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Signing Ilya Kovalchuk: Pros and Cons

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In a league trending towards speed and youth, is a big contract to a 35-year old winger a smart idea?

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 16 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The draft-day announcement that the Los Angeles Kings had signed Ilya Kovalchuk brought a lot of mixed emotions. Most fans seem to be in favor of the deal, though a small faction has their reservations. As with anything, there’s an upside and a downside. What are some of the positives of this deal?

Pros

  • Ilya Kovalchuk is still a damn good player; he scored 138 goals in 298 regular season games (good enough for just under half a goal per game) and in the playoffs, he scored 23 goals in 69 games.
  • He has a +64 plus/minus rating.
  • He’s not just a scorer, he also picked 189 assists.
  • All told, he racked up 327 points in 289 regular season games. Combined, he’s managed to scored 370 points in 367 games. No matter how you slice it, that’s pretty impressive.
  • It’s only three years and it’s the same average annual value as Patrick Marleau’s deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs ($6.25 million).
  • The shorter seasons (the KHL only plays 60 games) may actually benefit his career a la Jaromir Jagr.
  • He could be a great asset on the power play; picture: Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and Kovalchuk on the half wall.
  • No assets were given up in this deal and this deal is far cheaper than any big name unrestricted free agent (cough cough John Tavares) available on the market.

Now let’s look at some of the concerns people have with this deal:

Cons

  • Kovalchuk is 35. That’s pretty old in the hockey (and professional sports) world.
  • Will the smaller ice surface, with an increased focus on physicality, aggravate any nagging or lingering injuries, especially back pain?
  • He didn’t get along with his coaches very well during the 2015-16 season and was subsequently stripped of his captaincy and benched (healthy scratched) one game during the playoffs. How will his attitude affect his performance in North America?
  • He’s old, he’s not that fast anymore, can he actually be impactful at 5v5 or will he be yet another “power play specialist”?
  • Three years is kind of a long time for a guy who may not work out or who will be good for only one year.
  • That AAV is rather high and leaves them tight against the cap ceiling with a few players needing new contracts, most notably Drew Doughty. The contract is going to look terrible if Kovalchuk doesn’t perform well.

The most common doubt people voiced was the ability to re-sign Doughty. Supposing he asks for the sun, the moon, and the stars and demands north of $10 million, the Kings would have just shy of $62.5 million signed against the cap. Despite adding a team to the league, the salary cap has virtually stagnated and only rose $4 million (thanks to a small inflator from the NHLPA). Hypothetically, a flat cap would leave them with about $17 million in space to sign Doughty, Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo, and Daniel Brickley. But even with those guys under contract, they’d still be short one d-man and two forwards. They could potentially fill those spots with cheap depth, but that hasn’t worked out in their favor these past couple of seasons.

All-in-all, there are a lot of unknowns and this feels like a medium risk, high reward situation. Hopefully it all works out for the best.