What If Kovalchuk Returned?


Ilya Kovalchuk continues to star for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL in the final year of his contract. Will he ever return to the NHL? AP Photo via Getty Images by NHLTradeRumors.

On a busy football Sunday that also features the Rangers getting their second dose of Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot and the improved Oilers with a 9:30 start, I’m just sitting in my room pondering some hockey thoughts.

After watching the Steelers blow an exciting game against the Cowboys and certain Offensive Rookie of the Year Ezekiel Elliott, who should get strong consideration for NFL MVP, I decided to watch some KHL highlights of Ilya Kovalchuk. Remember him? The former Atlanta Thrashers 2001 first overall pick who wowed audiences with his blazing speed and deadly shot for a decade before leaving the Devils to return home and star for St. Petersburg SKA in Russia.

You can still blame the last NHL lockout for Kovalchuk realizing he loved playing back home so much that he no longer wanted to return to North America. An ugly truth Devils fans loathe him for. In reality, he did them a favor by retiring. They gave him a huge contract that would’ve handcuffed the franchise for a long time. Instead, they’re forking over $250,000 to Kovalchuk for the next five years thru 2021.

Besides, if he didn’t want to stay, there was no point in keeping him. The Devils have improved since then adding Cory Schneider, Taylor Hall, Mike CammalleriKyle Palmieri and emerging defenseman Damon Severson to ’11-12 holdovers Adam Henrique, Andy Greene and Travis Zajac. Following a slow start, they’ve played much better lately running the table in consecutive home-and-home sweeps of Carolina and Buffalo to up their record to 8-3-3. Good for 19 points in the Metropolitan Division which ties them with Washington even though the Caps hold the tiebreak due to one more ROW (regulation overtime win) 9-8. If Pavel Zacha figures it out, even better.

These days, New Jersey is more competitive under second-year coach John Hynes, who did a outstanding job keeping them in the wildcard race last Spring until the bitter end. GM Ray Shero has done a good job improving the club adding veterans P.A. Parenteau, Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey. Yohann Auvitu and Nick Lappin have been pleasant surprises too.

It still takes some getting used to not seeing the familiar number 26 in Jersey traditional red and black. Patrik Elias remains unsigned. Did the franchise’s all-time scoring leader play his final game or will he sign late and finish on his terms? That remains to be seen. He won two Stanley Cups and has been a career Devil since the beginning when former architect and current Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello took him 51st overall in the second round in ’94. Elias became the Devils’ best offensive player leading them in goals (408), assists (617) and points (1,025). Now 40, he never has to play another game. His legacy is set. A two-time Stanley Cup winner who helped the team reach four Stanley Cup Finals with the last appearance coming with Kovalchuk in 2012.

Kovalchuk led the Devils in scoring that postseason with 19 points (8-11-19). Zach Parise was also still around finishing with eight goals and seven assists. So was David Clarkson, who came up big in an Eastern Conference Final six-game win over the Rangers. A 40-year old Martin Brodeur outplayed Henrik Lundqvist to reach his fifth Final. Then rookie Henrique scored two of the biggest goals. The first eliminating the Panthers in seven games. The second more memorable as he beat the Rangers in Game 6 with the infamous call from former legendary announcer Doc Emrick, “Henrique! It’s over!” A series that will always be remembered by the Jersey side of the Hudson rivalry, avenging the crushing seven-game series loss in ’94.

Even though he wasn’t consistent during that run, Kovalchuk was a big part of that team. Without his production which included a team-leading 37 goals and 83 points during the season under coach Pete DeBoer, there is no playoff run that was Brodeur’s last dance. In the first part of ’12-13, Kovalchuk spent it back home in the KHL playing for St. Petersburg SKA like many Russian stars during the work stoppage. He got to play with then 20-year old future star Vladimir Tarasenko and eventual Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

Kovalchuk returned to the Devils in the shortened season totaling 11 goals and 31 points in 37 contests. But it was a disappointing time in Newark with the team underachieving without Parise, who left to play with childhood friend Ryan Suter in Minnesota. It was the beginning of the end for Brodeur, who was inconsistent. He played one final year in New Jersey sharing duties with Schneider, who was acquired for the Devils 2013 first round pick (Bo Horvat) acquired from Vancouver. At the very least, Jersey fans got to see two hockey legends play together with Jaromir Jagr on the same team as Brodeur. Astonishingly, number 68 led the Devils in scoring with 67 points (24-43-67) while playing all 82 at 40 going on 41. He replaced Kovalchuk and lasted 57 more games before they dealt him to Florida where he’s been since.

