Krupa: Red Wings don’t need Ilya Kovalchuk and he doesn’t need them

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ilya Kovalchuk

Detroit – The odds Ilya Kovalchuk wants to play on the Detroit Red Wings power play in 2018-19 are slim.

But not quite as poor as the chances the Wings will win the Stanley Cup, anytime soon.

The twin improbabilities limit any interest Kovalchuk has in signing with them, despite the run the Red Wings are taking at him.

Kovalchuk seeks a second NHL comeback in his prodigal career to experience what Alex Ovechkin experienced over the past week. He seeks the height of team performance, a Stanley Cup, to add to an Olympic gold medal, two golds in World Championships, one in a World Junior Championship and two Gagarin Cups, the championship trophy of the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Red Wings interest in Kovalchuk is about the opportunity for players Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Evgeny Svechnikov to play with the once supremely-talented 35-year-old, and removing some of the dead weight of the franchise from Henrik Zetterberg’s surgically-repaired back for the first season since Pavel Dastyuk decamped to the KHL.

It also anticipates the possibility Zetterberg will retire, after the coming season.

The interest is also about ticket sales.

Fans, concerned about watching another performance like 30-39-13 and 27th in goals in 2017-18, say the Wings are starting to cut some deals that more equitably measure the product.

Not an ideal fit

As last season lingered, it became ever more likely that a chunk of the empty seats, especially those outside of the premium seating areas at Little Caesars Arena, were no-shows.

Not pretty, and something to which the Red Wings will necessarily react.

Cutting prices and more marketing only goes so far.

Ilya Kovalchuk

The thought may be that Kovalchuk’s impact on goals and wins would help staunch some of the bleeding interest.

Even grading on a curve for performances in the KHL, Kovalchuk, a two-time NHL All-Star and 18th all-time in career goals per game, is likely capable of providing 20 to 25 goals, for perhaps a couple of seasons, when healthy.

It will help if about half the total is on the power play.

A perceptive veteran like Kovalchuk knows to optimize that opportunity in June and July by looking for assists, playmaking and puck movement in the lineups of the teams he visits on his current tour.

He will find less of it in Detroit than in many places around the NHL.

The Bruins, Sharks, Kings, Rangers and others are reportedly talking to Kovalchuk.

The Bruins had the fourth-best power play in the league in the regular season, and the best in the playoffs.

The Sharks and Kings were 11th and 12th in the regular season.

The Red Wings were 27th.

The Rangers were 24th. But, apparently the Blueshirts feel they can make the argument to Kovalchuk they can be in contention for the Stanley Cup over the next few years.

There is a lot of parity designed into the NHL, these days, but not that much.

But, if the Red Wings are also making that argument they are redefining chutzpah.

Not enough support

Do not expect Kovachuk in red-and-white with a winged-wheel emblazoned on his chest any time soon.

There reportedly is a second group of teams interested in Kovalchuk that includes the Blues, and others. Apparently Lou Lamoriello, now with the Islanders, is interested.

And Kovalchuk once walked out on the last dozen years of a 15-year, $100 million deal he signed with Lamoriello.

Oh, OK, so maybe the Wings are not redefining chutzpah.

But, they do seem to be redefining the concept of rebuilding, in the NHL.

The fact that they are looking toward Kovalchuk at all, and despite odds that are significant against any possibility of signing him, again raises questions about the course of rebuilding that began “on the fly” six seasons ago, after Nicklas Lidstrom retired and should have kicked into high-gear a few seasons after that.

As of last season, the process, a generational transformation from a perennial Stanley Cup contender to the next contender, still required some acceleration and upshifting, despite collecting draft choices.

The Red Wings’ decisions to retain some of their support players, at considerable cost and for considerable duration, and the acquisition of more veteran help, in support roles, resulted last season in a team of no stars and, arguably, inadequate support.

Tomas Nosek, who performed well in the Golden Knights' playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals, looked good in stints with the Red Wings. But the Wings never made him the $800,000 replacement for some guys now signed for a few to several millions more, who provide about the same performance.

Svechnikov, Dominic Turgeon, Joe Hicketts and Filip Hronek all played too much in Grand Rapids last season and not enough in Detroit.

Faced with a generational challenge, management and coaches are still not churning the roster to the point that younger players either prove their worth or signal they never will, and any reduced performance is accepted as a natural result of rebuilding.

And, its byproduct is better draft position.

The Red Wings are not there, yet. In some ways, the pursuit of Kovalchuk is more evidence.

But in some ways, it is also an acknowledgement that both Zetterberg and Nicklas Kronwall may retire by next June, and Kovalchuk and fellas like Mike Green and Trevor Daley are essential, even for a rebuilding club.

The misfortune is, Kovalchuk wants a Stanley Cup, and a team that constantly provides him with the puck, in good scoring position.

The good fortune is, if he signs somewhere else, which seems highly likely, the Red Wings might be closer to rebuilding a contender.