It’s over. Less than 18 months into a three-year, $18.75-million contract, a deal under which Ilya Kovalchuk suited up in just 81 games for Los Angeles, the Kings have officially placed the 36-year-old on waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. And come tomorrow, the once star NHL scorer will be free to find himself a new home.
This is all the result of a failed experiment between the two sides, one that flopped so spectacularly that the Kings and Kovalchuk eventually parting ways is an idea that has been bandied about for the better part of the past year. Though it’s a fit that worked at first – Kovalchuk scored 14 points in his first 16 games in Los Angeles – a pair of coaching changes resulted in diminishing playing time for the veteran winger and a subsequent downturn in his production. Across the final 48 games in which he appeared last season, Kovalchuk mustered 11 goals and 20 points, and his three goals and nine points in 17 games this season put him on the path to another underwhelming season.
His output this season, of course, all came before Kovalchuk and the Kings came to an early November decision to take him out of the lineup. Though he has remained skating with the team, not once since Nov. 9 has he seen game action, and it was understood at that point that there were only two courses of action: either the Kings find a way to re-home former NHL goal-scoring champion or Los Angeles eventually terminates Kovalchuk’s deal. Now we know which way the two sides are proceeding, though it’s not all that surprising given there were likely to be few teams willing to give up an asset or assume the cap hit associated with taking on the struggling scorer.
But now that the saga between Kovalchuk and the Kings is in its final hours, it’s worth asking what comes next. Where will Kovalchuk end up now that his time in Los Angeles has come to an end?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Given they’re only nine points back of the second wild-card spot, the Blue Jackets aren’t all the way out of the playoff hunt, but their hopes are fading as the result of an offense that has been among the league’s worst. Only three teams, the lottery-contending Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils have scored fewer goals per game than Columbus’ 2.47 and that the Blue Jackets have iced one of the league’s worst power plays has done them few favors. At 17.3 percent, the Blue Jackets’ success rate with the man advantage is better than that of only 10 teams. Not ideal.
So, why not check in on Kovalchuk? While he won’t be a top-tier producer, he can perform as a secondary piece and a power-play specialist. Put him in the role of triggerman and use him in much the same way someone such as Thomas Vanek, who also happens to be a free agent, has been used in recent years.
It’s a landing spot that could work, too, because Columbus has more than enough cap space to take the risk. With more than $10.6 million with which to work, the Blue Jackets can stomach signing Kovalchuk, even if he flops.
Speaking of goal-starved playoff hopefuls, the Stars find themselves in a wild-card spot and tied with the Winnipeg Jets for the final divisional playoff spot in the Central. However, if Dallas wants to fine-tune its roster and address its biggest issue, the lack of consistent scoring, maybe adding Kovalchuk would be one way to do so.
Now, given his results in Los Angeles, it’s safe to say we’re no longer going to see the Kovalchuk that used to shred opposing netminders for 30-some goals per season. Much like the Blue Jackets could potentially use Kovalchuk in a secondary scoring role, though, the Stars could do the same, and that extends to the power play. Entering into action Monday, there are only seven teams who’ve had less success on the power play than Dallas, who are operating at 16.4 percent with the man advantage.
Adding some extra scoring punch could go a long way for the Stars, too. All but three of Dallas’ 11 losses this season have been by a single goal. The lack of scoring has cost them dearly.
With speculation surrounding the Panthers’ interest in Taylor Hall – who has since been dealt to the Arizona Coyotes – it would seem as though the Cats are interested in adding another offensive piece to an already fairly deep attack. And who could blame the Panthers for looking into their options? While they have a lethal top six, which includes the dynamite duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, the bottom six is certainly lacking solid secondary scoring options. But maybe Kovalchuk’s availability changes that.
What’s tricky about Florida, however, is finding a way to maneuver around the salary cap. Panthers GM Dale Tallon could do some cap gymnastics and shuffle some salary to the minors to free up some room, and that might be what’s necessary if Kovalchuk is to head to the Panthers. With slightly less than $900,000 in available spending room, Florida isn’t flush with cap space. But adding Kovalchuk and putting him alongside a Colton Sceviour or Brian Boyle might be one way to add to the bottom half of the attack.
New York Islanders
Sitting right near the top of the Eastern Conference, seven points back of the Metropolitan-leading Washington Capitals and only two behind the Atlantic-leading Boston Bruins, the Islanders are primed to be buyers this season. One area that’s sure to be addressed, too, is depth scoring. While New York has received some contributions from Michael Dal Colle, finding a better – and more productive – fourth-line fit could be beneficial when it comes down to the time of year when every single goal counts for that much more.
There’s an obvious connection that can be drawn between the Islanders and Kovalchuk, too, in the form of GM Lou Lamoriello. It was during his time as GM of the New Jersey Devils that Lamoriello inked Kovalchuk to the massive 15-year, $100-million deal that was nullified when the winger voluntarily retired to head to the KHL. There doesn’t seem to be any bad blood at all between the current Islanders architect and the veteran winger, and that could mean that there’s room for a reunion.
Avangard Omsk (KHL)
Ahead of the weekend, Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko reported that Kovalchuk wanted to remain in the NHL but would have a “lucrative offer” on the table from Omsk. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the terms of that offer would be, but it goes without saying that the Eastern Conference contending Russian side would be willing to pay up to bring Kovalchuk aboard. His familiarity with the league would almost ensure that he’d be able to hit the ground running in the KHL and that he’s not too far removed from a pair of standout, 30-plus goal, 60-plus point seasons is all the more reason for the KHL club to take a chance on the veteran.
If he’s to head back to Russia, though, the question is how long it will be before he decides there’s no spot for him in the NHL. The KHL season is more than halfway in the books and the post-season begins in March. Kovalchuk might not have long to make his decision if he wants to get situated before the Gagarin Cup playoffs.