By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the early stages of a whopping 15-year, $100 million contract, Kovalchuk ditched New Jersey in July 2013 to “retire” to Mother Russia.
Having lost All-Star winger Zach Parise to Minnesota in free agency a year earlier, the Devils sorely missed Kovalchuk’s scoring prowess and the 2012 Stanley Cup finalists quickly devolved into perennial bottom feeders.
They have yet to recover. The Devils finished tied with Arizona for the third-fewest points in the league this past season, producing a record of 28-40-14.
But the tide may be turning in New Jersey. The Devils “won” the league’s draft lottery 10 days ago and will select first in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
And then on Tuesday afternoon, Devils general manager Ray Shero confirmed to several media members that Kovalchuk, after four seasons playing for St. Petersburg SKA in Russia’s KHL, is interested in returning to the NHL.
Now, it would be hard to believe that the 34-year old left wing wants to join a rebuilding club in New Jersey, which holds his rights for another year. The Devils, even with the first overall draft pick, are years away from contending.
Still, Shero is in his favored position where he can hold an auction and execute a sign-and-trade. No matter what folks say, we are still in the Dead Puck Era, and natural goal scorers are rare commodities on the open market.
And Kovalchuk can still score — he recorded 32 goals and 46 assists in 60 games this past season for St. Petersburg SKA. During his 11-season NHL career, he was a point-per-game player, tallying 417 goals and 399 assists.
OK, the KHL is not the NHL, but his recent production showed his skills couldn’t have eroded that much. I can still see multiple teams trying to get through to Shero on July 1 to submit bids.
Remember, the Devils will have over $20 million in cap space (before re-signing any of their own free agents), so they don’t have to worry about taking back salary in any deal. The league is expected to have a stagnant per-team cap next year, with an increase of, at most, $2 million to $73 million per team, which would provide Shero a greater opportunity should he choose to get back a veteran.
From all indications, it would be unlikely for Shero to use Kovalchuk to go for it the way the Islanders went out to acquire defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy three years ago. I would instead expect Shero to add to his future draft inventory and, depending on the draft level compensation, maybe obtain a young player.
I do believe Shero should focus his attention on defensemen, though. He’s not going to get an All Star like Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, but would a relatively low-scoring contender such as St. Louis give up one of its young defensemen to pair Kovalchuk with fellow Russian Vladimir Tarasenko to get over the hump next season? Shero could reach out to a familiar voice — Blues’ assistant general manager and Devils legend Martin Brodeur, who played with Kovalchuk during his three-plus-season tenure in New Jersey.
According to the Record’s Andrew Gross, Shero is working with Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk’s agent, to find an appropriate fit.
For four years, Kovalchuk not only was a symbol of how far the Devils have fallen, he was a $250,000 liability on the club’s salary cap chart. In a moment’s notice, he appears to becoming a pretty valuable asset.
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