Ilya Kovalchuk hasn’t been seen skating in the NHL for six years now, the Russian forward once known for lighting up scoreboards across the United States and Canada retiring from North America’s top league to return home to the KHL.
On Sunday, the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils winger turned 35 years old, which is considered well past the prime of many professional hockey players. But that isn’t stopping him from coming back to the NHL.
Kovalchuk’s birthday meant that he is off the voluntary retired list and is now an unrestricted free agent.
He’s spent the past five seasons in Russia where he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In each of the last two years, he’s recorded 32 goals apiece and amassed a combined 143 points.
Not bad for an aging star in the second-best league in the world.
There is little denying that Kovalchuk would have no trouble performing at a high level in the NHL, even if his numbers won’t be as prolific as they were throughout the previous decade.
Over a five-season span from 2003-2009 (the 2003-04 season was lost to a strike), he recorded 40 or more goals in each of those years, including two 52-goal campaigns with the Thrashers, now the Winnipeg Jets.
Those seasons earned him a massive 15-year deal with the Devils, though he only played in three of them before retiring in 2013. Going to the voluntary retirement list ensured the Devils had control of Kovalchuk until his 35th birthday.
It looks as though teams were chomping at the bit to negotiate with Kovalchuk, especially the New York Rangers, who were reportedly nearing an agreement last week even before he became a free agent. However, those rumors have not amounted to much over the past few days though the two remain linked.
Signing him would go against the belief of the Rangers rebuilding through youth. After making the realization that they were not going to be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference, general manager Jeff Gorton dealt veterans Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Nick Holden and JT Miller at the trade deadline.
Kovalchuk would also create a bit of a logjam in the left-wing depth chart. New York already boasts Chris Kreider, Jimmy Vesey and Vladislav Namestnikov on its top three lines.
He will not be able to officially sign a contract until July 1, the start of the NHL’s free agency period.