So, Ilya Kovalchuk says he wants to come back to the NHL.
We’ll believe it when we see it, since he’s made that proclamation before. And, at 34, doesn’t he know that it’s a young man’s game now?
Whatever the case, the ultra-talented Russian would be welcomed back with open arms. He was second in scoring in the world’s second best league, the KHL, scoring 33 goals and 46 assists in 61 games for SKA St. Petersburg. His production in the playoffs, though, fell off to nine points in 18 games as St. Petersburg won the Gagarin Cup.
The last time Kovalchuk donned a NHL sweater in 2012-13, he scored 31 points in 37 games, so his value offensively is high. The only question remains, where does he go? The Devils still own his rights, as he “retired” mid-season, however, a sign and trade could be worked out.
With Vegas set to make it a 31-team loop this coming fall, there will be some openings not only for Kovalchuk, but perhaps a host of other players toiling in Europe.
Here are 15 (nine forwards, four defence, two goalies) who have either been drafted and played in the NHL, or remained in Europe that teams should be interested in.
15. Nikita Gusev, F – St. Petersburg SKA, KHL
Gusev is one of those players who seems to be getting better as he goes. Like Artemi Panarin (Chicago) and Nikita Zaitsev (Toronto) he is a late bloomer who could help jump start Tampa Bay’s offence, should they bring him over. The Moscow native was drafted in the seventh round, 202nd overall by the Lightning in 2012 and has yet to skate in a game in North America. He finished fourth in KHL scoring, bunched in a group of SKA players (including Ilya Kovalchuk) with 25 goals and 47 assists in 58 games. It marks his finest season as a pro yet and should have Lightning brass champing at the bit to bring him over. Adding to his prowess, Gusev scored seven goals and added 16 assists in 18 games for the champion St. Petersburg club.
14. Maxim Shalunov, F – Novosibirsk Sibir, KHL
People have often made jokes about Russians being banished to Siberia. But, one young player, Maxim Shalunov, has thrived there since returning to Russia in 2014. Shalunov was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011 (fourth round, 119th overall) played 63 games in the AHL and ECHL with Rockford and Toledo, respectively and then bolted back across the pond. Novosibirsk signed him in 2014 and in three seasons, his performance has improved measurably. In his first KHL season, he scored four points in 33 games and was -7. But in the 2015 KHL playoffs, he scored four goals in 16 games and gained confidence. The Chelyabinsk native then fired 18 goals and added 12 assists in 59 games of the 2015-16 campaign, followed by six points in 10 playoff contests. This season, the 24-year-old notched 19 goals in 49 games, along with 18 assists. The last word on Shalunov was that he was trying to get out of his contract with the Sibir in time for the NHL playoffs with Chicago. Should he return to North America, he could be another Artemi Panarin.
13. Evgeny Dadonov, F – St. Petersburg SKA, KHL
If they lose everyone as we’ve described here, SKA won’t have much of a club in 2017-18. Dadonov, who just turned 28, is a free agent and has been linked to everyone from Carolina, to Toronto and Vegas to name a few. The Florida Panthers drafted Dadonov in 2007 (third round, 71st overall) and he spent parts of three seasons there before being dealt to Carolina, where he was assigned to the minor league Charlotte Checkers. In 55 NHL games, all with Florida, the smallish (5’10” 178 lbs.) native of Chelyabinsk had 10 goals and 10 assists. He returned to the KHL in 2012 with Donbass and has played five seasons in the league. The 2016-17 campaign with SKA was his best so far, heating up the rumor mill for a return. He scored 30 goals and 36 assists in 53 regular season contests, followed by 19 points (nine goals) in 18 playoff games as SKA won the Gagarin Cup.
12. Oskar Lindblom, F – Brynas IF Gavle, SHL
The Philadelphia Flyers may not be able to leave Oskar Lindblom over in Sweden much longer to marinate. The 21-year-old Gavle native had a superb season with his hometown club Brynas IF, scoring 22 goals and adding 25 assists in 52 games to finish fourth in league scoring. Brynas is also in the Swedish Elite League finals and Lindblom has contributed immensely, scoring four goals and 10 assists in 18 games so far. Philly drafted the left winger 138th overall in 2014 and other than eight games with their affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2015-16, he’s stayed with Brynas. The Flyers lacked scoring this season, especially down the left wing and we believe Lindblom could slide in nicely.
