The forward captained the Buffalo Sabres last season and scored 15 goals, but after they elected not to re-sign him, the 39-year-old rejected offers from other teams in order to play in South Korea.
Now, it sounds like Gionta will be available for the stretch run. Here, we determine his best NHL fits:
New Jersey Devils
This would be a homecoming for Gionta, as he played in more than 500 games for the Devils after they drafted him in 1998. He'd be a good fit with New Jersey's roster that needs more balanced scoring down the depth chart, as it relies almost exclusively on Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. Gionta also offers veteran experience that would be an asset for a young, up-and-coming Devils team that currently sits in an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. He helped New Jersey win the Stanley Cup in 2003, and a second stint ought to be welcomed 15 years later.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The highest-scoring team in the NHL doesn't necessarily need Gionta, but it'd still be a mutually beneficial partnership. Gionta would be provided with an opportunity to end his career with another Stanley Cup, while the Lightning would gain another depth forward in pursuit of a title. Plus, with eight forwards under 6-feet tall on Tampa Bay's roster, Gionta's diminutive stature (he stands 5-foot-7) won't be held against him and he could be a stylistic match for the team. If he gets an offer from Steve Yzerman, it may be too good to pass up.
Boston would represent a homecoming in a different way than New Jersey. Gionta starred for Boston College before heading to the NHL, and the Bruins are once again in contention for the Stanley Cup. Gionta has never played outside of the Eastern Conference and it's unlikely he'll want to venture very far away from his family in Buffalo at this stage of his career. He wouldn't be asked to do too much in Boston's offense and offers a familiarity with its division rivals that few other free agents possess.
It's been widely reported Kovalchuk, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, is entertaining a return to the NHL, and the 34-year-old would be an asset to numerous teams after featuring as a prolific goal-scorer in the KHL.
Kovalchuk, possessing one of the game's most lethal releases, would provide an instant burst of offense. Below, we rank five teams from least suitable to most suitable that ought to consider making an offer to the decorated winger.
5. New Jersey Devils
Few would fault the Devils organization if they wanted nothing to do with Kovalchuk after he bailed for the KHL after the 2012-13 season. This is a different team than the one from which he fled, however, and it would be a mutually beneficial partnership.
New Jersey is currently positioned to make the playoffs, trying to fend off several clubs for a wild-card spot, and could use an offensive boost in attempting to cement its bid; Kovalchuk would help round out a young, top-heavy group largely relying upon Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier to engineer the attack. The Devils have 17 players signed through 2018-19 and could afford to meet Kovalchuk's demands - provided they aren't exorbitant, like his last NHL stint.
Kovalchuk would also serve as an unlikely mentor to Hischier, both of whom were selected first overall, 16 years apart. Second chances aren't always ideal, but this may be worth exploring.
4. San Jose Sharks
Kovalchuk would fit in seamlessly with a veteran Sharks team still looking for a first Stanley Cup in franchise history. It would be an easy transition for a man who ought to be familiar with large portions of the roster while serving as another potent offensive option.
San Jose currently ranks third on the power play and while there is an argument to be made that it doesn't need fixing, imagining Kovalchuk on a unit with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns may be too tempting to resist.
It appears Kovalchuk's goals align perfectly with the Sharks', and it's an option that ought to be appealing to both parties.
3. Vegas Golden Knights
No one expected the Golden Knights to be this good this soon, but if the expected regression to the mean never occurs, they could be an ideal destination for Kovalchuk. Unlike the other four suitors listed, Vegas faces minimal cap restraints and would likely be able to offer the most lucrative contract this summer.
Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith have been among the season's most surprising revelations, creating a formidable attack along with veteran James Neal, whom many expected to be the team's top scorer. While it may be unwise to count out the Golden Knights as they are now, Kovalchuk adds further credibility to an offensive unit that has completely bamboozled the rest of the league.
With the prospect of being able to offer a lucrative contract combined with the city's famed nightlife, the Golden Knights could have an unlikely allure.
