Why the Detroit Red Wings Will Not Pursue Ilya Kovalchuk

Word in NHL circles re-surfaced this week about the interest of former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk in coming back to the NHL after spending the last four seasons in the KHL.

According to Sportsnet, that process appeared to be “in motion” as Russia was “preparing for it” last month.  With the 34-year old’s ugly retirement in 2013 leaving a bad taste in the New Jersey Devils and NHL’s mouths, there are conditions if he indeed decides to return stateside:

Why the Detroit Red Wings Will Not Pursue Ilya Kovalchuk

The Detroit Red Wings need a bonafide finisher on their team. It’s no secret. They finished 26th in overall goals scored per game, their worst finish since finishing last in 1986-87 when there were 21 teams in the league. They’ve not had a 40-goal scorer since 2008-09 when Marian Hossa left his mark and in fact, haven’t had a 30-goal scorer since the trio of Johan Franzen (34), Pavel Datsyuk (32), and Henrik Zetterberg (31) lit it up alongside Hossa that same year. The Wings did have many complementary pieces up front such as Andreas Athanasiou (17 goals), Tomas Tatar (25 goals), and Anthony Mantha (17 goals), who finished with promising seasons, but there is no game breaker that can be relied on each and every night outside of the resurgent Henrik Zetterberg down the middle who finished with his highest point total since 2011-12 (68).

Enter the prospect of acquiring Kovalchuk, who has scored 417 goals and 816 at the NHL level (816 games) along with 118 more markers and 295 points in the last five years in the KHL (245 games). His consistency speaks for itself. This past season was his best yet reuniting with Olympic teammate Pavel Datsyuk, scoring 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games en route to a Gagarin Cup, the Championship in Russia. With the season he’s had and the NHL pedigree he built up, it seems like a no-brainer for the Wings to at least take a look. However, there are instrumental factors that will quickly push them away from the sweepstakes.

Cap Space

The Red Wings aren’t exactly flexible with the cap this summer with the signings of Danny DeKeyser, Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm eating up $18.35 million for at least the next four years. This is coupled with the fact that Tatar and Athanasiou need new deals this summer with Dylan Larkin and Mantha also needing to be signed next summer. None of the first four are expected to be taken in the expansion draft, and Jimmy Howard‘s $5.3 million cap hit could be a wild card depending on if it comes off the books thanks to Las Vegas or if it stays. Assuming it goes, the Red Wings still will use that money to pay Tatar and Athanasiou, as well as Xavier Ouellet. Alexander Radulov “settled” with Montreal on $5.75 million for one season after a 23-goal, 65-point season in the KHL. Imagine Kovalchuk’s ask from the Devils to get back in.

Asking Price

The Devils don’t exactly have the best prospect pool lacking talented names up front outside of 2015 draftee Pavel Zacha, and he’s in the NHL full-time coming off of his first pro season. Blake Coleman had a solid first AHL season scoring 19 goals and 39 points in 52 games, but they’re going to be looking to stock up. The Red Wings have many players that would fit as complements to their stars with Athanasiou, Mantha, and Evgeny Svechnikov. It would be the same thing defensively with Joe Hicketts, Dennis Cholowski, and Vili Saarijarvi. Highly unlikely that the team parts with any. The Red Wings have four third round picks in this year’s draft to play with, but the one with the most value is the ninth overall selection they have after the draft lottery fall last month. They will not deal this chance at a solid young player, particularly a defenseman, for likely three more good Kovalchuk years, and even that number isn’t guaranteed.

Commitment to Rebuild

Radulov was a risk in itself when the Red Wings reached out and ultimately lost to the Habs, but Kovalchuk is just a different animal. His bowing out after signing a 17-year, $102 million contract disaster with the Devils in 2010 was not a good look though the lockout may have had something to do with it, and it’s likely he doesn’t want to commit to the Red Wings’ current situation.

The Red Wings are far removed from Cup contention right now, and trading the necessary assets to acquire Kovalchuk would just set them back even more. He wouldn’t be able to carry the team by himself at his age.

Conclusion

The Wings aren’t a one-offseason or one-player fix with their holes on defense, dead weight on the contract books, and lack of superstar status up front. Though having Kovalchuk’s scoring ability and star power draw for Little Caesar’s Arena would be exciting, Ken Holland should follow the course of a rebuild starting by drafting a defenseman in this year’s draft while signing core complements this summer. The team doesn’t appear to be in the realm of contending next season either, so chances are that they’ll be picking in he top ten in a stronger draft in 2018. Who knows, John Tavares could be available next summer as unrestricted free agent center to aggressively accelerate the rebuild as the long-term replacement for Zetterberg. The point is that Wings fans will have to be patient. The brand of “Hockeytown” took decades to build. While it may not take that long for the Wings to start contending again, the worst thing for them to do is to invest in a player that will be going into his mid-30s, something that has been less than successful for Detroit in the past few seasons.

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