The Kovalchuk Conundrum: The Pros and Cons


On April 22, 2017 Elliotte Friedman reported that former New Jersey Devils forward, Ilya Kovalchuk wanted to return to the NHL, after four years in the KHL. It was further reported that he wanted to have his rights traded to either New York team or either Florida team. Right off the bat, it seems unlikely the Devils would want to make either New York team better. But, on the other hand, Philadelphia once traded Eric Lindros to the hated rival Rangers. So, you can’t just dismiss the possibility of an inter-divisional trade.

For arguments sake, let’s say it is possible and the Devils look at anything they got as found money. They are, after all, in somewhat of a rebuilding mode. But is it a move the Rangers SHOULD make?

The Pros

1) One thing the Rangers sorely lack is right-handed shooters. Currently, only Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanajad, and Jesper Fast are the only forwards that aren’t lefties among their top 12.
2) Kovalchuk is a skilled shooter. He can sit in the left circle, on the power play, and blast one-timers much like Alex Ovechkin. The Rangers power play is filled with over-passing setup men. They had good power play years when Marian Gaborik was here, because he was a legitimate sniper. Kovalchuk loves to shoot and isn’t shy about it. If he was a Blueshirt, the power play would almost have to be improved.
3) A hypothetical addition of Ilya Kovalchuk would make Pavel Buchnevich a better player. This is an educated guess. They played together on Ska St. Petersburgh in 2016, after a late season trade sent Buchnevich there. Having another Russian player, who played 11 years in the NHL, could only help Pavel’s comfort level. He may assist in bringing out the best of the younger Russian. Players that fluently speak the same language, and have the same adjustments to a different league and country, usually bond well and could get the best out of each other. Fans usually assume that Russian players must play together, and will mesh perfectly. While that’s not always the case, one is a shooter and the other (Buchnevich) is more of a playmaker.

The Cons

1) When last we saw Mr. Kovalchuk, he was an absolute turnover machine. In the lockout shortened 2013 season he put up very poor numbers (11 goals, 20 assists, 37 games), despite keeping sharp while most weren’t playing, in his native Russia. The Devils did not make the playoffs as Kovalchuk’s play seemed uninspired, and way too loose with the puck. If you remember Thomas Vanek’s play for the Islanders and Canadiens in 2013-2014, it was almost identical with Kovalchuk’s last year in the NHL.
2) He just turned 34. I am positive Jeff Gorton and his staff are pouring over tapes of his play in the last 4 years, as well as consulting scouts that saw him in person. Has he lost a step? Have his skills eroded, and to what degree? This league is constantly getting faster, as better skating youngsters enter the league, and lesser skating vets are phased out. Can he keep up? Kovalchuk was always an excellent skater that used his size (6’3′, 230) extremely well. But, father time catches up with everyone.
3) Which brings us to another issue, which is contract. How many years does he want and can the Rangers get on the same page with him on that, and monetarily. Handing out more than 2 years is extremely risky. There is almost no chance he takes a one year deal. It would be 2 or 3 years, and to me 3 is a deal breaker. Then the huge obstacle of cap number. He will probably land in the 5 million dollar range. For New York to get to that number, a lot of players would have to be moved. Starting with Girardi and Klein and quite possibly Staal (which will be very difficult). It would also entail a trade of a wing and/or losing a wing in the expansion draft. Kovalchuk wouldn’t be coming here to be a bottom six forward. He is strictly top 6, if not top 3. Is there room? I don’t see it.
4) Then comes the matter of compensation with New Jersey for his rights. All things being equal, the Devils would want to trade his rights to the other conference. Would the Devils charge the Rangers a bit more because of the rivalry, and not wanting to make a division rival better? The Rangers aren’t exactly busting at the seems with prospects or extra draft picks. This is also a tough “con” to overcome.
5) His 4 years in the KHL were very up and down. Last year he had a great regular season (32 goals, 46 assists 60 gp), but a poor playoff (6 goals 3 assists 18 gp). The year before his regular season was mediocre and playoff was a disaster as he only played 4 games, and was scoreless. He missed so many playoff games due to team suspension, and being a healthy scratch for poor play and a bad attitude.

The Verdict

To me this is a high risk possibility. Very high risk, to be exact. The Rangers are very deep on the wings, with Jimmy Vesey, Michael Grabner, and Buchnevich all took turns playing fourth line, when all are clearly top 9 forwards.

While they do need shooters, especially, right handed ones, way too many things have to happen to make this work. Then we have to hope the player still has a lot left in the tank to justify making such moves.

Jeff Gorton has already gotten the off season off to a good start by signing highly coveted college defenseman Neal Pionk, and 23 year old Russian defender Alexei Bereglazov. I think there will be a lot of turnover in the Rangers roster, but not enough for this move to happen.