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Should the Rangers Pursue Ilya Kovalchuk?

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Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 16 Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If you somehow haven’t heard or still refuse to believe it, the Rangers are entering full bore into a rebuild. In the week leading up to and at the trade deadline, Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton steamrolled over the Rubicon and made his intentions clear by trading everyone, their mothers, and their mothers’ cats for picks and prospects. When the dust settled the Rangers walked out of the deadline with 10 picks in the upcoming 2018 draft, seven of which are in the first three rounds, three of those picks are in the first round alone.

The Rangers are entering uncharted waters for the first time in a long, long time and they’re doing right. The team has no false beliefs of being a good team for the rest of this season or all of next year; instead, it’s time to take things slow and let the youth lead the way.

All that being said; the Rangers should probably sign Ilya Kovalchuk in the offseason.

To recap on where Kovalchuk stands with the NHL: he was drafted 1st overall by the Atlanta Thrashers and tore up the NHL, was traded to the New Jersey Devils and went on to drag them into relevance for a couple of years, and then Lou Lamoriello tried to cheat the system by signing Kovalchuk to a deal so stupidly large (17 years, $102 million) that the NHL had no choice but to slap the Devils on the wrist – only for Lou to turn around and sign Kovy to a slightly less stupidly large contract (15 years, $100 million).

Three years into that monster deal, Ilya Kovalchuk decided to up and retire at just 29-years-old and head back home to Russia and the KHL, playing for SKA St. Petersburg. It looked like Kovalchuk would leave the NHL as one of the more divisive players in league history; he was just exiting his prime with a team that was looking build around him.

Now, though, Kovalchuk has decided to come back for the 2018-19 NHL season. If he were to try to come back any time before this offseason, the league’s GMs would have had to approve him coming back and the Devils would still retain his rights. Now, Kovalchuk can come over as an unrestricted free agent.

Kovalchuk will be 35 when/if he signs his new NHL deal and will look for definite top six ice time in order to be a useful part of a team’s lineup. So, why should the Rangers, a team already entrenched in the “be really bad” part of the rebuild, sign a 35 year old Russian winger?

Well, they still need to ice some kind of roster next season and need some veterans around to help show the kids how to play hockey. Also, Ilya Kovalchuk is still really freaking good. Kovalchuk left the NHL as a point-per-game player, then went over to the KHL and has continued to tear apart the hockey world currently earning 1.10 point-per-game as a 34 year old on the KHL’s best team.

All data via eliteprospects
@hayyshayy

It may seem antithetical to the Rangers current long term plans to sign a player of Kovalchuk’s stature, talent, and age but on a one or two year deal, it makes a lot a sense.

Kovalchuk is still a very good to elite offensive talent with a skill set that no Rangers forward really has, and if Rick Nash doesn’t come back Kovy can fill the void of a veteran winger in the top six to help mentor players like Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, and whoever the Rangers end up drafting with their highest pick in 2018. Also, limiting the number of years on the contract makes Kovalchuk a very valuable asset for the 2019 trade deadline should he prove to other NHL teams that he’s still got it, allowing the Rangers to recoup even more futures in picks and prospects that help bolster the farm system and further on their rebuild path.

There is also the matter of familiarity with bringing in Kovalchuk, his KHL team. Two of the Rangers’ brightest points of hope (Pavel Buchnevich and Igor Shestyorkin) both have SKA connections (Buchnevich spent his final half season in the KHL playing for SKA, while Shestyorkin continues to dominate the league as a 22 year old) and this familiarity can help bring the Rangers Russian prospects still over there (Shestyorkin and new defenseman Yegor Rykov) over sooner rather than later.

Finally, just how cool would it be to see Ilya Kovalchuk in a Rangers jersey and how much fun would it be to watch Kovy play with Buch, Chytil, and others?