Ilya Kovalchuk is misunderstood, and might still be useful

Let’s be honest here – If you didn’t think this post was coming, then you haven’t met me. Sure, it goes against all sorts of common sense, but it’s a potential fringe transaction and it involves Ilya Kovalchuk – a man who started his career as one of the few players a young me legitimately disliked and has blossomed into one of my all-time favourites. So let’s go on a journey, let’s throw some logic out of the window, and let’s allow some room for making other considerations.

Let’s start this with why a 10-year-old me picked a 17-year-old prodigy as my one guy to hate. Like so many of you, I grew up in a pretty old-school hockey household. The early 90’s Leafs were taught to me to be the perfect team, I was made to stay silent and listen during Coaches Corner, and the newspaper I got my journalism from was the Sunday edition of the Toronto Sun. It was pre-internet, and while SportsCentre highlights, flashy-looking hockey cards, and the annual edition of Paul Romanuk’s “Hockey Superstars” purchased from the Scholastic Book Fair would keep me from pidgeon holing myself entirely into the rough-and-tumble, act like you’ve been there before side of the game, it was always a game of tug of war.

So needless to say, when Kovalchuk capped off the 2001 World Juniors with an empty-net goal where he celebrated his forthcoming gold medal before burying the puck, I was made to understand that this was gutless, unsportsmanlike, evil, and all those fun things. At no point was it considered that this was a teenager, just a few years older than me with the weight of the world on his shoulders, getting simultaneous adrenaline shots of relief and joy. Or that the cultural expectation probably wasn’t the same regarding the celebration. Years later, it all seems silly to me that this clip I now love was a reason for disdain, but that kind of leads into a key point here.

That point being, that Kovalchuk has always had a bit of a weird, misunderstood road to his career. You hear “liability”, “showboat”, “locker room cancer”, and all that type of stuff thrown around – and almost entirely from people well away from the scenes. They’re tags that have followed him around since before he joined the league, carried into his first tenure within it, amplified in his departure, and revisited in his return.

To be honest, a lot of it reminds me of the criticisms that fellow countryman and legendary goal scorer Alex Ovechkin faced until he finally had success, except amplified because Kovalchuk has moved around a fair bit, and because most of the rosters he’s played on in North America have been, in a word, terrible.

When Kovalchuk was in Atlanta, for instance, the team had the third-worst record in the NHL over that nine-year span, and the fewest regulation wins. Having a handful of star players over the years in Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, and Slava Kozlov helped them rack up respectable goal totals, but a complete lack of talent on the blue line (Tobias Enstrom, who didn’t show up until 2007, is arguably the only legitimately good defenceman the team ever had for an extended period) and inconsistencies in goal repeatedly sunk the team.

Despite that, Kovalchuk was beloved in Atlanta, quickly becoming their franchise face, eventually becoming their captain, and solidifying himself as one of the most revered goal scorers of our generation. He’d regularly have nights where his ice time would push 30 minutes, he’d double shift on powerplays, and all seemed good until he appeared adamant to test the free-agent market in 2010.

It didn’t appear to be an excuse to leave, either – while Kovalchuk did re-sign with the New Jersey Devils, who acquired him just before the trade deadline, he went well into July before doing so, and it required an ownership-pushed contract that was so ridiculous that it had to be revised for blatant CBA-circumvention. But the powers that be believed in him that much, and were nearly rewarded – even while playing through back troubles, led a not particularly stacked Devils roster to a Stanley Cup Final run in 2012, wearing a letter in the process as well and only falling victim to a hotter-than-hot Jonathan Quick in the end.

Much of the Kovalchuk disdain, however, comes from his 2013 departure from the NHL, which saw him abandon his mega-contract and opt to play for SKA St. Petersburg. Those who already didn’t like him declared this as him quitting on his team and on NHL success, purely for the sake of pocketing a few extra tax dollars (for four years, ignoring the other eight for whatever reason).

Others made note of oft-speculated family issues that he needed to address, continuing back issues that could be alleviated by playing fewer minutes and games in the KHL, and the fact that the Devils were clearly headed towards a rebuild where a winger with twelve years left on his deal at a significant cap hit, that would also keep them from being too good to tank if need be, would probably not be an optimal asset. In reality, the departure was a lot more mutual and sacrificial than advertised, and as Kovalchuk’s personal tasks were sorted, and as he regained confidence in his body, rumours quickly began of a return.

In 2018, it happened, which leads us to today’s Kovalchuk.

What Are You Getting Now?

Kovalchuk returned to the NHL on June 23rd 2018, signing a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings with an AAV of $6.25 million per season. The move surprised a lot of people – not in the sense that he’d be coming back, not in the sense that he’d command a high salary after re-discovering his gifts and his health in the KHL, but in that he’d get a third year, and that it would come from a slower, end-of-window team in the Kings.

One could easily imagine, though, that getting the third year was big in pivoting to a team a little further from contention – and the market of Los Angeles certainly didn’t hurt.

