Free Agent Profile: Ilya Kovalchuk

The KHL superstar will be one of the biggest names on the market this summer, but is he worth the price?

Depending on who you ask, the 2018 Unrestricted Free Agent class could be considered a bit underwhelming. The headliner, John Tavares, might not even make it to July 1, and besides skaters like John Carlson, James Van Riemsydk, and James Neal, there aren’t many top NHL players available.

The key term here is NHL players, as in players currently under an NHL contract that’s about to expire. And that brings us to perhaps the biggest wild card of this year’s UFA class — KHL superstar Ilya Kovalchuk.

A quick refresher: Kovalchuk was drafted 1st overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001, and played with them until he was traded to the New Jersey Devils during the 2009-2010 season. After hitting Free Agency and negotiating with several teams in the 2010 offseason, he re-signed with the New Jersey Devils with a 17 year, $102 million deal. After the contract was rejected by the NHL for attempting to circumvent the salary cap, Kovalchuk and the Devils agreed to a  new 15 year, $100 million deal.

In 2013, only three years into his contract, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL to return home to Russia, where he proceeded to play for SKA St. Petersburg for the past five years. Kovalchuk’s contract with New Jersey has since been voided by the NHL, and he will be able to come back to the NHL under a completely new contract as of July 1.

Kovalchuk has confirmed he plans to return to the NHL, which begs the big question for the Dallas Stars and their fans — should the team pursue Kovalchuk in Free Agency? Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.

The Reasons For Signing Ilya Kovalchuk

First of all, Dallas is in desperate need of another top six forward. As discussed before, secondary scoring was the largest reason for the team’s eight-game losing streak in March. The team’s fourth leading scorer, John Klingberg, had almost twice as many points (67) as the fifth leading scorer, Mattias Janmark (34). It seems likely that Valeri Nichuhskin will return after spending the past two seasons in the KHL, but even if Nichuskin is able to add an offensive spark to the top nine, it still won’t be enough.

Enter Kovalchuk. In the NHL, Kovalchuk scored 417 goals and made 399 assists in 816 games played, putting him at exactly one point per game. His KHL totals the past six years have been even more impressive — 138 goals and 189 assists for a total of 327 points in just 298 games. He also notched five goals and two assists in six games during the 2018 Winter Olympics, which was good for third on the gold medal-winning OAR squad.

Even if you’re afraid of his point values dropping in the NHL, Kovalchuk will still likely be able to put up 50 to 60 points a season at the least. He could play on the Stars’ top line or second line, as well as the first power play unit, giving the team the extra firepower they so desperately need.

And you know what the best part is? The Stars might not even need a horrible, long-term deal to land Kovalcuk. Considering his age — he turned 35 in April — and the fact that he hasn’t played in the NHL for five years, it’s possible Kovalchuk might just sign a two to three year deal, or even a one year “prove it” deal, instead of five or more. The cap hit likely wouldn’t be too bad either, probably landing in the $5-6 million range, which is basically covered by Kari Lehtonen’s expiring contract.

Of course, this is all assuming the Stars could even convince Kovalchuk to sign with them — everyone seems to assume he’ll sign with the New York Rangers. But unlike the Rangers, the Stars give Kovalchuk a solid chance at competing for a Stanley Cup right away. Not to mention he seems to be on pretty good terms with Alexander Radulov, who might be able to convince his fellow Russian to come to Dallas:

The Reasons Against Signing Ilya Kovalchuk

You read the part about his age, right? Kovalchuk is 35 years old, which means he’s already several years past the typical peak of an NHL forward. So maybe we’re looking at 50 to 60 points a season at the most, with a potential drop-off after just a couple of seasons. After all, Jason Spezza dropped from 50 points in 68 games to 26 in 78 last season, and he’s a full year younger than Kovalchuk.

Speaking of aging veterans, do Stars fans really want to see yet another 30-plus forward taking up the ice time of the team’s young rising stars? What if a player like Valeri Nichuskin, Jason Dickinson, or Roope Hintz would break out next season with top six ice time, yet are instead relegated to the third or fourth line because of Kovalchuk? If you can get potentially 40 to 50 points from one of those players at a fraction of the cap hit, would signing Kovalchuk really be worth getting maybe 10 or so more points?

Another thing to consider — does anyone really believe that Kovalchuk will sign a short-term contract? Everyone seems to be expecting a two to three year deal, which would be a really good deal for the team that signs him. That is exactly why we shouldn’t expect a short team deal for Kovalchuk. If we’ve learned everything over the past decade or so, it’s that UFA deals are almost always terrible long-term contracts that teams almost immediately regret (see: the Toronto Maple Leafs and David Clarkson, the Vancouver Canucks and Loui Eriksson, the Edmonton Oilers and Milan Lucic, etc.).

Sure, the Stars have a recent example of a great UFA signing in Alexander Radulov (five years at a $6.25M cap hit), but Radulov is the exception, not the norm. The chances are that some big market team like the Rangers or the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Islanders are going to throw a bunch of money and term at Kovalchuk to get him to sign with them. And at that point, if you’re going to be throwing that much money and term at a free agent, you’re better off targeting the likes of a 30-year-old forward such as James Van Riemsdyk or James Neal, not a 35-year-old like Kovalchuk.

The Final Verdict

So should the Dallas Stars try to sign Ilya Kovalchuk or not? Personally, I think it boils down to two key factors: the contract and whether or not the Stars could land a different top six forward. Whether it’s Max Pacioretty with only one year left, Mark Stone with a brand new RFA contract, or Neal/Van Riemsdyk on a five to six deal similar to Radulov’s, a different acquisition could give the team more “bang for their buck.” And if Kovalchuk’s asking price is four-plus years, I’m not sure I’d even consider offering him, let alone trying to out-bid other teams for him.

But if Kovalchuk is willing to come to the Stars for two to three years and is the Stars’ best (reasonable) acquisition, then I’m all for it. Maybe we’ll all be complaining about a struggling Kovlachuk taking up some rookie’s potential minutes further down the road, but it would be worth it if Kovalchuk can help push the team from “possible playoff team” to “Stanley Cup contender.”

Should the Stars Pursue Ilya Kovlachuk in UFA?

Neutral or Not Sure115