The hockey world was buzzing Thursday afternoon when New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk officially filed for retirement, though he’s not really retiring. Kovalchuk, 30, had 12 years and $77 million left on his contract and was set to enter the big money years in his contract. The news was stunning but in the big picture it really wasn’t.
Kovalchuk’s returning to Russia where he’s expected to sign for around $14 to $15 million a year with SKA of the KHL. Once Kovalchuk strongly considered staying in the KHL this past January when the lockout ended, the Devils had to sense it was only a matter of time before he officially bolted to the KHL for good.
That is always the risk with Russian players and it won’t surprise me if Evgeni Malkin at somepoint in the next five to six years decides to go to the KHL for good. When these guys go home for the summer there is always immense pressure on them to stay.
The Devils, though, were duped by Kovalchuk going to great lengths in the summer of 2010 to give Kovalchuk his coveted $100 million contract. They circumvented the cap that summer, resulting in the team having to forfeit draft picks including a first round pick. They have until the 2014 draft to forfeit the first round pick and surprisingly they didn’t forfeit the pick during the 2012 draft when they held the 29th overall pick after making the Stanley Cup Finals.
The disappointment for the Devils is that they are losing one the premier offensive players in hockey who gets you 30+ goals and 80 points. Short-term there’s no way to replace Kovalchuk and in the last year the Devils have now lost Kovalchuk, David Clarkson and Zach Parise for nothing with Clarkson and Parise leaving via free agency the last two summers.
In a brutal division next season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, losing Kovalchuk is even more devastating as the Devils will have to forfeit their 2014 first round pick which could very well be a top-10 pick.
The good news for the Devils is the long-term picture in getting out this contract which is a great thing for a franchise in a world of hurt financially.