Kovalchuk Drama: What comes next for the aging Russian star?

Will it have a KHL ending? It’s on high alert once again as the 36-year-old struggles to keep up in NHL.
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Now that’s a headline straight out of 2013, isn’t it? Who can forget the post-lockout bombshell when Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk ditched the New Jersey Devils with 12 years left on his record-setting deal and “retired” from the NHL only to promptly sign with Russia’s SKA Saint Petersburg?

Fun times. After five years back home, leading the KHL juggernaut to two Gagarin Cup titles, winning Olympic gold (against the mighty…Germans?) and attempting a comeback in Los Angeles, Kovalchuk might be ready to jump the pond again. This time, one would assume, for good.

In retrospect, his union with the Kings was doomed from the start. Kovalchuk never made a secret of wanting to move his family to a big, glamorous media market, fuelling speculation of a return to the New York area or settling in Florida, where he owns property.

While L.A. fit the bill, the Kings themselves were a ponderous choice given the state of their rebuild. One would struggle to find solid justification for the Kings’ signing of the aging star with a history of putting his own interests first.

With that in mind, Kovalchuk’s benching in November seems logical, if not preordained. Just as the question, “What’s next?” seems now, as Kovalchuk may be ready to bid California adieu. The Kings’ problem, of course, is his cumbersome salary, which makes looking for an NHL trade partner extremely difficult. But, if reports coming out of Russia are true, he may be headed back home.

In fact, “Kovalchuk back to the KHL” rumors have been rumbling in Russia since last spring, as the Kings’ struggles and the lack of a need for a high-maintenance 36-year-old were rather easy to predict. The departure of interim coach Willie Desjardins, with whom Kovalchuk most decidedly never hit it off, gave a sliver of hope that things may turn around in L.A., but the possibility of a downward spiral was always much more realistic. On the other hand, one particular destination in Russia has always seemed very logical, that being Avangard Omsk.

The Siberian team, coached by Bob Hartley, is coming off one of its best seasons in almost two decades, having won the KHL’s Eastern Conference. But a move there would make sense for many reasons, besides the possibility of winning.

First of all, despite their official home being the distant Siberian city of Omsk, Avangard has actually been skating out of the Balashikha Arena in suburban Moscow as their new facility is being built at the snail’s pace characteristic of Russia. Kovalchuk, who is very conscientious of his living arrangements, would certainly love the idea of moving back to Moscow.

An even more significant factor, however, would be the potential reunion with Hartley, one of the few coaches who was always able to get the most out of the talented but unpredictable Russian. Hartley, who coached Kovalchuk in Atlanta at the dawn of his NHL career, was often able to light the kind of competitive fire under him that many Russian coaches would struggle to bring out.

In fact, Hartley was easily Kovalchuk’s favorite NHL coach, and it was in large part thanks to Kovalchuk’s influence in Russian hockey circles that Hartley got the Avangard job in the first place. Also working there, incidentally, is Slava Kozlov, another Thrashers alum who has built a good relationship with the Canadian coach.

Despite last season’s success, Hartley is very much on the hot seat this year. The Hawks’ win-loss record has them near the top of the standings in the East, but they are far from dominant, and there are reports of less than perfect dressing-room dynamics between Hartley and some of his Russian charges.

The team’s lofty expectations in the wake of their appearance in the Gagarin Cup final included a supposed influx of stars in the off-season, which the front office failed to materialize.

If winning the Cup is really on the Hawks’ radar, bringing in a big-name player will surely rank as a top priority, especially if the player likes the coach and can easily settle into a leadership role, providing the cultural buffer between the old-school Canadian and his young Russian personnel.

Avangard president Maxim Sushinsky, formerly Kovalchuk’s teammate on the Russian national team, when asked by Russian media to comment on the potential move, did not deny the team’s interest, merely saying that, “We will look into it and consider the possibility if he fits our system.”

Additionally, there aren’t many teams in Russia who have the need for and means of signing someone like Kovalchuk. Avangard, bankrolled by the state-owned energy giant Gazprom Neft (an oil company with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin), has no qualms about spending money and desperately wants the Gagarin Cup.

The combination of factors is such that Kovalchuk winding up in a Hawks jersey is all but a certainty in the coming weeks according to some Russian hockey insiders. Presuming he can extricate himself from his NHL commitments, of course.

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