By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s been five years since Ilya Kovalchuk last skated on NHL ice.
Since then, Kovalchuk’s recorded 120 goals and 285 points in 262 KHL games for SKA St. Petersburg, including back-to-back 30-goal seasons. In addition to his KHL domination, the No. 1 overall pick from 2001 (finally) captured gold at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, with five goals and seven points in seven games for the Olympic Athletes of Russia.
Now, at 35 years old, Kovalchuk has expressed an interest in returning to the NHL this season.
The Boston Bruins, by the way, are among those considered a ‘top contender’ to bring Kovalchuk back to the North America.
To some, Kovalchuk is an expired talent whose best days are behind him, making him another veteran the Bruins are needlessly obsessed with. Others cling to this nonsensical, borderline xenophobic belief that any and all Russian NHL players are me-first players that quit on their teams when things get rough. Those believing that have sipped on one too many Cherry and Milbury-flavored rants. (Oh, and if you were Kovalchuk, you would have bolted in an attempt to get out of that contract that would’ve kept him in New Jersey until a nuclear meltdown, too, so don’t lie.) Some will even think up some other excuse to tell you that he doesn’t fit the (vastly overhyped) long-term plans of the Black and Gold.
But don’t overthink this at all: Kovalchuk is the exact kind of player you should want to add to the Bruins.
In addition to the Bruins, the short list of teams reportedly interested in Kovalchuk or vice versa include the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings (Kovalchuk met with them this past weekend), New York Rangers, and San Jose Sharks.
Why do the Sharks want him so bad? Because his coach in New Jersey, Pete DeBoer, is currently running the show behind the bench in San Jose. With firsthand experience coaching the player, DeBoer absolutely loves him. The feeling seems mutual. Allegedly ‘difficult’ players don’t have coaches pining for them to return to their new team half a decade later.
The Sharks are also going all in yet again, and have the luxury of Joe Thornton apparently willing to take a massive pay-cut to bring a high-priced free agent talent into the frame for a legitimate run at the Cup before his beard reaches his knees.
There’s been considerably mutual interest between the Rangers and Kovalchuk for years now, though that dates back to when the Rangers were a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. That’s changed — and quickly. The Kings are another team that’s always had some semblance of Kovy plans in the back of their minds, though their franchise’s stock has taken a similar dip to that of the Rangers (though not as bad). The Red Wings, meanwhile, know that Kovalchuk is the kind of talent that can either draw others to their market and/or be flipped for a massive haul of assets at some point. They’d be stupid not to call.
But why do the Bruins have an interest?
In a free agent market thin on legitimate top-six talent, the Bruins have given heavy consideration to bringing Rick Nash back on a short-term deal. Despite his postseason struggles, the Bruins obviously loved what a healthy Nash did for them in the regular season, sure. But interest in another go with a player that’s become defined by his postseason shortcomings is just as much an indictment on the top-heavy free agent market as it is their infatuation with what the 6-foot-4 Nash can do.
Similar to Nash, though, the Bruins have to love the versatility and options that Kovalchuk can bring to their lineup.
A 6-foot-3 right shot (and an absolute cannon of a shot at that), Kovalchuk prefers to play on the left wing, where the Bruins are obviously loaded, but has experience on the right side. He played a ton of right wing during his tenure with the Devils, especially when the Devils wanted to load up with Kovalchuk opposite Zach Parise for a downright dangerous one-two punch on the wings. Imagine the Bruins doing this with Kovalchuk opposite Brad Marchand or Jake DeBrusk? Goodness.
Kovalchuk’s power-play presence, with a shot similar to the one Alex Ovechkin provides in Washington, is something that could give the Bruins dueling bullets on the man advantage between Kovalchuk and fourth-year pro David Pastrnak.
The Russian top-sixer is the exact kind of player that can give the Bruins some legitimately unmatched offensive depth, which remains the Bruins’ best bet at contending with the likes of the Capitals, Penguins, and Lightning next year. Especially when top-four defensive upgrades are few and far between, and cost you an arm, leg, and limb to be named later.
And if we’re being honest, if this summer upgrading comes down to re-signing Nash or taking a two- or three-year gamble on Kovalchuk, I don’t even think this should be anything close to a debate. It’s Kovalchuk every single time.
Don’t believe me? Chew on this: Since 2007, Kovalchuk has scored 11 goals and totaled 27 points in 32 playoff games. Nash, meanwhile, has just seven more goals and 19 more points in 57 more games over that same stretch. What Kovalchuk lacks in longevity, he’s obviously made up for in production on the NHL’s biggest stage. Experiencing postseason play in just three runs between the Atlanta Thrashers and Devils, Kovalchuk’s 0.84 points per playoff game rank as the 40th-best among all forwards over that 12-year sample. That figure is better than Boston playoff heroes of yesteryear such as Nathan Horton and David Krejci, as well as players such as Daniel Sedin, Marian Hossa, and Marty St. Louis.
OK, so what will it take?
It’s believed that Kovalchuk wants a contract similar to the one Patrick Marleau was signed to by the Toronto Maple Leafs (three years, $18.75 million in total, good for a $6.25 million cap hit). That contract also came with a full no-movement clause for Marleau, who was 37 years old at the time he signed the deal. Marleau seems worth the money through one year in Toronto, with 27 goals in 82 regular-season games and another four goals and five points in seven playoff games.
And even five years removed from donning the NHL shield on his jersey, those are numbers Kovalchuk could deliver.
There’s likely some wiggle room for Kovalchuk when talking about a Marleau-esque contract, too, whether it be half a million less or two years instead of three. Given the fact that he’s coming back to the National Hockey League to win a Stanley Cup, there’s likely a concession to be made on his part to find that optimal scenario at winning.
It also fits in with the B’s two-year window before second contracts for their young guns dominate the salary cap.
Making him the perfect gamble you should want to see the Bruins take this summer.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.