New Jersey Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk and the Elephant in the Room


Ever since Ilya Kovalchuk spurned the New Jersey Devils and fled back home to the KHL in the summer of 2013, we all knew his return to the NHL was inevitable.

Though his return date always remained unclear, one thing was for certain:

Mr. Kovalchuk divided the New Jersey Devils fan base in half.

For some, Ilya Kovalchuk became public enemy number one. He was just another Zack Parise who left the Devils high and dry to play the role of local hero and return home. The thought of seeing Kovy in a Devils jersey again is the equivalent of Devils fans watching the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals Game 7: hatred, disdain and revulsion.

For others, they sat, and continue to sit with open arms hopeful for an eventual return. They see Kovalchuk as the unsung hero who can fix the Devils offensive woes with the snap of his fingers.

Now, nearly three years to the date of his last NHL game, the divided New Jersey Devils fan base will once again do battle, as reports from the KHL have surfaced that SKA St.Petersburg head coach Maxim Sokolov has dismissed team captain Ilya Kovalchuk during a playoff-run based on poor play.

It’s important to note that based on conflicting reports coming out of Russia, some insist that this is only a mere wake-up call for the Russian super-star, and that he’s only scheduled to miss one game, but other reports indicate that SKA St. Petersburg management has become fed-up with Kovalchuk, especially after he expressed his desire to return to the NHL for the 2016-17 season.

If Kovalchuk is actually serious about returning to the NHL next season, I’m not sure if his wish would be granted. Not only is he under-contract to play in Russia until 2017, but not everyone in the NHL necessarily wants him back either.

Keep in mind that Kovalchuk will need all 30 general managers vote of approval in order to return to the NHL unscathed. If not, he’ll need to wait until the 2018-19 season to return as a 35-year old unrestricted free-agent.

That said, if all 29 other general managers actually vote yes to let him return, I’m not 100% convinced that Ray Shero would consider bringing Kovalchuk into the fold.

For starters, Kovalchuk, now three-years removed from the NHL and one significant knee-injury later is probably not even close to being the prolific goal scorer he was once for New Jersey. Sure Kovalchuk has kept up a point per game pace in the KHL, but the level of competition isn’t nearly as close to the level we see here in the National Hockey League. There’s a reason why Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin are still in the United States and there’s a reason why the younger generation of Russian players like Artemi Panarin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Valeri Nichuskin have continued their path into North America. They all want to play the greatest competition at the highest level possible, and yes, they want to get paid to do it.

Second, if Ray Shero is taking a long-term approach to rebuilding Jersey’s Team, he might not be inclined to fill a majority of his re-created cap space with a veteran aging out of his prime. Kovalchuk and his agent put the Devils through hell (no pun intended) when they had to resign him in the summer of 2010, and it’s likely they would do the same to Ray Shero if the two sides ever had to try to negotiate a new deal.

But to play devils advocate here, again no pun intended, you can’t help but gush at the idea of Travis Zajac centering a healthy Kovalchuk and Michael Cammalleri on the Devils top line, especially at a time when scoring has become a drought in New Jersey.

Specifically, the Devils haven’t had a legitimate scoring one-two punch in their top-six since the days of Kovalchuk and Parise, and it’s no secret that offense has, and continues to remain the organizations biggest flaw.

Statistically speaking, when he ‘retired’ from the NHL, his 51.8% Corsi For and 51.6% Fenwick For were some of the top marks in the NHL at the time. Kovalchuk was an offensive spark plug and every time he had the puck on his stick there was a chance the Devils would score.

Next: Is Nino Niederreiter A Potential Fit in NJ

Would those numbers carry over? Probably not. But anything remotely close would be an instant  upgrade to the New Jersey Devils offense… unless of course Ray Shero has some tricks up his sleeve for the upcoming trade deadline and/or off-season.