He’s Baaaaack (maybe).

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Seems it just isn’t summer unless we hear rumblings of Ilya Kovalchuck threatening to make a return to the NHL. Well here we are in April and Kovy is trending once again. This may ultimately prove to be more of the same, but this time it seems to have more traction to it and it’s titillating the hockey community and Devils fans everywhere—for good reason.

First, let me be the one to temper expectations a bit. Let’s remember that one of his options is to play one more year in the KHL, which would allow him to return to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent. He could go wherever he wants without all 30-teams approval and negotiate a shiny new contract with a team of his choosing. That’s a good scenario for Kovy.

But, he’d be a year older, and the prospect of slowed production, injury or general interest from NHL clubs is a calculated risk he’d have to weigh. But for argument’s (and this article’s) sake, let’s say he does want to come back this year.

This should make Devils fans very happy.

Not because he’ll be playing on a line with Taylor Hall (more on that later), but because he is a valuable commodity and the Devils stand to benefit greatly no matter where he goes.

And that’s the big question. Exactly how valuable is the 34-yr old winger and to whom?

He’s coming off a very productive season for SKA St. Petersburg, scoring 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games. While he may not be the elite player he was 5 years ago, he’s still a tremendous talent, healthy and a proven NHL commodity.  Last I checked NHL teams seem to like that. As Elliotte Friedman reported, “there will be significant interest”…as there should be.

So what’s next? Well, he could certainly come back and play for the Devils. Or they could work out a sign and trade with another team should both parties decide a different venue is the best option. (Hint: a different venue is the best option).

Look, I’m aware the Devils need some more scoring (they need more everything) and I’m not saying that he wouldn’t look pretty formidable on a line with Henrique and Palmieri. Any “bad blood” is years (and regimes) old, but the Devils simply aren’t in the position to make the most of what he brings to the table. What they are in position to do is reap the benefits of whatever assets (players or picks) they can get for him.

Keep this in mind also—it’s not just about what the Devils want, Kovy will have influence here. At 34, he wants to come back and play for the Cup. He is NOT the missing piece that will vault the Devils into contention. So it would behoove both sides to mutually accommodate each other and work out a deal where everyone gets what they need, which are assets and/or picks for the Devils and a fresh, competitive re-start for Kovy.

He could sign a 2 or 3-year deal ($6.5MM per?) with a team he deems a good fit. But I’d guess that he plays this very Jagr-like and signs a 1-yr deal with a playoff contending team and then becomes UFA again and reassesses the market annually. He’ll essentially become a mercenary in his chase for the Cup and that’s a smart blueprint for a player of his age and skill.

So, what could the Devils get in return for him? It’s hard to speculate, but keep in mind what the cost is for marquee rental players at the trade deadline (Hanzal went for a 1st!)—and that’s just for a few months.

So where does he go? Well, Kovy is a win-now player best suited for a win-now team. That narrows the field substantially. Here’s a few teams that come to mind that have both the need and the cap space to make a deal happen.

Canadiens: Fresh off the heels of another disappointing early post-season exit, their offense failed them (and Carey Price) again. They are the definition of a win-now team and would surely welcome of Kovy’s stature and talent. I’m sure Radulov would love to play with his fellow countryman (and vice versa).

Leafs: This would be such a Lamoriello thing to do. Despite his leaving the Devils in a lurch, both Kovalchuk and Lou maintain they had a very good relationship. The Leafs are making some noise in the playoffs this year and regardless of where they end up, all their young talent would benefit greatly from that key veteran presence. Frankly, Kovy would be a frightening addition to that top-6.

Oilers: Similar to the Leafs, Edmonton is a young, super-talented and reinvigorated team.  They have the cap space (and the players) to make a deal come to fruition. Kovy on Mayor McHockey’s left side? C’mon.

Preds: They just swept the Blackhawks and looked every part of an elite team in doing so. With some young guys looking solid (Arvidsson) and some older guys coming off the books (Fisher), the Preds could be all the more formidable in 17-18 with Kovy on a line with Filip Forsberg.

Sharks: Kovy had great success under Peter Deboer and it stands to reason he’d be a good fit there too. San Jose is very much a “win-now” team but after a 1st round loss to the Oilers, they face many questions this offseason including the fate of their aging captain Joe Thornton and stalwart Patrick Marleau. The latter is likely gone but if Big Joe wants to come back another year, Kovy could fit into Marleau’s salary slot and they could take another shot at a title. However, that window’s closing fast.

Isles: They just missed the playoffs after an up-and-down season, but the biggest question (after their geographical issues) remains the future of their all-world leader John Tavares. Well, Kovy is familiar with the market and sure would look good sniping apples from one of the best in the league.

I’m sure there will be more speculation as this drags on, but it appears we won’t have to wait too long to find a resolution to the Kovy-saga. In the end, the Devils will finally get some semblance of “reparations” for his sudden defection in 2013 and will be all the better for it moving forward. This is going to be a good summer Devils fans.

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