In a story that appeared in today’s Asbury Park Press, the Devils’ beat writer for The Record, Andrew Gross, confirmed that Ilya Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman has had talks with Devils GM Ray Shero about his return to the NHL.
Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with the Devils in 2010 before abruptly retiring in 2013 and going to the KHL to play for SKA Saint Petersburg. The now-34-year-old Russian winger played four seasons in Russia before informing Shero of his desire to return to the NHL a few weeks ago. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun first broke the news on his Twitter account. Shero, according to LeBrun on Tuesday, has given Grossman and Kovalchuk permission to speak with the other 30 NHL clubs for a sign-and-trade. Kovalchuk will not be eligible for the NHL Expansion Draft because the earliest he can sign is July 1, after that takes place.
One place where Kovalchuk will most likely not land is New Jersey. Shero, according to Gross, does not want to sign older players to bigger contracts until the Devils are in contention again as part of the Devils’ rebuilding process. Also, given Kovalchuk’s age, he would likely want to come back to a contender. He does have to sign with the Devils in order to be reinstated into the league – because the Devils own his NHL rights – but the Devils can deal him away once they have him signed on July 1.
Kovalchuk was the number one overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. He was traded to the Devils at the trade deadline in 2010. He has played in 816 NHL regular season games, scoring 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points. In 32 Stanley Cup playoff games (four with Atlanta and 28 with the Devils, split between three appearances), he has 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points. He was a member of the Devils 2012 team that lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.
Kovalchuk has also had issues with back injuries in the past. But some speculation is that playing the less physical KHL, with its bigger rink and more room to skate, has given him some time to heal (as best he can) and he should be serviceable.
The real question is where he would fit. The Devils do need some help on the blueline, so getting a top defenseman for him would be great. But is that a pipedream? Nobody really knows what Kovalchuk will be able to do once back in the NHL. He put up 32 goals and 46 assists according to Gross in the KHL last season, but is that indicative of what an older Kovalchuk could do in the NHL, by far a tougher league than the KHL in terms of physical play? What kind of haul would a Kovalchuk deal net for the Devils?
We will find out around July 1 exactly where this is going for Kovalchuk and the Devils.