Talk of a return to the NHL by ex-New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk has heated up as the expansion draft and free agency draw near.
Reports out of Russia have indicated Kovalchuk might stay in the Kontinental Hockey League, but Devils general manager Ray Shero cited assurances from Kovalchuk's agent, Doug Grossman, that the former All-Star forward still wants to play in the NHL next season.
Reports from ESPN and Sportsnet have also painted Kovalchuk as a man hungry for a comeback. And if suggestions from Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet and NHL Network are to be believed, there is no shortage of teams that are at least interested in the possibility of acquiring the former $100-million winger.
"I was told that the amount of teams that have inquired on him is much deeper than we had previously realized," Friedman said on NHL Network, according to FanRag Sports Network. "I checked around and Peter DeBoer coached him -- he's in San Jose. Martin Brodeur played with him -- he's in St. Louis. Lou Lamoriello traded for him -- he's in Toronto. Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported Columbus today. I think it goes even deeper than that."
Which of those teams -- and beyond -- actually make the most sense as suitors for Kovalchuk? Remember that the Devils still own their former standout's rights and would have a say in any such deal that gets the 34-year-old Russian back in the NHL.
Heading the pack of the three likeliest landing spots has to be the Sharks.
San Jose Sharks
One of the sexiest playoff-contender destinations for Kovalchuk if the New York Rangers are, in fact, out of the mix for his services, the Sharks offer one of the strongest coaching connections with DeBoer's presence behind the bench.
Some would argue that San Jose would be better off pursuing younger talent, but that same argument could apply to any contender seeking offensive burst. And on a short-term deal, paired with a re-signed Joe Thornton, Kovalchuk would give the Sharks one heck of an experienced unit. Even if he gave the team close to 20 goals on a low-risk, high-reward deal, that would be a win for all sides.
Columbus Blue Jackets
They're almost more of an intriguing destination than they are a likely one, if only because of their limited salary cap space and the coaching connections for Kovalchuk elsewhere. But who's to say John Tortorella wouldn't bang the table for a high-upside piece to throw into his offense?
The Blue Jackets have enough young defensive talent to pry the aging superstar from New Jersey, and they could use a jolt of goal-scoring power for their next run at the postseason. Their cap space might not be as much of an issue after the expansion draft, and there wouldn't be a more enticing, albeit risky, sign-and-trade move to bolster front-line offense than to reel in Kovalchuk.
St. Louis Blues
Like Columbus, San Jose or any other team investigating Kovalchuk as a comeback candidate, the Blues certainly do not want to bank on a 30-plus has-been, no matter how great the ex-Devils and Atlanta Thrashers star was when he left the NHL. But the idea of pairing Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko, who has played alongside the Russian winger and under Brodeur's watch, is too fascinating to overlook.
St. Louis could use pure offensive talent like anyone, especially if the Blues want to erase the scoreless stretches that haunted them at times late in 2016-17. And if a low-risk deal presents itself, as it might with San Jose or Columbus, why wouldn't the team jump at the chance to bring him in? St. Louis' recent history of quiet free agency activity might suggest otherwise, but Kovalchuk isn't exactly your average unsigned talent.