By Jake Aferiat
The last time RW Ilya Kovalchuk was playing in the NHL it was 2012 and he was on the New Jersey Devils, serving as one of their lone scoring threats. Now, almost four years later, Kovalchuk is playing in the bankrupt KHL and enjoying modest success. Kovalchuk came to the Devils in 2010 after spending four and a half seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. Now, nearly 4 seasons removed from playing in the NHL, Kovalchuk announced that he plans on returning to the NHL for the 2016-17 season. His return figures to be a tumultuous and contested one.
During his time in Atlanta he won the Rocket Richard Trophies as a result of him being the league’s top scorer. (He shared the award with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash.) During his tenure with the Thrashers, he was also a 3 time All-Star and won an Olympic bronze medal. He also set the franchise mark for most goals in a season with 52, and really established a name for himself.
In the final year of his contract, the Thrashers made a big push to re-sign Kovalchuk, offering him up to $102 million over 12 years, but he declined the offer. To make up for their failure to re-sign him, the Thrashers shipped Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for D Johnny Oduya, Fs Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier as well as a first and second round draft selection.
Now comes the deal which caused controversy in the NHL and heavily penalized the Devils:
As an unrestricted free agent, Kovalchuk was free to sign with any team. He received multiple offers and ultimately decided to sign a 17 year deal worth $102 million with the New Jersey Devils. Herein lies the first problem. This original deal circumvented the league salary cap, and was rejected. After that, however, the deal was restructured to be worth $100 million dollars over 15 years. The NHL would have none of the Devils’ antics and so the NHL forced the Devils to forgo $3 million, a 2011 3rd round draft pick, and a future 1st round draft pick within the next four seasons. After the pen hit the paper and the contract was signed, Ilya Kovalchuk was officially a member of the New Jersey Devils for the next 15 years.
Kovalchuk’s short lived tenure in New Jersey was unproductive as he only topped the 60 point threshold once. In three and a half seasons, the only thing Kovalchuk was really good for was providing false hope and stealing money.
On July 11, 2013, at the age of 29 Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL despite having 12 years and $77 million left on his contract with the Devils. Plain and simple, Kovalchuk quit on the Devils when they needed him the most. That’s why his potential return figures to be tumultuous. As he is still under contract with the KHL for two more seasons, he would have to play out the remainder of his time in the KHL, then sit out a season and then he would be eligible to return to the NHL at the age of 34 without any contention. There are however, a few other options for his reinstatement. The first option is to get the approval of all 30 teams to reinstate him, which is highly unlikely. The second option is that he chooses to sign a contract with his old team, the Devils, and that would lead to his immediate reinstatement. However, he would not be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent until he got the approval of all 30 teams.
Ilya Kovalchuk is a dynamic and prolific player, and would make a difference on whichever team he goes to. It’s just a matter of if teams are willing to put aside their grudges and look at him as a player, which will invariably be hard for some teams to do. Kovalchuk’s best, and I use that term lightly, chance at returning is to sign with the Devils, but that is unlikely.