By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
With a double-digit lead in the Atlantic, and with two months to go before the trade deadline, the Bruins are in a perfect position to take a low-risk, high-reward gamble should one present itself.
And that most certainly has with the termination of Ilya Kovalchuk’s three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Kings, which has put the 36-year-old back on the market and in search of a new home.
See what I’m getting at here? If not, allow me: Don Sweeney should absolutely take a chance on Kovalchuk.
Now, let’s not be blind to the facts here: Kovalchuk was a disaster with the Kings. I’d argue that it was a poor fit from the start, but when they offer you almost $20 million over three years, something many of the other potential suitors (including the Bruins) were 100 percent unwilling to do, you’re sorta forced to grab the green and hope for the best. Skating in 81 games over two years with LA, Kovalchuk put up just 19 goals and 43 points, and was straight-up taken out of their lineup earlier this season. He was told he could practice with the team, but that he would not draw into the lineup until further notice. Ouch.
The Kings tried their best to move Kovalchuk out of Hollywood, too, but nobody was touching his $6.25 million with a 10-foot pole. They couldn’t even get somebody to bite on a retained salary deal, meaning that they’re swallowing that cap hit as an over-35 contract on their books for this year and next season. Just to free up his spot on the roster, really. Again, ouch.
These facts seemingly do a more-than-solid job of damning Kovalchuk as a viable fix in today’s game.
But let’s look at the facts from Boston’s point of view: It’s nearly Christmas and the Bruins are still a team without a second line.
Their best version of a second line, which sees Charlie Coyle moved out of his third-line center spot and to the right of David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, leaves them without a third line. The B’s have done their part to find a second line, too. When it comes to finding a fit for the Krejci-DeBrusk combo, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has tried Coyle, Karson Kuhlman, Brett Ritchie, Peter Cehlarik, Danton Heinen, David Backes, Anders Bjork, and double-shifting David Pastrnak. Hell, even Chris Wagner got a crack to skate with the second-line duo earlier this season. And still, not a single long-term fix has emerged.
(Wednesday’s practice saw Ritchie once again skate with the Krejci-DeBrusk tandem.)
There’s also the fact that Kovalchuk, even as a forward who has not played since Nov. 9 and has just nine points in 17 games this season, would be Boston’s ninth-most productive forward this season. Take the superhuman Bergeron Line out of that grouping and Kovalchuk would be the Black and Gold’s sixth-most productive forward. Kovalchuk’s 3-6-9 stat line is also better than what the Bruins have gotten out of the Backes-Ritchie duo this year (they’ve combined for three goals and seven points).
…But is he cooked? It’s a perfectly fair question to ask given his age and the undeniable struggles in Los Angeles. But Kovalchuk’s usage in Los Angeles was strange to say the least; it seemed as if Kovalchuk would show you a little something, build off it, and then plummet back down to bottom-six minutes. The multiple coaching changes did not help. Yet, Kovalchuk still averaged 1.73 points per 60 minutes of even-strength play during his 81-game run as a King, meaning he did take advantage of his ice-time more often than not. In fact, that 1.73 per 60 since the start of 2018-19 is better than players such as Marcus Johansson and Coyle, both of whom provided major lifts to the Bruins on their run to the 2019 Cup Final.
Speed and puck-management would be highlighted as potential issues, and rightfully so.
But this would be the equivalent of a free sample for the Bruins. It’s been reported that Kovalchuk wants to stay in the NHL, and is willing to take a league-minimum salary for a chance with a contender. That’s less than what the Bruins are paying for some of their fringe pieces, and it’s even cheaper than some of their AHL callup options. For a player who can still shoot the puck, and for an offense that could use a little more finish, that’s a gamble you take ten times out of ten. There’s legitimately no risk. If he struggles, you terminate the contract (like the Kings did) and move on. And you move on without severely impacting the long-term goals of your club, or your ability to swing another deadline deal to elevate your forward group back to Cup status. But if he works out, you now have another weapon on a team that certainly needs ’em beyond the first line.
The potential pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to bringing Kovalchuk to Boston, and fortunately for the Bruins, it doesn’t take a regrettable 10 figures and a multi-year commitment to realize that this time around.