After five years back home in Russia, Ilya Kovalchuk is ready to resume his Stanley Cup chase with the Los Angeles Kings.
The high-scoring forward agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Kings on Saturday, choosing Los Angeles over several interested teams for his return to the NHL.
The 35-year-old Kovalchuk scored 816 points in 816 career games for the Atlanta Thrashers and the New Jersey Devils before leaving North America in 2013 for the Kontinental Hockey League’s SKA St. Petersburg. He led the KHL in scoring last season, and he was the MVP of the Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang while propelling the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” to a gold medal.
“He gives us an added element of skill and scoring, along with a desire to win,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said.
Boston and San Jose were among the suitors for Kovalchuk, but the Kings made a top-dollar offer to add him to a lineup that could use another dependable goal-scorer. Kovalchuk is likely to be particularly important on the power play for the Kings, who ranked in the middle of the NHL standings in most team scoring categories.
Kovalchuk was the first Russian to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft when Atlanta chose him in 2001. He quickly became one of the NHL’s most consistent scorers with his wicked shot and hockey sense. He spent nearly eight years with the Thrashers and 3½ seasons with the Devils, who acquired him in a trade in February 2010.
Kovalchuk will forever be the top scorer in the history of the Thrashers, who moved to Winnipeg one season after trading him to New Jersey. He shared the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer in 2004 with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla, yet his 41 goals that season were only the fifth-best total during a career in which he posted a pair of 52-goal seasons for the Thrashers.
Kovalchuk had little playoff success in his NHL career until 2012, when he reached the Stanley Cup Final with the Devils after leading the Eastern Conference playoffs in scoring. New Jersey lost the Final in six games to the Kings, with Kovalchuk scoring only one empty-net goal in the series.
The Kings and Kovalchuk have had mutual interest for many years. Los Angeles pursued him in free agency in 2010 before Kovalchuk got a massive contract to stay with the Devils.
Just three seasons into a 15-year, $100 million contract with New Jersey, Kovalchuk abruptly left the NHL for St. Petersburg amid complaints about North American taxes and the distance from his family. Kovalchuk and his wife have four children.
He won two KHL championships with St. Petersburg, and he scored 141 points in 113 games over the past two seasons against the KHL’s lesser competition. Kovalchuk became a five-time Olympian in February, when he scored five goals in six games for the Russians in the watered-down Pyeongchang tournament, which included no current NHL players.