Destination Kovalchuk, New Jersey or Anywhere

It has been almost four years to the day since Ilya Kovalchuk chose to “retire” from the NHL and left players and fans stunned league-wide. He chose to forego the remaining $77 million left on his contract and go back to his native Russia to play in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg. So will fans want to see him back in the red and black uniform in the Garden State? Or will there be another avenue the team may explore? Let’s delve into the player and see what he is all about.

Ilya Kovalchuk’s NHL Start

Kovalchuk was originally drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001. He became the first-ever Russian player to be drafted first overall. He would then go on to put up some impressive numbers in his time with the Thrashers (615 points in 594 games). This would in part help him become captain in January 2009 for the club. The following season led to trade negotiations as he was heading for unrestricted free agency. Thrashers’ general manager Don Waddell offered two contracts that were eventually turned down. This then led to a trade, one Devils fans may never forget.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk (Credit: John Julian/Flickr)

Kovalchuk was traded on Feb. 5, 2010 alongside Anssi Salmela and a 2010 second-round pick for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first- and second-round pick in the 2010 draft. He went on to put up 10 goals and 17 assists good for 27 points in 27 games for the Devils. Ilya was still destined for the free agency market and the Devils risked moving on without the Russian star.

However, he chose to sign with the Devils on a contract that would be remembered for the ages. He agreed to a then-record 17-year, $102 million contract. The league rejected this on the grounds that it circumvented the salary cap. However, The Devils submitted another contract to the league, a 15-year, $100 million deal that was approved by the NHL and the NHLPA. However, the Devils got penalized for the breach of the salary cap. They suffered a $3 million fine, a third-round pick in the 2011 draft and had to forego a first-round pick within the next four seasons. The Devils would ultimately get to keep the first-round pick but that is a story for another time.

The Almost-Fairy-Tale Season

The season that caught some by surprise, had others in disbelief and had everyone in Devils nation rejoicing was the team’s 2011-12 Stanley Cup run. Nobody at the start of the season would believe what was to pan out over the next eight months. The Devils would go on to win the Prince of Wales trophy given to the winner of the Eastern Conference Final and enter the Stanley Cup Final. They came tantalizingly close to a fourth Cup win until they lost against the Los Angeles Kings after six games.

What happened next shook fans to their core. Heading into free agency, they were left heartbroken by then-captain Zach Parise’s decision to leave and sign with his hometown club, the Minnesota Wild. Then the NHL was involved in a lockout for part of the 2012-13 season, which left a lot of fans hungry for more after the recent Cup Final run. Kovalchuk, among other NHL players, elected to go play in the KHL while the lockout was in place. He was involved in some controversy for not coming home immediately after the lockout ended. Instead, he played in the KHL All-Star Game. He ultimately returned to the Devils where he finished the season with 11 goals 20 assists for 31 points in 37 games.

Alexei Ponikarovsky devils win in overtime
(Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

The Deal-Breaker

Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world by announcing on July 11, 2013, that he was retiring from the NHL to go back with his family and play in the KHL. He signed his voluntary retirement papers and voided the remaining 12 years of his contract, choosing instead to walk away. His timing could not have been worse for the Devils and their fans, as free agency was already well underway and the most notable free agents had since signed with their respective clubs. It also stung as they had just lost David Clarkson, who had scored 30 goals for the club the season before. This led to a backlash of fans hurt by the winger’s choice to leave and something that was not forgotten. He left the NHL with 816 points in 816 games and went back to the club he played for in the lockout season, SKA St. Petersburg.
Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk ( Александр Головко via Wikimedia Commons)

He has played four seasons with SKA St. Petersburg and is still putting up some good numbers. Although he is not considered the elite goal scorer he once was, he still managed 264 points in 245 games. Each year rumors seem to circulate about his potential return to the NHL, but this year there was something more. His agent, Jay Grossman, was quoted as saying, when speaking to Devils GM Ray Shero, “He wants to return to the NHL.” Shero gave permission to speak to other teams as part of a potential sign-and-trade deal. Shero did say “He is keeping all options open.”


What’s Next for Ilya Kovalchuk ?

So will fans want to see Kovalchuk return and play in a Devils uniform once more? Can the past be forgotten? Or will the team decide it is better to sign and trade? All of this cannot be decided until after July 1, when the Devils can sign him to a contract. Perhaps the better of the two options would be to trade Kovalchuk for some help on defense perhaps and/or maybe some picks in the next draft. One thing is certain: only Shero and Kovalchuk’s agent know what will happen next.