What has hurt, however, is his stock since, and I’m not completely sold that the fault should all be placed on him. In 81 games with the Kings, Kovalchuk put up numbers that weren’t quite vintage of him; just 19 goals and 43 points. That’s still not a terrible rate, though – the Leafs gave Patrick Marleau an identical contract for scoring at more or less that same pace with San Jose (albeit, under much different circumstances and with different expectations). More alarming to the old-school crowd was Kovalchuk’s -36 plus/minus, and more alarming to the new-school crowd were Kovalchuk’s well below average shot attempt and expected goal numbers.

Productivity wise, though, he’s been fine, despite stunted minutes under Willie Desjardins, top competition when he did play last year, a lack of quality linemates this year, and some questionable decisions towards where exactly to play him on the powerplay, which for years has been his bread and butter. While Kovalchuk basically invented the “Ovechkin spot” before Ovechkin did, firing his trademark one-timer from high up his off-wing, the Kings started his tenure by placing him in the net-front spot, thinking more about the “6’3” component than the “generational shot” one.

That shot is very, very much still there, and I don’t think there’s a single hockey team in the world who would be without use for it. The issue for the Kings is that, like the Devils before them, they’ve cooked the clock on their competitive window, and now need to face the facts of a rebuild. They’d like to give more minutes to their youth, and they’d like to keep the “veteran” minutes in the hands of players that have been loyal to them over the years, and/or players they can easily move for assets in a few months.

Kovalchuk fits none of those descriptions. He’s 36, he’s relatively new to the team, the contract that they’re terminating was too rich for the blood of a mostly capped-out league given his production, and he’s been outspoken – and not unfairly – about how he’s been used by the team. It stands to reason that they’d like to move on, without being a knock on the player.

Now that the contract has been terminated, we’re no longer talking about teams exploring a $6.25 million Kovalchuk, or even a $3.125 million (50% retention) version of him. Igor Eronko, who for my money’s worth is the best and most reliable insider on the other side of the pond, believes that Kovalchuk will take a $700,000 league minimum contract.

This means that any team can take him on, as even the capped out ones would just swap out a roster player for him. I believe there is value there, in the right situation. Kovalchuk’s days as a high-end line driver are obviously gone, but using him as a complement to a line with multiple stars isn’t out of the question, nor is using him as a powerplay specialist who fills in minute gaps for the higher-end even-strength players, while playing his own time on a more sheltered, but still offensively-aware bottom-six unit.

Naturally, I’m inclined to look at the teams I care about first, and beyond the pure irrational love for the player and belief that there is a lot of misunderstanding attached to him, I do really think there’s room for utility there.

The absolute best-case scenario, to me, would be to put him with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and go for the opposite of what they tried (with much disappointment) this week with Kasperi Kapanen. Rather than having a pure speedster on the line to push them up the ice faster, it would make more sense to me to let the still-quick play drivers maintain control, and have a secondary trigger man that still has some board-strength trailing behind with them to finish up any loose plays. In other words, treat him on that line as they did Zach Hyman, but with less emphasis on winning every single puck battle and more emphasis on potting a few goals.

The alternative option, and probably the more sensible one, is the specialist role, which would see Kovalchuk get regular reps on the powerplay – unit two on quiet nights, maybe even fill in on unit one at times when the big guns are needed for 5-on-5. Now that Paul McFarland’s powerplay scheme relies more on one-timers than Jim Hiller’s did, this would certainly play to his favour – it makes more sense to have one of the game’s best-ever releases hovering over the trigger than trying to use a guy like Mitch Marner in a way that isn’t his strength. At even strength, a fellow veteran that plays at a more ho-hum pace in Jason Spezza might be the sheltered partner that helps them feast on less-explosive competition – Spezza has shown since the coaching change that here is plenty of life left in his mind and hands, even if his legs have seen better days.

There’s no reason to believe that can’t be the case here either, especially under Sheldon Keefe. While I’d probably non-starter this whole thing if Mike Babcock was still behind the bench, given his tendencies here and the fact that he’s close with both of Kovalchuk’s LA coaches, Keefe has found ways to leverage less-mobile players into offensive weapons at the AHL level. Players like TJ Brennan, Chris Mueller, Sam Gagner, and Jeremy Bracco found great success for the Marlies despite a lack of top speed and holes in their defensive games, thanks to clever usage and a willingness to double down on them as powerplay threats.

Obviously, the NHL is a different beast compared to the AHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is also a different beast your average slower-pace utility option. This is a player who at his peak was one of the most electrifying talents ever, one of very few to ever play with elite ability in every shot type, and who, even at “rock bottom”, was still good for a 43-point pace after being out of the league for half a decade. I really do believe there’s more to this story yet, and that he can be a useful piece to a team that treats him tactfully, but not dismissively.

Is that team the Maple Leafs? I don’t know. Even with all the reasonings for his hurdles, I can understand why there might be some concern, and even if they’re interested, it has to be mutual and any team interested is going to be at the mercy of the market – “he’ll take league minimum” sounds great until a winning team with cap space (looking at you, Islanders and Avalanche) shows a willingness to give him something a bit more substantial.

But I’d be all for it happening here, and if not here, I still hope this isn’t the end for him in the NHL. Unless the Boston rumour is true, of course, in which case I’ll be spending the next four months preparing for his Game 7 natural hat trick.

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