjusting to the new speed game.
That being said, if Kovalchuk can post even solid numbers- a conservative estimate would be roughly 50 points-he should be considered a valuable signing for the Kings-he doesn’t need to post elite scoring numbers to be considered a huge asset. Looking at the Kings’ scoring last season, it’s clear that the team needs a lot more depth. Only three Kings players scored more than 50 points: Anze Kopitar (97), Drew Doughty(60) and Dustin Brown (61). From there, the drop-off is steep- the Kings had only 3 forwards with at least 40 points: Tyler Toffoli (47), Jake Muzzin (42) and Tanner Pearson (40).
Adrian Kempe was the only player to score in the 30-point range and everyone else was below the 30-point threshold-not great for a team that considers itself a contender. It’s easy to see why the Kings offered Kovalchuk a large sum to help shore up their forward corps.
Ultimately, nobody really knows exactly how Kovalchuk is going to perform in his return to the NHL- there’s just too much to consider. Only time will tell what Kovalchuk’s season will look like.
One thing’s for sure though-one of the league’s best snipers is back, and this time he wants a Stanley Cup.