On Monday, Rob Blake and the Los Angeles Kings placed 36-year old Ilya Kovalchuk on unconditional waivers to terminate his contract. Kovy and his $6.25m deal have not worked out quite the way the Kings had hoped.
Unsurprisingly, the veteran winger cleared waivers and is now officially an unrestricted free agent, which means that he is available to sign with any team that makes an offer. His $6.25m cap-hit is irrelevant to the acquiring team but remains the responsibility of the Kings for the remainder of this season and next. Yikes.
According to Russian insider Igor Eronko of Sport-Express, Kovalchuk hopes to stay in the NHL and on a contending team. Per Eronko’s source, Don the Boston Bruins are interested. It isn’t the first time Sweeney has expressed interest in Kovalchuk. They were one of three finalists for his services before signing in LA.
So, does Kovalchuk to the Bruins make sense? There are obvious red flags — the glaring ones being his age and drop in production. At 36 years old, Kovalchuk’s days of 40 plus goals and 100 points are long behind him. He’s not the same player who signed a 15-year, $100m contract in New Jersey. Last season, he managed just 16 goals and 34 points in 64 games in LA. This season, he tallied three goals and 9 points in 17 games before being permanently scratched. He was told that he would no longer be playing in any games for the Kings, but he has been welcome to practice and travel with the team. How exciting!
On paper, it would be fair to say that the Bruins should avoid the player and look elsewhere. My question, though, is a thought-provoking one: why not? Unlike most other armchair GMs on Twitter, I see no reason why the Bruins shouldn’t take a shot on Ilya Kovalchuk. Now, before the pitchforks come out and you quote tweet this to call me an idiot (cyber-bullying isn’t nice, guys), just hear me out…
If I’m Don Sweeney, which I am not, there are more pros than there are cons in adding Kovalchuk.
For what seems like an eternity, the Boston Bruins have been scouring the earth for a right wing to play with David Krejci. There have been countless failed experiments, and that has continued into this season. Karson Kuhlman, David Backes, Danton Heinen, Peter Cehlarik, and Brett Ritchie have all been given trials. Even Chris Wagner has been used in a second line role. Most recently, Cassidy has taken Charlie Coyle out of his 3rd line center position to play on the right side of Krejci. Nothing has stuck, and this has forced Sweeney to look outside of Boston to fill the spot on the cap-squeezed Bruins.
Given their cap crunch, the Bruins need to move a player making decent money off their roster to clear the space required to bring in a player of significance. There aren’t many options. Sorry, you’re not going to find a team willing to trade a player of second line right wing caliber for David Backes and his $6m cap-hit, unless you’re giving up a King’s ransom (nailed that pun).
This issue makes the acquisition of Kovalchuk much more of a palatable option. As a UFA, he is available to any team for the price of a contract only. He won’t cost the Bruins a roster player/draft pick/prospect. According to Eronko, as mentioned above’s source, Kovalchuk is open to signing a contract and playing for the league’s minimum salary of $700k. Now, because he is over the age of 35, that $700k salary is on the Bruins books for the remainder of the season, even if it doesn’t work out. But let’s say it isn’t a completely failed experiment and he chips in 10 – 15 goals, that’s not bad for a guy making less than $1 million.
Another reason I look fondly upon the acquisition of Kovalchuk is the idea of restoring stability to the bottom-six of Boston’s roster, specifically the third line. Charlie Coyle has done an excellent job playing on Krejci’s right wing. However, it plays to Boston’s advantage when he pilots the third unit. He is at his best offensively when he is driving his line. The trio of Coyle, Bjork, and Heinen has worked incredibly well together. They don’t score at a point per game rate, but the work they put in on the forecheck and pressure they sustain on puck-carriers trying to break them out of their zone is exhausting. It also makes matchups for the opponent miserable. If Kovalchuk can play well enough to stay on Krejci’s right, restoring Coyle to the third line makes Boston a much more complete and stable team.
Another crutch that anti-Kovalchuk twitter has leaned on is the idea that he isn’t a good teammate. It is simply not true. By all accounts from teammates and coaches, Kovalchuk has handled this recent saga with the utmost professionalism. He has continued to practice, work out, and even travel with the Kings. His attitude continues to be incredibly positive, and he’s been a fantastic teammate. Even Todd McLellan, who is known to be hard on his players, echoed the sentiment that Kovalchuk’s work ethic is tremendous, and his compete level is bar none.
Could joining a Stanley Cup contending team serve as the catalyst for Kovy to find some of his goal-scoring touches again? It’s not out of the question. He’s not winning any Art Ross trophies or Rocket Richards, but that isn’t what the Bruins would be asking of him. What they desperately need is a top-6 right wing capable of playing alongside David Krejci and chipping in some offense. Kovalchuk provides this, and he would also serve as another weapon on the second power play unit.
In closing, Ilya Kovalchuk to Boston just might make more sense than one would think. The Bruins wouldn’t have to give anything up to bring him in. He’d be allowed to play on a far better team with far better linemates. He is incredibly driven and competitive, and he wants to win at all costs. He knows this could be his final opportunity to do so in the NHL.
Is it the best or most ideal solution to this Bruins roster? Of course not. In a perfect world, the Bruins successfully make a trade for Kyle Palmieri or Tyler Toffoli or another younger player with less mileage. But given where the B’s find themselves with cap space and the glaring need for a second line right wing, bringing in Ilya Kovalchuk for free could be a good option for Don Sweeney and the Boston Bruins.