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Ilya Kovalchuk now a free agent, reportedly “wants to sign with a contender”

But does he have anything left to help an NHL team?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Los Angeles Kings

The Ilya Kovalchuk saga is over in Los Angeles. To give an idea of just how ready both sides were to end their contract, Kovalchuk was willing to walk away from a $4.25 million salary next year and the Kings are paying the same cap hit through 2021 without him ($6.5m) as they would if he stayed. So yeah, talk about a mutual interest to end an agreement that wasn’t working out for either party.

But despite the lukewarm turn in Los Angeles, the 36-year old Kovalchuk reportedly hasn’t closed the book forever on his NHL career.

Helene Elliott carved up Kovalchuk recently in the LA Times in a bit of a postmortem “what went wrong” blurb:

Signing Kovalchuk was a mistake on many levels, starting with Blake and Robitaille believing last season’s team could contend and that Kovalchuk would help by producing goals in a league that’s much faster than when he left. He’s a liability defensively and hasn’t scored enough to make that shortcoming tolerable.

This year Kovalchuk has just 3 goals in 17 games. His xGF% of 46.46% was worst on the team for forwards. His 4.07 Goals Against/60 at 5-on-5 was by far the worst on the team. However, Kovalchuk was at a 42.3% cGF% in 2018-19, so he actually did perform moderately better this season in limited minutes.

The SKATR chart suggests there still could be something left, especially with regard to shooting talent. Here’s Kovalchuk’s last two seasons compared to Alex Galchenyuk’s sason in Pittsburgh.

Kovalchuk’s appeal could be on the power play, though he has only scored 5 PPG since coming back to the NHL in 81 games with the Kings since the start of the 2018-19. As our SBN blog Jewels from the Crown summed it up, Kovalchuk was a disappointing presence that, much like the rest of his LA career, left a lot to be desired:

It’s very interesting that two summers ago the Kings were all in on the Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes but then realized that the Russian winger is beyond his prime and is really only good as a power play specialist. Except then none of the three coaches that Los Angeles has had in the last two seasons have known what to do with him either on special teams or at even strength. It’s frustrating that the six million dollar man isn’t scoring goals (then again, no one on this roster currently is).

Oddly, it seems that no matter how power play teams have been changed around in the past two seasons, Kovalchuk somehow never ended up as the guy to shoot at the net. He was always in a rather stagnant, passive role, which is not going to set him up for success. Instead, coaches have continually chosen to have Drew Doughty take slapshots from the blue line that, more often than not, get blocked (and it’s not like he has a Shea Weber-esque cannon of a shot—he’s about average, really).

Even at a league minimum, would Kovalchuk be a match in Pittsburgh? First of all, if they don’t think he could help their 22nd ranked power play, the answer is a hard and fast no. But, in theory, a right-handed shot that could work the left wall is exactly what the Pens need.

Kovalchuk doesn’t fit the mold of the typical Mike Sullivan winger. Would he be motivated to play in Pittsburgh? The team wouldn’t be helped by a floating, offense-only winger. They had that in Phil Kessel and didn’t enjoy that, even despite scoring 174 points in the past two years. Kovalchuk is no Kessel in 2019 when it comes to production either.

However, there is a very tight bond between Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin. The two are frequent Team Russia teammates, good friends and off-season training partners, like snapping this picture in 2018.

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A post shared by Evgeni Malkin (@e.malkin71geno) on

The Pens have never really deferred to Malkin to bring in a pal, and probably wouldn’t for this situation either, but there’s no doubt the dynamic would be a positive and welcome one from Malkin’s camp if it went that route. For Kovalchuk, if a decision boils down between Boston and Pittsburgh, would having Malkin be a deciding factor? It couldn’t hurt.

It would be a pretty big leap of faith for the Pens to think they were getting an invested player who could make a huge difference, but Kovalchuk aligns with enough of what they’re missing (a power play specialist and winger with goal scoring upside) to be fairly intriguing considering it would likely be coming with a very low-risk, moderate-reward type of upside.