Ilya Kovalchuk still coy about return to NHL

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic -- The Tuesday morning Team Russia practice started with an intense battle between Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin. The Russians were coming off a loss on Monday to the Americans in the World Championships, and the tone in practice was set early.

Two nets were pushed together for a small area game and Russian captain Kovalchuk battled head-to-head with Malkin with a physical edge and intensity that would have fit right into a tournament game with a medal on the line.

Later on in the practice, a drill didn't go Kovalchuk's way and he was on the ice doing pushups. If the Russian coaches were looking for an indication their team was focused after a disappointing loss, Kovalchuk provided it.

Typically after a World Championship practice, a few Russians will meet with the gathered media to answer questions, not the entire team.

A Russian official didn’t hesitate when a request for Kovalchuk was made.

“First guy out,” he responded.

Minutes after practice ended, there was Kovalchuk -- still sweating and answering every question from the Russian media, presumably about losing to the Americans.

There’s no doubt he’s the face of Russian hockey.

He’s the best player in the KHL, leaving the NHL in his prime to return home to play. He’s the captain of a Russian team trying to win back-to-back World Championships.

This spring, he led SKA St. Petersburg to its first KHL championship, along the way rallying in the conference finals from a 3-0 series deficit to beat a talented CSKA Moscow.

“That’s his league,” said the KHL’s leading goal-scorer Steve Moses, who is heading to the NHL next season with the Nashville Predators. “Everything is focused around him, as far as media attention; it’s definitely not easy to play with that target every single night.”

Kovalchuk has multiple World Championship gold medals, perhaps another coming this year on a loaded Russian team. He now has a KHL championship.

So it was only natural to ask him if a Stanley Cup still remains on his list of career accomplishment hopes.

“I have two more years on my contract,” Kovalchuk answered. “Then, we’ll see.”

He didn’t exactly take the bait, but he did admit that playing a team loaded with NHL players like Team USA and potentially Canada later in the tournament adds to the desire to return to the NHL again one day

“Yeah, for sure,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s always good to play against the best. They have some good players on both teams. Same with the Swedes, Czechs all those guys. So it’s [an] exciting tournament for sure.”

The hoops Kovalchuk would have to jump through to return to the NHL are confusing. When asked if there was a good one or two sentence explainer on the difference scenarios, one NHL source put it bluntly: “Not really.”

During one of the many Kovalchuk-might-come-back stories, Devils president Lou Lamoriello explained to NJ.com’s Rich Chere that it wouldn’t be until 2018-19 before Kovalchuk could do it.

“I’ll answer that the best way I can,” Lamoriello said at the time. “He cannot come back until he is 35.”

The timing on Kovalchuk's return is up for debate, but two things aren’t: The NHL would be better off for it, and he’d be returning a different player than the one who left.

He was named the captain as a kid in Atlanta, but now he absolutely deserves the role. He’s a player who not only knows how to score goals but also how to consistently win big hockey games. He’s a true leader on the Russian team.

“He’s smarter in his game. He used to overextend a lot of his shifts, not so much now. There’s a lot more maturity to his game,” said former Kovalchuk teammate Shane Hnidy, who is in Czech Republic covering games for TSN. “Defensively, I see it. There’s not as much, I don’t want to call it cheat, there’s more of an awareness and responsibility on the defensive side of the puck. And still, when he has a chance to go – he’s gone. That is where he’s dangerous. You need a guy like that.”

Kovalchuk’s coming off a season in which he scored 25 regular season goals for St. Petersburg, giving him 41 goals in 99 KHL games since leaving the NHL. It’s a goal-scoring rate of .41 goals per game, down from his production in the NHL when he averaged 0.51 goals per game.

So if he returns to the NHL in his mid-30s, he won’t likely be the 50-goal scorer fans remember when he broke into the league.

He’ll still be a heck of a player.

“It’s tough. When he was playing in Jersey, I had to stare down his one-timer a few times on the penalty kill. That’s never fun,” said Team USA defenseman Justin Faulk, who helped contain Kovalchuk in the Americans 4-2 win over the Russians. “He moves well out there. He stick-handles. He can shoot. He can kind of do it all. There’s a reason why [he was] making $10 million in the NHL and $15 million in the KHL. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because he’s a bad player.”

Playing against Kovalchuk in the KHL, Moses heard the NHL rumors first-hand. There were some suggesting Kovalchuk might leave one year before his KHL contract expired. Others saying he’d wait until his contract is up.

“I don’t know what the rumors are,” Moses said. “I wouldn’t be shocked to see him come back to the NHL and do really well.”

Kovalchuk’s focus right now is on another gold medal. After that, it’ll be a chance to repeat as KHL champion. But he can’t win a Stanley Cup playing in Russia and it’s becoming one of the last things left he still needs to do.