2. Los Angeles Kings
A veteran team with Stanley Cup experience playing in a city with world-renowned entertainment options in picturesque California is an alluring pitch with which to begin. Add in that the Kings are starved for another offensive weapon, and Kovalchuk may be donning the silver, black, and white in 2018-19.
The Kings rank 19th on the power play and Kovalchuk's deadly release would serve as a major asset for a team that has earned a reputation for a conservative style of play. With the exception of Anze Kopitar, L.A. doesn't have a single forward with more than 40 points this season and Kovalchuk would inject new life into the group.
Kovalchuk's ambition to win a Stanley Cup is likely fueling his desire to return North America and few teams provide him with a better fit, both as an individual and from a team perspective. Rob Blake has work to do.
1. Winnipeg Jets
It would be poetic for Kovalchuk to return to the organization with which he started his career just as they are turning into a potential contender for years to come, and his experience and goal-scoring ability would surely be coveted.
Imagine trying to stop a power play with Kovalchuk and Patrik Laine firing off the wing? It would be an absolute nightmare for 30 other teams to figure out. Kovalchuk would effectively replace Mathieu Perreault on the top line and a link-up with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler sounds like a nightmare, to say nothing of the added balance the ripple effect would create for the club.
Signing Kovalchuk is a feasible, sensible decision for the Jets to make, and Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff ought to be watching PyeongChang 2018 closely.
Jan Mursak earned hero status in Slovenia on Wednesday, scoring both the late equalizer and overtime winner in his country's 3-2 comeback victory over Team USA in the men's hockey opener.
Here's everything you need to know about the Slovenian captain:
Only Slovenian Olympian with NHL experience
Mursak was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth round of the 2006 NHL Draft. He's one of three Slovenians to ever play in the league. Detroit received a decent return on value, with Mursak ranking 63rd in games played (46 over three seasons) in his draft class.
Peter Forsberg is one of his heroes
It appears Mursak drew inspiration Wednesday from his idol, former Colorado Avalanche great Peter Forsberg.
Forsberg was a standout at Lillehammer in 1994, guiding Sweden to a gold medal while recording eight points during the tournament. Although it's unlikely Mursak will steer Slovenia to the podium, he's certainly off to a great start.
Babcock believed in him
Mursak's stint with the Red Wings was unremarkable, but he earned a vote of confidence from Mike Babcock, who served as the team's head coach prior to joining the Toronto Maple Leafs. After scoring 24 goals in the AHL during the 2009-10 season, the coach saw the potential for Mursak to become a key contributor in Detroit.
"He can really shoot the puck. He scores every day in practice,'' Babcock said of Mursak in February 2012, according to Ansar Khan of MLive.com. "You don't score in practice and not translate it to games eventually. We think he's going to be an important player one day."
Reportedly spends his summers in Michigan
It could be an awkward summer for Mursak.
According to Gregg Krupa of The Detroit News, he spends parts of his summers in Saginaw, Mich., where he played during his junior career for the OHL's Saginaw Spirit.
Mursak will certainly have a compelling story for his neighbors if Slovenia advances further through the tournament than the U.S.
Weber took the ice with teammate Phillip Danault before practice started, but didn't take part in team drills.
No timetable has been set for Weber's return to action. The Canadiens officially shut Weber down Dec. 18. Weber played through the injury but the team ruled him out indefinitely after the ailment lingered.
Weber has notched six goals and 10 assists in 26 games this season.
Joffrey Lupul is still under contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it doesn't appear he'll be suiting up anytime soon.
The 34-year-old hasn't played since February 2016 after having sports hernia surgery, and recently hinted at being effectively retired during an appearance on the "Member Guest" podcast.
"When I think about things like that, it’s easier to let go of the fact that your body is not in good shape and it’s probably not meant to play hockey anymore. But it’s very easy to just focus on the great moments … the playoff games or big goals and stuff like that. That’s one thing I find myself dealing with now that I’m not playing, and probably won’t be playing going forward," Lupul said, according to Sportsnet's Chris Johnston.
