By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Don Sweeney has confirmed the Boston Bruins' interest in 35-year-old free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who is returning to the NHL after five-plus seasons in the KHL in Russia. And whether or not the B's land him will help decide what the GM does with his top line.
Especially when you consider how well David Pastrnak played with David Krejci for the Czech Republic in the IIHF World Championships, the possibility of breaking up the top line of Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand is ostensibly on the table. Sweeney should also consider how heavily the B's depended on the trio in the playoffs; the line combined for 41 points in the team's five postseason wins, while scoring just 12 points combined in their seven losses.
So if Pastrnak is moved down to the second line with Krejci, would that make Kovalchuk the Bruins' choice to play right wing on the top line?
As Sweeney explained when he met with reporters at the NHL Draft Combine on May 31, lines are typically assembled in pairs as teams seek complementary pieces to fill them out. Bergeron and Marchand, for instance, are a duo that simply won't be split up. Krejci, on the other hand, has no clear partner.
"Yeah, we’re just trying to field the best, most competitive team that we can," Sweeney said when asked if he's comfortable re-shaping his top-six forwards. "Anders Bjork started [on the No. 1 line] this year, and a lot of teams have worked in sets of two, you know to keep combinations of two together. Does that mean that Krejci and Pastrnak become a combination of two, or is it now Jake DeBrusk and Krejci become a combination of two? These are things we’re kind of going through."
Sweeney also acknowledged that pairing Krejci with Pastrnak is "an option" for them going into the 2018-19 season, but also that Nash could stay in the fold and resume his role as the No. 2 right wing. Now, you could switch in the name "Kovalchuk" and have the same situation - except Kovalchuk would give him even more flexibility.
"Whether or not it’s a player from the outside, whether that’s Rick Nash, whether somebody goes up and plays, I think Bruce [Cassidy] is excited about sort of the younger forwards and the options that he has to try some of those things," Sweeney said. "I don’t think anything is set in stone. It’s certainly a coach’s decision, but we’ll have some conversations. We feel that our top six – I think Rick Nash from a size and puck protection standpoint, gave us something that was maybe missing in that regard, so we’re cognizant of it."
Kovalchuk would present similar size and almost the same skill set as Nash, except as a right-shooting winger. But overall, Kovalchuk has always been a more productive player than Nash. Kovalchuk has averaged 0.54 goals per game over his NHL career, while Nash has averaged 0.41. "Kovy" has averaged exactly a point per game in the NHL (816 points in as many games), while Nash through age 29 averaged 0.8 points per game. Kovalchuk is better than Nash. Always has been.
For that reason, Kovalchuk could even be a candidate to play right wing alongside Bergeron and Marchand - something Nash clearly never was. During his time with the New Jersey Devils, Kovalchuk developed more of a two-way game and even earned some time on the penalty kill. So he may not be totally out of place with the top group.
Of course, that would allow Pastrnak to shift down to Krejci's line and potentially give the Bruins two dangerous scoring lines as opposed to just one. This would also be contingent on Krejci, you know, staying healthy and playing at the 60-point level he's still capable of (we think). The B's getting older in their top-six forwards may not be ideal for a team with one of the better young cores and prospect pipelines in the league. But a short-term commitment for a player who hasn't forgotten how to hockey because he went to Russia for five years wouldn't ruin their long-term outlook.
The alternatives are to sign someone else in free agency, trade away more assets to bring in someone else, or move one of their young left-shooting prospects to the right side. The last option is also far from ideal. If you're dead-set against Kovalchuk mainly because of his age, then you can't also throw the Michael Felger "too, too young" argument out there because they moved someone like Danton Heinen to the top line. Gotta make a choice there at some point.
Ultimately, there's probably not a perfect player out there to fill out their top-six on the right line, certainly not right away. Concessions will likely have to be made, whether it's in terms of age, fit, production, etc. For a dynamic winger with size, experience, and skills beyond just shooting, Kovalchuk may be the best target for the foreseeable future - and the best option to break up the top line while keeping the top-six as strong as it can be.
Matt Dolloff 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 Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].