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Behind The Numbers

Kovalchuk represents big risk-reward gamble for Kings, statistics show

Los Angeles hoping 35-year-old forward's KHL offensive numbers translate to success in NHL return

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Ilya Kovalchuk agreed to a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. Kovalchuk, who played the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League after 11 seasons in the NHL, must wait until July 1 to sign the contract, one that the underlying numbers suggest is a high-risk, high-reward situation for Los Angeles.


[RELATED: Fantasy projection for Kovalchuk with Kings in 2018-19]


The reward for the Kings is that Kovalchuk, a point-per-game player in the NHL (816 points in 816 games) before leaving for Russia, could score up to 72 points next season and help boost them into Stanley Cup contention. However, the risk of signing a 35-year-old forward who hasn't played an NHL game since April 27, 2013, is that his skill won't translate back to the NHL, and that he could put up 40 points or fewer next season.

The most realistic outcome is around 56 points. A variety of approaches were used to arrive at these estimates, the first of which involves converting his KHL scoring totals to an NHL equivalent using translation factors. This approach highlights his best-case scenario.

Translation factors are percents that are based on how players have performed in the NHL in the past, in this case after coming from the KHL or its predecessor, the Russian Super League. They are calculated by taking a player's points-per-game average in the NHL in one season and dividing it by how that player performed in the other league in the preceding season. Based on the 54 players to do so since 2005-06 (minimum 20 games in each league), the average player retained 72.7 percent of his scoring when going to the NHL.

That translation factor is validated by Kovalchuk's own KHL-to-NHL experience. When the 2012-13 NHL season was delayed by a lockout, he had 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists) in 36 games in the KHL, then had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 37 NHL games after play resumed. That works out to 1.17 points per game in the KHL and 0.84 in the NHL, which is 73.8 percent.

If this trend holds, Kovalchuk could top 70 points next season. In 2017-18, he led the KHL with 63 points (31 goals, 32 assists) in 53 games, an average of 1.19 points per game. When multiplied by 73.8 percent, that works out to 0.88 points per game, which would be 72 points in 82 NHL games.

Video: Kovalchuk agrees to three-year contract with Kings

That upside is further confirmed by the three players with the most similar KHL statistics who've played in the NHL recently: Alexander Radulov of the Dallas Stars, Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Evgenii Dadonov of the Florida Panthers. As a group, their average scoring rate was 1.21 points per game in their final KHL season. The three had a combined average of 0.85 points per game the following NHL season, or 70 points over 82 games.

Kovalchuk's upside makes this a potentially big move for Los Angeles, but his age and his extended absence from the NHL casts far more doubt on his performance than most free agents.

In his final three NHL seasons (2010-11 through 2012-13), Kovalchuk had 174 points (79 goals, 95 assists) in 195 games, an average of 0.89 points per game. Six years later, his scoring is bound to be a bit lower, a drop-off that can be estimated by looking at other recent forwards whose scoring rates were similar at ages 27 through 29 and who were active at age 35.

Between 2005-06 and 2011-12, the 10 players who best fit this description were Erik Cole, Marian Gaborik, Brian Gionta, Vincent Lecavalier, Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, Patrick Sharp and Alex Tanguay. As a group, the 10 had a scoring rate of 0.89 per game ages 27 through 29. Six seasons later, this group's scoring rate dropped to 0.48 points per game at age 35; that works out to about 40 points over 82 games.

Video: Robitaille on Kovalchuk signing, Kings' scouts

Due to his unique situation, Kovalchuk's scoring could fall anywhere in an unusually wide range from 40 to 72 points. Can we narrow it down?

Playing for an average offensive team like the Kings is unlikely to significantly push his performance in either direction. He is likely to play on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown at even strength and work the point with Drew Doughty on the first power-play unit. In 2017-18, the Kings ranked 16th of 31 NHL teams with 237 goals and were 17th on the power play (20.4 percent).

Perhaps Kovalchuk's scoring expectations can be narrowed down by looking at the most similar free agent, Thomas Vanek. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, Vanek had 175 points (78 goals, 97 assists) in 196 games; that's almost exactly the same as Kovalchuk, who is less than a year older. In 2017-18, Vanek had 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 80 games for the Vancouver Canucks and Blue Jackets.

Not only does Vanek's scoring fall exactly halfway between the minimum and maximum estimates of 40 and 72 points, but his scoring rate of 0.70 points per game is right in line with the highest totals in Kovalchuk's peer group, Marleau and Tanguay, who averaged 0.70 and 0.69 points per game at age 35. At that rate, Kovalchuk can be expected to score 56 points for the Kings in 2018-19 -- but with the potential for far more.

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