The Red Wings shouldn’t sign Ilya Kovalchuk, nor should anybody else

Ilya Kovalchuk’s name has been swirling in the global hockey media over the past few weeks, largely due to the fact that his KHL team SKA St. Petersburg has been scratching him in the middle of a playoff run. As such, rumours have been circulating that he could return to the NHL, and that the Detroit Red Wings are a potential landing spot.

From Russian outlet Sport-Express:

According to our information, the situation is being paid close attention to in Detroit, who are ready to offer Kovalchuk a contract in case of a parting with CSKA. However, the probability of signing the agreement is very low: for the return of Kovalchuk in the NHL will require the approval of all thirty clubs in the National Hockey League.

Most likely, this “information” is being fed by Kovalchuk’s agent, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even still, I’m of the belief that the Red Wings should stay away from Kovalchuk, and not even because of the personal issues that come with a player that abruptly retired from the NHL to sign a bigger contract, or threatened to go back if he didn’t get his way this week.

Here’s the thing, though; these scratches are coming as a result of poor performance, and that’s absolutely not something that he should be rewarded for. Ilya Kovalchuk is not the same acquisition in 2016 as he would have been in 2006, or in 2011.

Kovalchuk has been dealing with back issues for quite some time. They were originally pointed out during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he played through the ailment as the New Jersey Devils pushed all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. But it’s an open secret in the KHL that he’s continued to struggle with lower-back problems ever since, and they’ve they’ve only gotten worse since messing up an attempted hit in August of 2015. 

Little by little, the 32-year-old Russian winger, who once put up five consecutive 40 goal seasons in the NHL and has 816 points in exactly as many games, has fallen apart physically. He’s not as quick to get himself into high-danger scoring areas, struggles to uses his body to protect the puck the way he used to, and can’t put as much emphasis on his shot. Combine this with a lack of defensive instinct, and you have a player that can put points up if you force him into position, but becomes a burden at even strength. This play here was the straw that broke SKA’s, well, back last week:

The numbers match up with the idea that Kovalchuk is broken down and on his downswing. While many will point to the fact that he finished in a tie for 11th in KHL scoring this year as a sign that he’s still “got it”, it’s important to look at the context of his performance.

Despite missing ten games this year, including St. Petersburg’s longest road trip, Kovalchuk is still in the upper half of the top 30 in minutes played. That’s because he averaged 21:16 a night, which is crazy deployment for any KHL forward (only Dynamo Minsk’s Matt Ellison averaged more), and more than any of the other three SKA forwards in the top 30 of scoring, including Vadim Shipachyov, who had eleven more points.

Adjusted to a per-60 minute rate, similar to what is done with NHL evaluation, you’ll notice that Kovalchuk ranks 25th out of the top 30 in his goal scoring rate and 15th in point generation. This is despite a late-season push, where SKA doubled down on his powerplay usage in an effort to get him scoring.

After all, the injury has hampered his ability to move into position at 5-on-5; he greatly relies on the man-advantage to give him the open space (compared to the already open space of International Ice) to shoot; usually from a far enough distance that he’s more likely to generate a rebound than a goal. Just 44% of Kovalchuk’s goals (7 of 16) come at Even Strength or Shorthanded; out of players in the top 30, only Peter Regin and Jonathan Cheechoo are at a greater level of powerplay reliance.

Year Goals/60 Assists/60 Points/60 NHLe/60 Shots60 Time On Ice Non PP Goal %
2015/16 0.9 1.86 2.76 2.21 10.27 21:16 44
2014/15 1.43 1.72 3.15 2.52 12.29 19:23 68
2013/14 1.02 1.52 2.54 2.03 10.91 21:02 75
2012/13 1.53 2.04 3.57 2.86 10.04 19:35 89
Career 1.19 1.77 2.97 2.37 11.23 20:20 69

Even with his late season point push, using the NHLe Formula gives Kovalchuk an expected 2.21 points per sixty minutes in all situations. Even ignoring that Kovalchuk likely has a higher ratio of powerplay minutes than most, that’s not an overly amazing rate. It would put him fifth on the Red Wings at this exact moment, but presumably require him to hop on the top powerplay unit and come Detroit’s top volume shooter. On top of this, he’d have to stay healthy, adjust to a whole new team, and help out in other ways. Given the fact most underlying analytics had Kovalchuk as a burden on possession when he was four years younger, it’s unlikely that he’s improved in that regard while on the physical decline.

With all of this considered, I don’t think it makes any sense for any team to pursue him, let alone the Red Wings. At the end of the day, you’d be taking a chance on a player that is kicking and screaming his way out of a league where he’s seen as a mega brand name, and trying to stuff them into a position where they might, in a best case scenario, produce as much as a second line winger. To do this, you’ll likely have to pay him a fistful based on his name and will have to go through a massive battle with 29 other GM’s to get their blessing before you sign him. 

It’s not worth it. If I’m Ilya Kovalchuk, my best course of action would be to sit this one out, and possibly next season as well. I’d take the 12-14 months to rehab my injuries and decide what I really want out of the game, and more importantly, remove the restrictions on who can and can’t sign me. It might be a bruise to the ego, but if he wants to play this game into his late thirties and beyond at a level resembling what we’ve seen in the NHL, it might also be his safest bet.