11. Johan Sundstrom, F – Frolunda Indians, SHL
Another young Swede percolating in the Elite League may not have to wait long to get back into the NHL. Sundstrom, who has been toiling with his hometown Indians since leaving North America in 2015, has improved his game mightily in two seasons with Gothenburg-based Frolunda. He was drafted 50th overall by the New York Islanders in 2011, but managed to get in just 11 games with the Islanders in 2013-14 and registering a single assist. Otherwise, Sundstrom skated in 171 AHL games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, scoring 26 goals and 43 assists. This season with Frolunda, the defensively sound pivot scored 12 goals and 26 assists and was +9 in just 45 games while adding a goal in nine playoff games. The Islanders aren’t that deep at center and could use his two-way play.
10. Carl Grundstrom, F – Frolunda Indians, SHL
It seems that the Toronto Maple Leafs have hot, talented prospects literally falling out of their pockets these days. It was not always thus as the perennial chumps traded away draft picks and prospects for over-the-hill veterans. After drafting Auston Matthews first overall after he played in the Swiss League with men, the Leafs used their second pick in the second round to take teenager Carl Grundstrom 57th overall. He’s a sniper in the true sense of the word, having scored more goals (23) than assists (18) in his 118-game SHL career. The book on him says he’s a hard working and gritty player in the Zach Hyman mold, but with 14 goals in 45 games as a 19-year-old (he was 18 for the first half of the season), he may have a higher scoring ceiling than Hyman. The Leafs have an embarrassment of riches, for sure.
9. Eero Elo, F – Langnau Tigers, Swiss A League
In 2008, the Minnesota Wild took a flyer on lesser-known Finnish forward Eero Elo, selecting him in the fifth round, 145th overall. A big guy (6’4″, 203 lbs.) Elo projected to be a decent two-way player with a good shot and quick release. Somehow, Elo fell through the cracks and has yet to play a game in any pro league in North America. But, we think at 26 that he is hardly washed up and worth a look by NHL clubs. He was very good with Assat Pori of the Finnish Liiga for three seasons between 2012-13, scoring 44 goals and 22 assists in 142 games (a high of 26 goals in 54 games during his last season there). He bounced the KHL in 2015-16 with Yekaterinburg (18 goals, 10 assists in 56 games) before playing eight games with Novosibirsk this season. He left the KHL to sign with Swiss team Langnau and performed well, scoring 11 goals and 17 assists in 39 games.
8. Roope Hintz, F – HIFK Helsinki, Finnish Liiga
The Dallas Stars could use some sizzle after a lousy season. Projected to go back to the playoffs and do some damage, the Stars floundered to a dismal 79-point season and an early summer. They weren’t particularly good in any area and dumped their hottest scorer, Patrick Eaves, to Anaheim, among a host of other deals at the deadline. Waiting in Finland is speedy playmaker Roope Hintz, who the Stars drafted 49th overall in 2015. Still just 20, he has three seasons of experience in Finland’s top league (Liiga), the last two with Helsinki. Hintz played a major role in HIFK advancing through the Liiga playoffs as a wild card, scoring 14 points in 14 games as Helsinki fell just short of competing for the league title. That superb playoff showing followed a 19 goal, 11 assist season (44 games), Hintz best since being drafted.
7. Kyle Beach, F – Graz EC, Austrian League
The word “bust” is thrown around in a very cavalier way sometimes. Kyle Beach, for better or worse, might be considered a bust, in that he was drafted 11th overall by Chicago in 2008, but never played a game in the Windy City. Too bad for Chicago, we say. The big left winger, who turned 27 in January, may yet have something a few NHL teams could use, that is size and proven scoring down the wing. A shooter who has played with a nasty edge in the AHL and four seasons in Europe, Beach put in his best season ever in 2016-17 with Graz. He was one of just four players to score 30 goals in the league and added 15 assists in 54 games. He also spent 123 minutes in the box. Given a chance, he could provide the kind of third-fourth line grit and more-than-occasional goal scoring on the wing on a NHL team.
6. Anton Belov, D – St. Petersburg SKA, KHL
Who couldn’t use a big, strong defenceman with sound two-way skills right now in the NHL? That is exactly what former Edmonton Oilers free agent rearguard Anton Belov brings to the table. The 6’4″ defender has played with powerhouse SKA for three years since a 57-game season with the Oilers in 2013-14. He scored seven points that season and like many of his teammates as an uncharacteristic -12. This season in the KHL, Belov reached highs in goals (9), assists (18) and points (27), while logging a very good +34. In addition, the native of Ryazan added 14 points in St. Petersburg’s 18-game run to the championship. At 31, the time may be now for him to return to the NHL.
