Toronto Maple Leafs: Making Sense of Signing Another 37-Year-Old

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 23: James Reimer #34 and Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defend against Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 23, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. The Maple Leafs defeated the Devils 4-3 in the shootout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 23: James Reimer #34 and Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defend against Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on March 23, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. The Maple Leafs defeated the Devils 4-3 in the shootout. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

When looking around the league for a low-risk free agent signing that the Toronto Maple Leafs could actually afford this offseason, one stands out to me.

When the league enters this year’s free agency period, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have some decisions to make. Unfortunately, they won’t have much cap space to help them do so.

Toronto has several current players that they’ll have to work to re-sign or prepare to see them in someone else’s sweater next season.

A few such skaters that come to mind, who I believe the Maple Leafs will look to lock back into their lineup, include Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza, and Travis Dermott.

There are also other potential free agents on the roster that I imagine the organization will be less inclined to keep around. The freed-up funds can then be used to sign players like those noted above.

Beyond that, and depending on whether they have any financial flexibility remaining, Kyle Dubas might still be in the market to add some pieces that he feels could help fill out his puzzle.

Luckily for the Leafs, there may be some affordable options for them to consider. And since they don’t need to add any more top-end talent, they won’t be forced to pay those types of prices.

Instead, they could benefit by adding someone potentially past their prime, but with a prevalent compete level. A contract that does so little to impact their cap that it’s worth the gamble.

Ilya Kovalchuk certainly fits that description.

There’s No Coming Back

Initially, in 2013 when Kovalchuk chose to retire from the NHL just to be able to break his contract with the New Jersey Devils, my thoughts on the matter were simple.

He should never be permitted back into the NHL.

It was unfortunate, as any fan of the game has to agree that witnessing quality hockey talent coming from any team can still provide content to respect and enjoy. As long as it’s not happening against the side you’re cheering for, of course.

There is no denying the type of player Kovalchuk was at his peak of play and it’s hard to forget how fun it could be to watch him show off that skill set.

As a hockey fan, first and foremost, I was drawn back to his storyline when I heard that he’d signed with the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 2018.

A Royal Return

When Kovalchuk hit the ice for the 2018-19 season, after five years away from the league, I was skeptical. Candidly speaking, given my thoughts on what he did upon his departure, I didn’t want him to succeed.

And it started to seem like the Kings were in my corner with that stance, given the number of times they continually chose to scratch him throughout his year and a half in that city.

After a struggling Los Angeles team placed him on waivers in late 2019, the lowly Montreal Canadians decided to give him a shot. They signed him to a one-year, two-way contract worth $700,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 in the AHL.

Perhaps there was more to his story after all and he really was just looking for a way to prove that he simply wanted to play.

Having not been treated like royalty clearly impacted his production in Los Angeles, because he came out contributing with the Canadiens. Kovalchuk tallied eight points in his first eight games with Montreal and captured the attention of the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals acquired Kovalchuk at the 2020 trade deadline, illustrating that he could still be sought after to be impactful if utilized in the proper setting.

Reliving Their Past

Let’s not forget, Kovalchuk is a former 1st overall pick from the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. And that comes with some clout, especially since he did live up to that selection.

He put up pretty good numbers on very bad Atlanta Thrashers teams between the 2001-02 to 2009-10 seasons and enjoyed some production with the Devils throughout the 2009-10 to 2012-13 seasons, as well. But then he left the league.

Even though his most recent return in 2018 didn’t see immediate success, watching what he’s done since has convinced me that he does have the determination to do more in this league.

This is an obviously young Maple Leafs team. They are built that way by design. However, that doesn’t mean that adding selective veteran experience can’t be of benefit.

Coincidentally, the 2nd overall pick from that same 2001 entry draft was Jason Spezza. If Toronto can re-sign Spezza, combining the presence that he and Kovalchuck would collectively offer could be advantageous.

Kovalchuck shouldn’t be looked upon to lead like John Tavares, or create like Mitch Marner, or score like Auston Matthews. But if he can do what Spezza did for this team in his limited role last season, it will further prove that talent like theirs can age well.

Acquiring Discounted Value

Adding the types of attributes that Kovalchuk will always be associated with, even at the age of 37, would position the Maple Leafs to be that much better as a result.

With Spezza and Kovalchuk balancing out Toronto’s bottom-six, the depth they would add would only be overshadowed by their contagious work ethic and insightful perspectives on the game.

Kovalchuk has to be able to take the same approach that Spezza was willing to for this to work in Toronto. Agreeing to a minimum salary and accepting a realistic role with this team would certainly convert me into becoming a fan of his, too.

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So, if the Toronto Maple Leafs management can find a financially friendly way to add veteran talent like Ilya Kovalchuk to help round out their roster, why wouldn’t they?