Our First Case Study: Would the Acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk help the Islanders?

Ever since news broke that Ilya Kovalchuk was NHL bound, I seemed to be in the minority when it came to him signing with the Islanders.  The Russian forward expressed interest to return to the National Hockey League and play in either the New York Metro area or in Florida, immediately putting the Isles in the conversation as a potential landing spot.  Recently, however, Kovalchuk decided that he would return to Russia for at least one more season.  As the dust subsides from the whirlwind of activity that surrounded the potential return, one must wonder what would’ve happened had he indeed came to the Islanders.

Having Ilya Kovalchuk on the the Islanders would’ve definitely been a huge help for the forward group.  The three-time NHL all-star has 816 points in 816 games played for the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils, but only made the playoffs three times in his NHL career.  He did not often have a number one center to play alongside in either city as well.  Marc Savard was his best linemate in Atlanta and Travis Zajac was the top line center in New Jersey.  Isles fans were salivating at the thought of him playing alongside a center like John Tavares.  The problem is, however, that hockey is a business and something (or someone) that is in such high demand, would cost a hefty price, a price that some might not have wanted to pay.  If the Islanders were able to afford it, should GM Garth Snow have made an effort to acquire him?

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Ilya Kovalchuk may be playing in the NHL in 2018. Should Garth Snow pursue him?

Acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk would not have been beneficial for the Isles

Some, myself included, believe that Kovalchuk should return to his native Russia for at least one more season.  There are a few reasons why.  First, he simply isn’t ready to come back.  If someone is going to play for the Islanders, I’d prefer that he want to play here.  Players who enjoy playing for a certain team do better.  Kovalchuk wanted to play for his home country for another season and NHL fans need to respect that decision.  The winger also noted the upcoming Olympics as a reason for staying in Russia.  It wouldn’t have helped if he wanted to come to the NHL, but demand to play in the Olympics too, which is something the NHL has strictly prohibited.

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Kovalchuk represented Russia 18 times on the international stage. He wants the South Korean Olympics to be the 19th.

Let’s say Kovalchuk was, in fact, set on returning to the NHL this season and did not desire to play in the Olympics.  I still think it would’ve been good if the Islanders didn’t sign him for multiple reasons.  First, he is not a free agent yet.  This means the Islanders would’ve needed to complete a sign and trade deal with the New Jersey Devils, who currently own his NHL rights.  Not only would the Islanders need to pay Kovalchuk an enormous amount of money, they would have to give up assets for him as well. The Islanders would likely have to trade some of the picks acquired in the Travis Hamonic deal.  Garth Snow would rather trade those picks to acquire a second-line center, something the Isles don’t have.  The Islanders can make do with the left wingers they have including Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier.  Signing Kovalchuk would take their spot in the lineup.  The Isles should prioritize signing John Tavares and Calvin de Haan before handing out money to Kovalchuk.

Additionally, as amazing as playing with Tavares sounds, the two play very different styles of hockey.  Tavares is not well-known for his skating ability and tends to make plays around the net.  Kolvalchuk plays with a lot of speed and skill, something that doesn’t tend to work around Johnny T.  Players like Anders Lee are what Tavares needs.  The 27-year old tends to park himself right in front of goaltenders and scores mostly on deflections and rebounds off his linemate Tavares.  This is why many are excited about Garth Snow acquiring Jordan Eberle: he has played with Tavares before and the two play similarly.

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Anders Lee redirects a Thomas Hickey shot past Matt Murray to put the Isles ahead 4-3 against the Penguins.

Finally, there are players in the Islanders system who deserve playing time that would be taken away by playing Kovalchuk.  The Islanders prospect pool on the wing is very respectable, boasting players like Kieffer Bellows, Michael Dal Colle, Josh Ho Sang, and Anthony Beauvillier to name a few.  The draft picks acquired from Calgary may turn into top prospects as well.  Winning teams grow from the inside; just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Players like Jake Guentzel, Connor Sheary, and Brian Rust all came up through the Penguins system and were successful these past two years.  Additionally, since a lot of their players are still on entry-level contracts, they are not in any serious cap trouble which can allow them to compete for the Stanley Cup again with a nearly intact roster.  So, is Ilya Kovalchuk returning to Russia Is a good thing? Yes. However, trading form and signing Kovalchuk would’ve been disastrous for the future of the New York Islanders.

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Jake Geuntzel, taken 77th overall in the 2013 draft, scored 21 points in the postseason, tying a postseason record for a rookie

Acquiring Kovalchuk would’ve helped the Islanders

For the sake of this case study, I will propose a counter argument against my own opinion.  Should Kovalchuk had been acquired, he wouldn’t have to play on a line with John Tavares.  Should the Islanders acquire Colorado Avalanche superstar Matt Duchene or play the up and coming Matt Barzal, he can play on a line with them.  Both play an up-tempo game that Kovalchuk would likely mesh well with.

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Matt Duchene is known for his high end speed and his playmaking ability

Kovalchuk can also play the power play, an area of concern for the Islanders last year.  The Islanders scored only 35 power play goals last year on 234 attempts.  That is a conversion rate of only 15 percent.  This power play finished 28th in the league last year.  Here are Kovlachuk’s power play stats from his time in the NHL (via hockey reference):

505 GP 73 G 617 SOG 384 Blocks Against 315 Misses 1316 Total Shots attempted 46.9 shot through percentag-e 

That stat line may be tricky to understand, but long story short, Kovalchuk is a power play specialist.  He plays similarly to his Russian counterpart Alex Ovechkin.  Both are right-handed shots playing the left side, meaning they are on their shooting side.  With Tavares feeding him the puck, the Isles would expect their power play conversion rate to skyrocket towards the top of the NHL.

As good as Kovalchuk may be, his home, for now, is not in New York.  The Islanders are in no position to acquire a forward who doesn’t have the complete desire to play in the United States.  The Islanders can simply wait another year and sign him next offseason.  By then, the Olympics will be in the rear-view mirror and Kovalchuk will be an unrestricted free agent.  However, I still don’t think he has a spot on this team unless the team acquires a second line center who can play well with someone like Kovalchuk.  Even so, the salary Kovalchuk would demand would be way out of the team’s range.  Tavares will likely be paid north of $10M and de Haan around $3.5, and that’s not including any more roster moves Garth Snow has up his sleeve.  Ilya Kovalchuk will find success wherever he plays, but the New York Islanders will be just fine without him.

You’ve read my opinion, now tell us yours!  Would Kovalchuk fit in New York? Comment below or tell us through the poll.

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