All this time later, it’s hard to believe while Jagr has since helped the Panthers back to respectability with Roberto Luongo bringing them back to the postseason last Spring, the Devils haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2012. This could be the year that changes.

While New Jersey has moved on from the Kovalchuk Era, it’s been interesting to say the least for the electrifying Russian who left the NHL with exactly 816 points in 816 games for a point-per-game. He left with 417 goals and 399 assists to go play for St. Petersburg SKA. The biggest highlight was when he led them to the Gagarin Cup in ’14-15 finishing with 55 points (25-30-55) in the season and going 8-11-19 to win MVP of the playoffs. Ironically, future Blackhawk Calder winner Artemi Panarin was a teammate who led the team in scoring with 62 points (26-36-62) while adding 5-15-20 that postseason. Kovalchuk handed the award to teammate Evgeny Dadonov, who scored 15 times with five helpers in the Gagarin Cup playoffs.

Last year was a disappointment for the St. Petersburg SKA captain, who after scoring 16 times with 33 assists in 50 games, was suspended by the club for the remainder of the playoffs due to off ice issues disruptive to the team. He had no points in four games before they made the decision. There was talk he wouldn’t return and eventually try to find his way back to the NHL. Instead, he’s back in a big way leading the club with 19 goals and 39 points in 30 games. Pavel Datsyuk now plays for them. He’s 5-11-16 in 18 contests. Rangers goalie prospect Igor Shestyerkin has been the league’s top goalie with a remarkable 16-1-2 record with a 1.39 goals-against-average, .946 save percentage and seven shutouts. The former 2014 fourth round selection doesn’t turn 21 until Dec. 30. The heir apparent to current Ranger goalie Lundqvist, who is signed thru 2021.

When Kovalchuk decided to file retirement papers with the NHL, he signed a four-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL on July 15, 2013. This is the final year of his contract. He’ll turn 34 next April 15 on tax day. If he decided to return to the NHL, it would have to be approved by every team. He would still be Devils property for one more year. If he waited until he was 35, he could then become unrestricted and choose his destination.

Why am I writing about this on a cool Fall November night not even a week removed from the most astonishing Presidential Election in recent memory? Because there’s nothing better to do. If you watch the highlight reel of Kovalchuk this season, he still has something left. But how would he perform in the more physically taxing NHL under an 82-game schedule? Scoring is up. The game isn’t as defensive oriented. Imagine Kovalchuk playing in an up tempo system such as the one Alain Vigneault employs. That isn’t even an option. The Rangers have finally gotten younger with KHL import Pavel Buchnevich and Harvard grad Jimmy Vesey.

Who would even consider it? I doubt the Devils would want him back after how he bailed. Granted. It is a different regime who loves marketing the product and is anti-Lou. But come on. Devil fans would probably boo Kovalchuk out of the building. Of all the teams struggling to score goals, the Islanders might be appealing. John Tavares is stuck by himself playing with line mates that are third liners. The Toronto native can become unrestricted in 2018. That doesn’t leave the Islanders much time. They’re in a tough spot in Brooklyn in an arena that has obstructed views and hasn’t improved.

I do wonder if Kovalchuk would want to come back to reach 500 goals and 1,000 points. Both are attainable. How much juice would he have for one last go in the NHL? A look at what countryman Alex Radulov is doing with the Canadiens could be inspiration. Plus Panarin continues to wow NHL audiences with his arsenal of moves and ridiculous finishes.

Will it happen? Only if Kovalchuk decides in the next year or two that he has something to prove. The longer he waits, the less likely it is. It would be exciting to see a return of number 17. What if the Thrashers hadn’t been so stupid trading him? That move destroyed their franchise. He was the gate attraction. Especially after they pawned off Marian Hossa. There will never be NHL hockey ever again in Atlanta. Even though the Thrashers had some cool digs.

What about an expansion team like Las Vegas? That would be some attraction. Who knows. All I do know is I miss watching Kovalchuk fire those lethal one-timers and skate into open space and wire shots. He remains the seventh highest scoring Russian in the NHL. Here’s hoping he considers it.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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