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The Russian Sniper is back! Yes Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the NHL. This past weekend the 35 year old signed a 3-year deal with the LA Kings. The question is can the former Maurice Rocket Richard winner still be a good productive player nearing the end of his career? With that being said Kovalchuk was one of the best players in the KHL. After leaving the New Jersey Devils high and dry, subsequently retiring from the NHL, Kovalchuk went back home and had a stellar career playing in Russia. He averaged more points per game in the KHL than his time in North America racking up 329 points in less than 300 games played. Kovalchuk is a two time Gagarin Cup champion while winning playoff MVP in 2015, he even led the league in scoring this season with 63 points and won an Olympic Gold for the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
Kovalchuk’s tenure in Russia was for the most part amazing. A couple if years ago rumours swirled around that Kovalchuk wanted to come back, he had some problems with management of the SKA Petersburgh team, in 2015 he threatened the club and the league of going back to the NHL if he wasn’t put back in the lineup. He expressed interest in coming back to the NHL last season but halted those plans when Gary Bettman and the owners decided not to bring their players to this years Olympics. His desire to come back was to win the Stanley Cup and complete the triple crown. The triple crown includes the Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold and winning the World Hickey Championship. A feat that Kovakchuk wanted to replicate from his Russian teammate and former NHL all star Pavel Datsyuk. At age 35 he will have to face some challenges coming back to the NHL, but despite being past his prime there’s been many players that have had good seasons when playing 35 or older. Jaromir Jagr being one of them, scoring 66 points with the Florida Panthers just two seasons ago at the age of 44. Same with Gordie Howe who hit the century mark in scoring twice after the age of 40. Ilya Kovalchuk can still produce, and look for him to be a vital part of the LA Kings lineup.
Ilya Kovalchuk hasn’t had a lot of playoff experience. Stuck Atlanta, the Thrashers only made it once in a 4 game sweep losing to the New York Rangers back in 2007. In New Jersey he made it twice, including his only Stanley Cup Final, which he lost to his new to team the LA Kings. Kovalchuk playing in LA does raise some questions, the Kings aren’t a Stanley Cup contender being a much older team, the average age of the players on the roster is over 28 years old, they are the third oldest team in the league (only Ottawa and Detroit are older and both teams look completely lost last season). The Kings did make the playoffs however but were swept against the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Kings scored a dismal 3 goals in the series and got shutout in 2 of the 4 games. Anze Kopitar had a bounce back season and was nominated for the Hart Trophy for the leagues MVP, though lets be serious, if Connor McDavid had some help from his Oilers teammates than Kopitar doesn’t even sniff an nomination. From afar LA is a beautiful city, and yes it’s one of the cities I would love to travel to someday, but the Kings time to win Lord Stanley has passed. If this was 2010 who knows the Kings could have 3 or 4 cups with Kovalchuk, but it’s not and Kovi isn’t in his prime. I do see him helping the Kings, but maybe for a playoff berth or if they’re lucky, a second round appearance. The tide in the Western Conference is changing and if Kovalchuk really wanted to win a cup the Kings were the wrong choice.
Ilya Kovalchuk coming back to North America will be an interesting chapter to his career, but with that time spent overseas can he keep pace in today’s NHL? One thing’s for sure it will be exciting to see Kovi back, whether or not the fans will welcome him back after his controversial exit from the NHL. His comeback will be one of the stories to look out for next season.