Lupul failed a second physical in October and the NHL ruled him eligible to be placed on long-term injured reserve. The veteran forward initially blamed the Maple Leafs for his first failed physical in September, but later apologized and said he hoped to eventually return.
Now, it seems unlikely Lupul will ever play again, which he's seemingly at peace with.
"When you’ve dedicated your life to something - a professional sport or music - there’s a lot of things that you’ve had to sacrifice along the way, as far as not being able to do," he said. "I (couldn’t) go on a vacation with friends. It was like you finish a season, you take two weeks off and then I’m back in the gym doing everything, which was great. I loved it. I miss it.
"I miss some of that stuff, but there’s also some interesting things that you can do outside of there. That part of it's really exciting."
TORONTO - On a frigid November afternoon, Auston Matthews has the hockey world hanging on his every word. He's returning to practice after missing the Toronto Maple Leafs' previous three games due to injury, and reporters have swarmed his locker.
Standing on the opposite side of the room is Zach Hyman, the oft-forgotten third member of a line with Matthews and William Nylander that's taken the NHL by storm to begin the season. Hyman, a Toronto native, is content to entertain a smaller cohort of journalists at his locker, who are, in reality, patiently waiting for the reigning Calder Trophy winner to speak.
Though the spotlight is often pointed elsewhere, Hyman might be the most intriguing player on a potentially dynastic Leafs team that's once again captured the imagination of its zealous fan base. An overlooked prospect whose father was so heavily invested in the city's minor-hockey ranks - and some argued his kids' success - Hockey Canada ultimately intervened, Hyman actually found his stride south of the border. Some consider him an atypical top-liner for a club with Stanley Cup aspirations, a fitting description when you consider his unusual journey.
The odds of making it to the NHL are microscopic, and parents are often warned in advance not to get their hopes up once their sons pass a certain age. This is especially true in the hyper-competitive Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), which attracts players from all over the world.
Hyman played alongside NHLers Jeff Skinner, Tyler Toffoli, and Devante Smith-Pelly throughout his minor-hockey career, while competing against stars like Tyler Seguin. That's not lost on the Leafs winger, who marvels at the fact he's still facing his friends at the highest level.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Though Hyman was often overshadowed in minor hockey, his name was well-known. Hyman's father, Stuart, reportedly took sole or partial ownership of more than 90 minor hockey organizations at one juncture before relinquishing his ownership stakes amid pressure from the GTHL and the country's governing hockey body. Hyman has said opponents used the owner's-son label as ammo for trash talk.
Stuart Hyman also purchased International Scouting Services three months before the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He said the deal wasn't related to his son's status as a fringe prospect, but Zach was largely dismissed by pro scouts.
"We think there were 210 other skaters that have a better chance of being an NHL player than Zach Hyman," the late E.J. McGuire, NHL Central Scouting Bureau director, said in 2010.
The Florida Panthers selected Hyman 123rd overall that spring. After decommitting from Princeton, Hyman went to Michigan in 2011, and played for legendary Wolverines head coach Red Berenson, the man whom he counts as the biggest influence on his career.
Berenson, who won two national titles with the program and retired in 2017, speaks fondly of Hyman, noting that it took a ton of effort and commitment for the player to refine his game.
"A lot of people thought hockey was easy for him, but he had to work hard to get the results he got and he really did, on the ice and off the ice," Berenson said.
Added Berenson, "It took him at least two-and-a-half years at Michigan to really start showing the kind of player that he was hoping to be when he got here."
In each of his first two seasons with the Wolverines, Hyman had nine points. As a junior, he posted 17. In his senior year, Hyman scored 22 goals and added 32 assists in 37 games - good enough for fourth in Division I scoring - and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college hockey's top player.
(Photo courtesy: Action Images)
That's not all he accomplished at Michigan. Hyman graduated with a 3.7 GPA and captured numerous academic awards for student-athletes, along with the school's athlete of the year honor.
"We have a lot of kids that go through school like Zach that were good players and maybe didn't have an NHL career," Berenson said. "We had a lot of kids that went on to be doctors, lawyers, and so on. I think Zach could've been either one."
