By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
Could the recent release of a former-NHL All-Star solve the Bruins top-six winger issue?
Per source Ilya Kovalchuk wants to sign with a contender and would be OK with a minimum salary. Bruins are interested— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) December 17, 2019
At first glance, most Bruins fans want nothing to do with the 36-year-old aging winger. But, dig a little deeper and his services could be beneficial for the remainder of the year.
Kovalchuk is a former number one overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The Atlanta Thrashers, now the Winnipeg Jets, selected the Russian forward with the intent he’d be their franchise player. Kovalchuk averaged 1.03 points in eight years with the Thrashers. He scored 41 goals in his third season with the Thrashers, which yielded him (along with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla) the Maurice Richard Trophy (most goals in a season).
In his final contract year with the Thrashers, he was traded to the Devils in a massive deal. The Devils and Kovalchuk agreed to a record-breaking 15-year, $100 million deal. Unfortunately for New Jersey and its fans, he only played the first four years of the deal before leaving for the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia (KHL) to be closer to his family. When Kovalchuk left the NHL, his contract was terminated and he was placed on the voluntary retirement list. The Devils maintained his NHL rights until he turned 35, which was April 15, 2018.
The KHL is notorious for plucking Russian-born NHL stars to play in their homeland. Players like Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk have left the NHL to play in Russia’s top hockey league because they’re offered the highest salaries to represent their country in their native league. Kovalchuk continued his torrid 1.08 points per game pace in 5 years with the KHL, but the NHL itch to win a Stanley Cup was still present for Ilya.
When the news broke that Kovalchuk wanted to return to the NHL in 2018, the Bruins were considered a front-running destination. The Bruins were coming off an unsatisfying playoff run, getting steamrolled by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 4-1 series loss. The Bruins’ Achilles heel all playoffs was their lack of scoring depth, so the interest in the former 50-goal scorer was warranted. Kovalchuk made it abundantly clear he wanted to sign with a Stanley Cup team on a longer-term deal. Don Sweeney (current Bruins General Manager) could not dish out the money and term that Kovalchuk sought. The Los Angeles Kings won the Kovalchuk sweepstakes days before the July 1 free agency period.
KHL’s leading scorer and 2018 Olympic MVP Ilya Kovalchuk will join the LA Kings for the 2018-19 season after agreeing to terms on a 3-year contract.https://t.co/xp15gyuKBu— LA Kings (@LAKings) June 23, 2018
The Kings won Lord’s Stanley Cup twice in the past 10 years, so they definitely had the championship pedigree. However, the Kings became too old and injury-prone over the last two years and couldn’t find their groove. They missed the playoffs last year, finishing 30th out of the 31 teams and recently fired their head coach. Kovalchuk’s cap hit of $6.25 million per year suddenly became too costly for a rebuilding franchise. The Kings cut Kovalchuk on December 9th, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. He hasn’t played for the Kings since November 9th but is still vying for the Stanley Cup.
The Bruins, coincidentally, are still searching for a formidable top-six winger. They have tried numerous options such as Charlie Coyle, Brett Ritchie, and Anders Bjork. Coyle was acquired from the Minnesota Wild ahead of last year’s trade deadline to solidify their third-line center position. Bjork hasn’t been able to sustain a full year yet due to injuries and is still adapting to the NHL play. Brett Ritchie has 4 points in 19 games, which is nowhere close to a proper top six stat line. Kovalchuk’s current season stat line is similar to Ritchie’s, but he has the history of scoring and the numbers to back him. In nine seasons, he’s surpassed 30 goals in his 13-year career.
Kovalchuk and his agent have made it clear he is “OK” with signing a league-minimum deal of $700K. He would be an extremely low risk, high reward situation for the Bruins for even just the remainder of the year. His size (6’4 222-pounds) and prolific scoring would be beneficial to the Bruins offense, and especially to David Krejci. Krejci has been the most affected by the Bruins inability to find a top-six winger. He hasn’t had a capable set of wingers since Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. The move could also allow Cassidy to shift Pastrnak down to Krejci, where he’s found success this season.
The Bruins would have to create cap space in order to make this move. Waiving Brett Ritchie would be the most logical move, which would create $1 million in cap space. Ritchie has not panned out in the Bruins plans as of late and could use some AHL time to find his game.
The other question is, how Kovalchuk would fit into the Bruins locker room? Team chemistry is key in any NHL locker room. Bruins fans are privy to this as they’ve seen the likes of Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin traded due to lack of chemistry and other team-related issues. The hope is the Bruins have a strong enough locker room bond because of their leaders like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Krejci.
If the Bruins did sign Kovalchuk, their initial line combinations could be:
Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak
DeBrusk – Krejci – Kovalchuk
Bjork – Coyle – Heinen
Nordstrom – Kuraly – Backes
These lines create flexibility for Cassidy and line chemistry to develop. Kovalchuk would also immediately slot into a power-play role, where has always found success, even in LA.
The Bruins top need has been a capable top-six forward. Bruins management has been scouring NHL rosters for the void that has plagued them for the past few seasons and playoffs. They have done their due diligence, even as far as inquiring on Taylor Hall.
Hearing the Bruins kicked the tires on Taylor Hall a few days ago and that’s as far as the conversations went. Was told the Bruins are out on Hall, but they’re “actively” working the phones elsewhere in the NHL. Sorry to disappoint those hoping to see Hall in Boston. #NHLBruins— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) December 15, 2019
It’s clear Sweeney does not want to take the Dave Dombrowski approach and sacrifice his prospects and payroll for a likely rental. Kovalchuk, though a short-term solution, presents a cost-effective quick fix and could pay dividends to come playoff time. The Bruins would not need to trade a budding young star in order to acquire Ilya. The Bruins should certainly kick the tires on Kovalchuk and identify what it would take to bring him to Boston for the remainder of the year.