Ilya Kovalcuk
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

As the New York Rangers rebuild their team, they will need some veteran leadership. The Rangers would be crazy not to consider signing Ilya Kovalchuk when free agency begins in July.

Ilya Kovalchuk last played in the NHL in the 2012-2013 for the New Jersey Devils. A veteran of 816 NHL games, Kovalchuk has shown some interest in returning to the NHL, and the New York Rangers should do whatever they can to grab him once free agency begins in July.

The 34-year-old, selected number one overall in the 2001 NHL Draft by the Atlanta Flames, has spent the last five and a half years in the KHL playing for St. Petersburgh SKA —the same team that New York Rangers prospect’s Igor Shestyorkin and Yegor Rykov play for.

Kovalchuk has had a great career in the KHL and has led the team in scoring each of the past two seasons. In his 12 years in the NHL, he recorded 417 goals, which ranks him 12th in NHL history among players with at least 400 goals. His scoring touch has never been the question but his loyalty is another issue.

Loyalty became the problem for Kovalchuk when he bolted from the New Jersey Devils to go play in the KHL in 2013. Some may question if he is the right guy to help the Rangers get over the hurdle with all of the new, young faces that will be on the team next season. Did you just read that he has scored over 400 goals in the NHL? How can that experience and pure scoring talent scoring NOT help? In my opinion, the past is the past and his remarkable prowess he will absolutely help the team.

One person who believes that he can help any NHL team that should sign him is Kovalchuk’s former Devils teammate Martin Brodeur. Brodeur spoke with Larry Brooks of the New York Post on Monday about Kovalchuk and his possible return to the NHL.

“Kovy is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, And I’m not talking about just his play on the ice. He was one of our most engaged guys in the room. He was great that way. He really cares about winning, and he cares about guys on his team. I only have good things to say about him.”

We understand the concept of rebuilding. To rebuild the correct way, the Rangers need to surround the kids, the future of the franchise, with veteran leaders who can help mentor them as they try to get through an NHL season that has at least 82 regular season games in it. The team is going to need Henrik Lundqvist, maybe a Marc Staal and, yes, a player like Kovalchuk who can help the kids with the up-and-down play of the National Hockey League.

Kovalchuk would slip directly into the number two center ice position or even be the number one center over Mika Zibanejad. The way the Rangers would look on paper and on the ice, Kovalchuk would fit in just about anywhere the organization wants to put him.

Need more convincing of how Kovalchuk could work out in New York? How about having a fellow Russian player to help out the other Russian players on the Rangers? The Russian players now on the team (Vladislav Namestnikov, Alexander Georgiev and Pavel Buchnevich) all would benefit from a fellow Russian superstar joining the team…not to say upcoming prospects Shestyorkin and Rykov would continue to get the same tutelage they are receiving now with him in the KHL.

Think of the possibilities that could be done when Kovalchuk is able to work with the centers of the future, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil.

The Rangers don’t want a rebuild to take many years to be completed and if Ilya comes over to the Rangers, he knows there won’t be much time to get back to the playoffs and get another crack at winning a Stanley Cup. The timing appears too perfect for both sides.

The reports of Kovalchuck coming back to the NHL are not just stories or rumors. On Friday a tweet from Igor Eronko, an NHL.com/ru contributor, came out stating that Ilya Kovalchuk told MatchTV, a Russian Sports publication, that he would have some serious regrets if he didn’t make it back to the NHL.

Kovalchuk becoming a Ranger could be an unrecognized blessing in disguise. He can help the team in a variety of different ways. The problem with signing him is the Rangers are not going to be the only team gunning for him. His reputation procedes him and plenty of other quality NHL teams will go after him come July 1.

With that, the Rangers have two distinct advantages to signing him over the other teams.

First, the money: The Rangers cleared up a lot of salary cap when they traded Rick Nash and Michael Grabner recently. To add more value to the salary cap, Bob McKenzie mentioned during the intermission of the Rangers-Penguins game that the Rangers may not be done selling off players yet, as more moves could be made once the playoffs have ended. The Rangers might be interested in bringing Kovalchuk in on a short-term deal

Second, Kovalchuk’s desire: It has been speculated that Kovalchuk wants not only to come back to the NHL, but he wants to be a New York Ranger. That’s a huge advantage the team hold over all the other teams that may want to sign him.

July is a little over three months away, and the Rangers will have to make some decisions leading up to free agency before even considering bringing on Kovalchuk. One thing for sure, in the short term anyway, Kovalchuk would absolutely fit in with this club.

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU