July 11, 2013 was a very strange day for the New Jersey Devils and their fans. They were a year removed from losing to the Kings in the Stanley Cup finals, as well as losing top player Zach Parise to the Wild in free agency. Some speculation as to why the Devils couldn’t land Parise involves one of the more ludicrous contracts ever given out. Everyone knows the guy who was given this controversial contract. His name is Ilya Kovalchuk. Remember him?
On July 11, 2013, Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world by announcing his retirement from the NHL. The reasons were clear. The NHL was fresh off a lockout, during which Kovalchuk played in his native Russia. He liked it there, evidently, and was offered a very lucrative contract by SKA St. Petersburg. Kovalchuk decided to jump ship and head home.
The immediate reaction was shock. While the Devils got a very hefty salary cap reprieve over the next 10+ years (around $7 million per year over the course of the 15 year deal), the team had lost their most dynamic scorer, and their main offensive threat. Over at Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports, Greg Wyshynski wrote a great article about how Kovalchuk didn’t quite fit the archetype of the Devils to begin with, and that it was only a matter of time before he decided to leave.
While it left a sour taste in the mouths of the fans, it was for the best. The team had that aforementioned cap relief, and that gave them the flexibility to revamp and retool the entire system.
The Falling Out
The reason I bring up our old comrade, is because there is increasing speculation that Kovalchuk is having second thoughts about his decision to return to Russia. Well, there’s that, and the fact that his status on SKA is crumbling quicker than the Devils’ offense has been the last few games. He was stripped of his captaincy, and effectively kicked off the team during the playoffs. SKA seemed better off without Kovalchuk, winning all 3 games he sat out. This began the “Bring Kovy Back” train, and it’s picking up steam.
However, due to the fashion of his exit from the NHL and the Devils, his return is complicated. Here’s how he can do it:
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and various reports, the path to his reinstatement would lead to one of three places:
1. All 30 NHL teams would have to sign off on his immediate return, and then he would pass through waivers.
2. He could sit out a year from professional hockey, and then his former team the New Jersey Devils would have to sign off on his return.
3. He could wait until April 2018 and re-enter the league as an unrestricted free agent, as his name would come off the “voluntary retirement” list when he turns 35.
OK, great. He can’t come back unless either he sits out a year, hoping the Devils will be magnanimous toward him, or manages to lobby every single team in the league to let him back in, which seems near impossible. Or so we thought…
That, however, might not be the end of things because the league’s by-laws appear to leave some wiggle room.
Here’s what what the by-laws say in Section 8.4:
Except as provided in Section 8.7 of this By-Law [which deals with professional players seeking reinstatement as amateurs], the Club on whose Voluntarily Retired List a player’s name has been registered may transfer his name back on its Reserve List at any time after the expiry of one year from the date of registration on the Voluntarily Retired List by filing any currently valid contract, option, or try-out.
Seemingly, as of July 11, 2014 he can just sign a contract with the Devils, and poof! He’s back in the NHL. The real question is: Do the Devils want him back?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Devils fans are…apprehensive, putting it lightly, about welcoming him back to the team. Granted, he’s still very talented, and just 33 years old. Heck, he’d give their offense a great shot in the arm now. But the real question is, do they extend the olive branch?
Well, let’s look at it this way: The Devils seem to have steered the ship in the right direction the last calendar year. With the team under new management, and with several changings of the guard, the team is starting to look like a good team within the next year or two. They have a decent core with some more young legs not far from helping our cause, a coaching system that obviously works, and ownership committed to the fans and the state of New Jersey to bring back the glory days (albeit under pretenses the rest of the league doesn’t look down on). This year may not be looking so great at the moment, but there’s no need to panic, and the natives aren’t getting too restless, from my observation. Heck, most are calling this year a huge success, no matter the result.
With that in mind, I don’t think bringing Ilya back as a primary source of offense is such a bad idea, but I’m not sure it’s in the franchise’s best interest. The team has moved in a completely different direction, one infused with youth and energy, being “Fast, Attacking, and Supportive”. While Kovy certainly can still bring it, he’s probably past his prime now. Plus, if he managed to fall out of favor with his hometown team, what is there to tell us that it won’t happen again?
Sure, a low risk contract isn’t a bad idea. He can fill a hole on the wing, and be offensively productive. This is even more prevalent if the Devils’ prospects are still a year away from becoming full time NHLers. But, the scar tissue is still very visible, as exemplified by people like this guy. Devils fans aren’t very forgiving, as we all know. I’m conflicted, but I’m happy where the team is now. While it might be a low risk move on a short term deal, in my humble opinion, I think I might have to pass on a reunion.
Jeremy is a huge hockey fan, rooting for the Devils since childhood. He has been following and covering the team on private blogs since 2013. He went to Rutgers University, studying math and graphic design, and spent 2 summers interning at Sporting Kansas City of MLS.