By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It has been 1,878 days since Ilya Kovalchuk last played in the National Hockey League. It will be just under 2,000 days between NHL games when Kovalchuk makes his expected return to pro hockey’s biggest stage later this year.
But this is not something that the Bruins, one of the teams most interested in signing Kovalchuk this summer, should fear.
First of all, it’s not as if the 35-year-old Kovalchuk’s expected move back to the NHL is something new.
Jaromir Jagr was the first player in recent history to leave the NHL for the KHL and then come back to the NHL.
During his three-year excursion with Omsk, Jagr remained effective, with 66 goals and 146 points in 155 games. And when he came back to the NHL in 2011, Jagr produced the third-most points among all Philadelphia skaters, with 19 goals and 54 points in 73 games. He then added one goal and eight points in 11 postseason games. It was just the tip of the iceberg for the Czech legend, too, who would go on to record 120 goals and total 322 points in 460 games over six post-KHL seasons. Splitting that run between six different teams, Jagr’s sequel was arguably at its best in his first full year in Florida, with 27 goals and 66 points in 79 games for the Panthers. That was in Jagr’s fifth season back on NHL ice, and at the age of 43.
There’s some that believe that Jagr would not have returned to the National Hockey League and made the multi-year impact he made without that three-year getaway of sorts in the KHL. It was in the KHL that shorter seasons created a better long-term fit for the body while empty arenas reignited the passion for performing under the game’s brightest lights.
Alex Radulov experienced a similar success story upon his second move from the NHL to the KHL and then back again.
After a failure of a return in Nashville in 2012, Radulov pivoted back to the KHL, where he skated for CSKA Moscow in four straight seasons. In Russia, Radulov was his highly effective self, with 78 goals and 238 points in 181 games.
But the 31-year-old Radulov returned to the NHL in 2016, signing a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens.
The 6-foot-1 winger thrived in his first (and only) season with the Habs, finishing the year with 18 goals and 54 points, making him Montreal’s second-highest scorer. Radulov then parlayed that one-year deal into a five-year, $31.25 million contract with the Stars. With money and financial security, Radulov was even better, with 27 goals and 72 points in 82 games this past season. Radulov, whose ‘issues’ in the National Hockey League were always more away from the ice than on it, found a way to succeed in the NHL these past two seasons while having played just 17 games in the NHL in the eight seasons prior.
Even Evgeny Dadonov, a player that did not exactly wow in his previous NHL stints, came back to the NHL this past season after five straight seasons in the KHL and scored 28 goals and tallied 65 points for the Panthers.
It’s almost as if great players can be great players no matter the league.
It’s almost as if your fears regarding NHLers-turned-KHLers-back-to-NHLers are all completely made-up boogeyman stories.
Five years away is five years away, and there’s no denying that the game has changed since then. It’s gotten faster and more skilled since ‘Kovy’ left to get out of his contract in Jersey. But it’s not as if the now 35-year-old Kovalchuk didn’t play with many of those qualities during his time in the NHL. Or that he has been sitting at home stuffing his face with vatrushkas.
In fact, he’s remained beyond active. Since ‘retiring’ from the NHL, Kovalchuk has skated in five straight seasons in the KHL. He has been a point-per-game talent in his last four seasons with SKA St. Petersburg, too. Kovalchuk has also twice represented Russia in the Olympics over that span, with eight goals and 10 points in 11 Olympic contests.
Also: Kovalchuk is coming back to North America to win a Stanley Cup. He’s won in the KHL, he’s won Olympic gold, and now it’s about the Stanley Cup. He just saw Alex Ovechkin pull it off, and know he thinks it’s his turn. That means a whole lot more than a player simply saying, ‘Yeah, well I’m bored in Russia and want to come back.’ That mindset on the part of Kovalchuk, who had 11 goals and 27 points in 32 career NHL playoff games, means you’re getting a motivated (read as: productive) talent.
The ‘basics’ of Kovalchuk’s game is still there, too. He’s still the 6-foot-3 body that beats defenders in a multitude of ways. His shot is still booming, whether it’s from the point on the power play, streaking down the wing, or from between the circles.
Now, I can’t sit here and tell you that Kovalchuk’s overseas stats and success of those that previously made this jump back to the NHL will directly translate to success for Kovalchuk in North America: Part II of his professional career. That’d be dumb.
But I can tell you that it’d be even dumber to sit here and try to paint them as anything even resembling a negative.
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.