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NHL Free Agency: Penguins absent from Ilya Kovalchuk talk

The Penguins are seemingly in the mix for at least everyone, but one doesn’t appear to be Ilya Kovalchuk

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McDonalds/NHL All-Star Open Practice Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ilya Kovalchuk is about to make a return to the NHL and per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, his suitors have emerged.

Further to what my TSN colleague Darren Dreger reported over the weekend when he tweeted that Ilya Kovalchuk had weekend visits with Los Angeles and San Jose, my sense of the market for the Russian winger is made up of two groups. The top contenders, I believe, are the Kings (who met with Kovalchuk [last] Friday), the Bruins, the Rangers and the Sharks (who met with him Monday).

Then I think there’s a second group of teams including Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Anaheim. Now, other teams can still get involved, no question, but at this point, I think that’s your list, which is already pretty deep. Again, the hope from his camp led by CAA Sports (J.P. Barry) is to have an agreement on terms with a team (he can’t officially sign until July 1) right after the draft but before July 1.

One name conspicuously missing? The Penguins. Pittsburgh is usually at least in the mix and mentioned chasing talent around, if not signing them. But none of the national writers have as much as whispered them in connection to the high-scoring Russian winger.

This seems odd, even if Dreger has mentioned that Kovalchuk is seeking a multi-year contract at or above $6 million if he can get it. Perhaps with so many teams in the mix, one of them probably will add extra term. This money is likely a barrier to entry in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, but as we’ve seen before with financial details- where there’s a will, there’s a way. You don‘t have to look back far to see Pittsburgh getting Derick Brassard in a mid-season trade to be their 3rd line center.

If the Pens could trade Conor Sheary for a pick, there‘s $3.0 million right there. Then structure a bonus-laden contract for Kovalchuk (as a 35+ player he is eligible) and Pittsburgh can get close to $6 million right there. Bonuses, let’s remember can be pushed a year if necessary if a team exceeds the upper limit of the cap. Essentially with a 35+ player if the contract is structured for Games Played you can basically ensure the player gets the money and also push the pain a season.

Why do that? Well, the truth of the matter is that the Pens chances of winning a Stanley Cup in 2019 are higher than they will be in 2020. Every year should be a win now situation in Pittsburgh, future consequences be damned. This is basically the course of action the team is on anyways with trading first round picks from 2013-18 in order to add players now.

Other than the obvious money issue, one reason Kovalchuk and the Pens seemed a good match are the reports coming from Kovalchuk’s camp. They‘ve repeatedly mentioned the desire to be in a winning situation. No one has won more in the last decade than the Pens. Pittsburgh also has Evgeni Malkin, a friend to Kovalchuk and a teammate over the years for many a Team Russia.

Kovalchuk has played LW in Atlanta, but and some RW in New Jersey, positionally it wouldn‘t be a problem to add him. Pair him with Carl Hagelin and Malkin and boom, that‘s a heck of a 2nd line. Play him on Malkin‘s left with Bryan Rust on the right and you have the same, with Hagelin free to play with Brassard and Phil Kessel on the “3rd“ line. No matter how you stack it, with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist too and the Pens would have the best top-9 group, bar none, in the league.

It would take creativity, but as we saw with the Brassard acquisition creativity is a strong point of this front office. Adding Kovalchuk doesn’t necessarily have to be a reactive move of “this is why we lost in 2018” so much as it would raise the Pens skill level and boost their team for next year. Making those types of moves would be the name of the game for contending teams. Who knows how much interest Kovalchuk might have in Pittsburgh versus some other situations and teams and markets, but you never know until you ask.

The Pens can‘t sign and trade for everyone, but this lull before the draft and start of free agency is the time for possibilities and scenarios. It doesn‘t appear Kovalchuk and Pittsburgh have much actionable interest in each other right now, which is too bad. Makes for some fun fantasy GM’ing at this point, even if it seems nothing will progress further. Shame since on the surface they look to be a nice match, pesky salary cap aside.