5. Evgeny Medvedev, D – Omsk Avangard, KHL
Veteran defenceman Evgeny Medvedev didn’t stay in the NHL after a decent season with Philadelphia in 2015-16, getting caught for a DUI (nothing more on that since), however, he’s the kind of coveted shut-down man teams are looking for. The 34-year-old scored 13 points in 45 games with the Flyers that season and was +5. At 6’3″ and 198 pounds, he has the size for the NHL and the smarts (he has never been a minus player) to thrive as a second or third pair two-way rearguard. He returned to the KHL with Omsk this season and recorded 22 points in 56 games along with a +20. In 12 playoff games he contributed two goals and six assists. Prior to his stint in Philly, Medvedev spent eight good campaigns with Kazan Ak-Bars, recording 178 points and a +100 in 383 games. A sound pick-up, if for only a one-year deal.
4. Magnus Nygren, D – Farjestads BK Karlstad, SHL
As has been seen on Twitter, the Montreal Canadiens have many player personnel decisions to make in the wake of an early playoff exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. The need for scoring up front needs to be addressed, however, a couple of holes on the blue line loom. Veteran Nathan Beaulieu underwhelmed in the playoffs and is now RFA after playing out the last season of a two-year, $2 million deal. And Andrei Markov looked older and slower in the post-season and is a UFA. Therefore, a seasoned defenceman like Magnus Nygren could fit back in and wouldn’t have the steep learning curve of a younger player. He’s still just 26 and while he never got a taste of NHL hockey with the Canadiens (who drafted him 113th overall in 2011), he’s built his game back up with Farjestads. In two seasons since playing in 15 games with Hamilton in 2014-15, Nygren has scored 19 goals and 38 assists in 96 games and was +25. He could be enticed to return, on the right contract.
3. David Rundblad, D – Zurich SC Lions, Swiss A League
It hasn’t been that long since Swedish defenceman David Rundblad was putting in pretty good work with the Chicago Blackhawks. With his size (6’2″) and defensive acumen, he’d be a nice addition to a team looking for a third pair two-way defender. Drafted 17th overall by St. Louis in 2009, the 26-year-old native of Lycksele, Sweden ended up playing 113 NHL games with Ottawa, Phoenix and Chicago, registering 25 points. In his best year, 2014-15, Rundblad had 14 points in 49 games for Chicago and was +17. After a short stint with Rockford in 2015-16, Rundblad signed with Zurich, where Auston Matthews was playing. He recorded 15 points in 11 games and +8. This season, he upped his game, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 49 games for the Lions, as well as a sterling +29. There could be a taker or two, we think.
2. Igor Shesterkin, G – St. Petersburg SKA, KHL
Judging by the talent from SKA that we have included in this piece, they could likely give many a team in the NHL a run for their money. Now, the New York Rangers won’t be making any decisions on personnel until after the playoffs, however, there will be a reckoning coming soon. Henrik Lundqvist is King Henrik again and he has four years left on a seven-year contract. Yet, he’s 35 and may not have many 60-plus game seasons left in his veteran body. Behind him is serviceable back-up Antti Raanta and another rung down giant (6’6″) netminder Magnus Hellberg. Therefore, we think SKA goalie and former 2014 fourth round (118th overall) pick Shesterkin could be enticing trade bait to help plug holes in other areas. At 21 (just turned in late December) the Moscow native enjoyed a great season with St. Petersburg, going 27-4-6 in 39 games, with a 1.64 goals against average, eight shutouts and .937 save percentage. In five playoff games for the champs, he was 4-1 and recorded a 1.84 GAA and .940 save percentage.
1. Jussi Rynnas, G – Karpat Oulu, Finnish Liiga
At one time, Jussi Rynnas was seen as the future in net for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Never drafted, the 6’5″ netminder from Pori was signed by then GM Brian Burke to a two-year entry level deal in 2010. He never did stick with Toronto, unfortunately, and ended up playing the majority of his games in North America with the Marlies. After the lockout 2012-13 season, Rynnas headed back to the liiga for one season with Karpat, before signing with Dallas for the 2014-15 campaign. Again, he toiled in the AHL with the Texas Stars, getting in just two games with the big club. Dallas released him in 2015 and since then the big goalie has shone with Kazan Ak-Bars of the KHL in 2015-16 and this season with the Oulu. He played in the second most games in the league (47) and went 21-16-10 with a 1.97 GAA (fifth best) and .925 save percentage (third). While he’ll be 30 near the end of May, he’d be a decent pick-up as a back-up for several teams (including Dallas, who had the worst goaltending in the league this year).