With another 80-90 Daily Cup of Joe topics needed to fill the long summer before we even get to training camp, sometimes you have to take what the hockey world offers you and ride it through another day. In addition to the playoffs, one of the things buzzing around the hockey world is the news that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL.
With the combination of contract, trade costs, his desired destination, Francis’ general approach to team building and other factors, I view Raleigh as a really low probability landing place for Kovalchuk. But the fact that the Hurricanes are looking to add a top 6 forward at least puts it within the realm of possible.
Ilya Kovalchuk’s contractual situation
For those who are not up to date, Kovalchuk has expressed an interest to return to the NHL after 4 years in the KHL. New Jersey still has his rights, but reports seem to suggest that just signing and playing there is unlikely. So that begs the questions of whether the Hurricanes would be interested, if/where he might fit in the lineup and also the trade and contract costs.
Where might Ilya Kovalchuk fit in the Hurricanes’ lineup and plan?
At a basic level, Kovalchuk fits the desire to add a top 6 scoring forward to the lineup. But there are two important caveats. First, Kovalchuk is a left wing. While the Hurricanes could fit another left wing in the lineup, the ideal addition would be a center. The Hurricanes have two top 9 centers in Jordan Staal and Victor Rask, but both are average at best offensively and not so much the type of player to center a true scoring first line. If you stick with Peters’ comments from the post-season press conference, the preference at least short-term is to leave Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm on the wing. That seems to leave a hole for a scoring center which Kovalchuk is not. But if he regains his scoring form and puts up 70 points, quibbling over position seems silly.
What is Ilya Kovalchuk capable of?
But that brings up my second caveat which is noting that what exactly Kovalchuk is capable of is a bit of an unknown. He is four years removed from the NHL and now 34 years old. Is it possible that he has near Jagr-like longevity and can still be at least 60-point scorer? Sure. But is it possible that he just is not capable of that anymore? That is also very possible. He has spent the past four years playing against lesser competition in the KHL and is on the wrong side of his prime. The short answer is that predicting exactly what Kovalchuk is capable of is far from a sure thing.
What about the cost?
For me, one of the biggest factors to consider is the commitment in terms of years. Because of the uncertainty around his re-assimilation into the NHL, I would be comfortable with a one-year deal without getting too bogged down in what the salary is. I would consider two years but start to care a bit more about the salary. And once the deal stretches to three or four years, my risk meter goes through the roof for a player who has been out of the league for four years and will be 38 years old when the deal concludes.
The other question is how much it would cost to even obtain Kovalchuk from New Jersey. For a might/could work who is a short-term fix, there is no way I am willing to win a bidding war which requires a first round pick or prospect equivalent. Something like a middle-ish third round pick is reasonable, and if the contract terms are reasonable just maybe I stretch to the Penguins second which is almost a third-rounder at this point.
The Hurricanes unique financial situation
When one looks at the salary charts for the Hurricanes, the gap between the 2016-17 season and the 2017-18 season jumps out. With Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin and Sebastian Aho still on entry-level deals and Elias Lindholm in the final year of his relatively inexpensive ($2.7 million) deal, the Hurricanes actually have some work to do to reach the salary cap floor. Scott Darling starts to make the math work, but it is not like the Hurricanes do not have some budget left even if they push up above the cap floor. But next summer sees the Hurricanes likely needing to award raises, some significant, to Slavin, Pesce Hanifin and Lindholm, and the following summer sees Aho likely scheduled for a big raise and Jeff Skinner coming off contract too.
When you net it out, Francis might have some extra money to spend this summer, but then he might want it back the following summer.
Kovalchuk’s fit in Ron Francis’ plan
The move does not jump out as the type of deal that Francis would do, but then I am not sure we actually know as much as we think about Francis as he enters the next phase of building the Carolina Hurricanes. Through three years, he has been in patient “build for the future” mode. We are just beginning to see what Francis’ work looks like when the dial shifts to more of a “win now” priority. So while I still think that Francis has a preference for more longer-term additions or the shorter-term fix that Kovalchuk represents just maybe he makes an exception or two because it costs enough less than spending massive amounts of futures on better options.
So what deal would I do?
Top 6 scoring talents do not grow on trees. They are rarely available in free agency, are expensive when available and would be tough to lure to Raleigh without overpaying right now anyway. And the ones that might be available via trade could cost a minor fortune in trade assets. So if Kovalchuk became available for enough of a discount relative to other options, I would consider him. The risk, imperfection in terms of positional match and his age just decrease what I would pay.
So if Kovalchuk wants four years at full market price of $6 million or more per year, I pass.
If Kovalchuk costs a first round draft pick or some big package of futures, I pass.
But if the market is more tepid, and I could add the high-end potential that Kovalchuk brings for a third or possibly second round pick and only have to commit to one year at almost whatever price ($6 million or a tiny bit higher?), I would look past the imperfections and do it. If it requires a two-year commitment but maybe at a lower cost, I would consider it.
I view the one-year deal scenario as somewhat similar to a trade deadline rental deal. At the trade deadline a second or third round pick for a higher-end player for only the last quarter of the season is often the going rate. In this case, Francis might be taking a tiny bit more risk, but he is getting a full season, not just 20ish games.
And while a one-year deal risks Kovalchuk leaving after the 2017-18 season, it also assures that he has maximum motivation to excel such that he can negotiate his next contract on favorable terms.
A two-year deal is obviously more than a rental but still carries a somewhat modest risk.
In the end, I consider this a significant long shot and would be surprised to see it happen. But at a minimum, it offers something interesting to bandy around in mid-May, and for that I thank Ilya Kovalchuk.
What say you Caniacs?
Would you consider Ilya Kovalchuk at all because of the potential offensive upside, or would you pass immediately out of principal because it goes against Francis’ build from within approach and goes too much in the direction of taking short-term fixes?
If interested, what is your ceiling for trade assets to acquire Kovalchuk, contract term and annual salary?
Who do you like better than Kovalchuk to provide another high-end offensive player to fill out the Hurricanes’ top 6 forwards?