As was the case at Michigan, Hyman's on-ice exploits don't tell the whole story about his work ethic - or his talents. Before the Leafs called him up to the NHL, he'd already emerged as a successful children's author, earning rave reviews for his first two works, "The Bambino and Me" and "Hockey Hero."
His next book is set for release in April.
"I think every player should have a passion or hobby outside the rink because you don't want your life being just hockey, hockey, hockey," Hyman said. "Have an outlet to express yourself in a different manner. For me, it's writing ... I was a history major in college, I did writing there. I write children's books because I really enjoy it and it's a passion of mine."
Hyman and the Panthers ultimately couldn't come to terms on a deal and in June 2015 Florida traded his rights to his hometown Maple Leafs, who signed him to a two-year, entry-level contract.
If it were up to a large faction of Leafs fans, Hyman wouldn't have the opportunity to thrive alongside Nylander and Matthews. When Patrick Marleau joined the Leafs in July, many fans called for him to take Hyman's spot on the first line.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was aware of the criticism, but it didn't sway his opinion of Hyman's contributions to the unit.
"Hyman is a guy who gets the puck back all the time," Babcock said in September, according to Jonas Siegel of The Athletic. "... I've learned from good players - they like to have the puck. When you have three guys who want the puck - like (Pavel) Datsyuk used to tell me all the time, 'No, put him on somebody else's line. I want somebody to get me the puck.' He gets the puck back better than anyone."
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Hyman takes pride in his role, which he characterizes similarly, but credits his more heralded linemates.
"When you play with guys like Auston and Willie, who want the puck all the time and they're skilled guys, if you get them the puck, chances are your team will benefit from that," Hyman said. "That's kinda something that's important to me and is a big part of my game."
After collecting 28 points in 82 regular-season games and four more in six playoff contests in 2016-17, Hyman signed a four-year, $9-million extension in July, indicating that the defensive conscience of his high-octane line is part of the Leafs' plans as they pursue that elusive Stanley Cup.
He's been prepared for the bright lights of Toronto from an early age, and is unfazed by the added attention of playing on the top line for a contending club.
"Nothing really compares to Toronto, the hockey capital, with the amount of attention we get. It's good for us, it's good for the game," Hyman said. "People care about how you're doing. All the attention is really generated from the amount of passion fans have for the team and just want to know about the team, so, it's a good thing."
When asked if he's finally receiving due credit after being largely passed over, Hyman deferred to Matthews and Nylander again.
"Honestly, I don't even think about that stuff. I just try to go out there and play my game and help the team win. ... I play with Auston and Willie for the majority," Hyman said. "Those guys deserve a lot of attention and I'm happy to fly under the radar and just do my thing."
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Matthews and Nylander were destined for stardom since they were teenagers; the former was championed as a byproduct of Gary Bettman's western expansion project, while the latter learned the inner workings of the league from his father, Michael, who notched 679 points in 920 career NHL games.
Hyman's route to the pros stands in stark contrast.
"Everybody has a different path and mine was a bit longer," Hyman said. "For me, it was really the right path because I needed time to develop as a player. Going to school, taking a year off, and doing all those things was the right path for me because I needed the time."
Berenson says he's closely followed Hyman's success with the Leafs and beamed about his maturation as a player.
"My lasting observation would be that Zach worked his way through all the adversity," Berenson said. "You can judge people by how they react to success, but you can really see their true character when they don't have success and how they handle it. And Zach Hyman was a true warrior in the way he worked his way through all the adversity, and then when he had success, everyone really appreciated how hard he worked to get there.
"I think you see that now. He has a great work ethic and he shows up every day, every practice, every game, and he's ready to work hard."
In hockey terms, Hyman's considered a late bloomer, but he's accumulated a lot of experience in his 25 years. Now, he personifies the Canadian dream as a Toronto born-and-raised kid playing on the Maple Leafs' first line. When it comes to accolades, he may be the odd man out compared to Matthews and Nylander, but make no mistake: Hyman's the most interesting member of the league's most dynamic young trio, and his story isn't over.