Despite all indications that Ilya Kovlachuk’s season was over, the controversial player made a surprise return to SKA St. Petersburg Monday, re-joining his team for Game 1 of their second-round KHL playoff series versus Dynamo Moscow.
SKA had stripped Kovlachuk of his captaincy, gone 4-0 without him in the lineup, and last week announced he would sit out the reminder of the playoffs.
Yet the 32-year-old forward hopped on the ice Monday, skating on SKA’s second line. Although Kovalchuk was kept off the score sheet, SKA won the hard-fought series opener 3-2. The sniper saw 15:35 of ice time and recorded one shot on goal.
Kovalchuk was removed from the team one game into the post-season due to poor performance. He is under contract with St. Petersburg until at least April 30, according to multiple reports.
SKA reportedly offered Kovalchuk a compensation of $1 million if he agreed to terminate his contract after April 1. Discussions are ongoing.
After losing its playoff opener to Lokomotiv with Kovlachuk in the lineup, SKA won four straight games sans Kovalchuk and advanced to Round 2.
Kovalchuk’s agent met with reporters in Russia last week and said he hasn’t had a serious conversation with any NHL general manager regarding his client’s return, but did talk to one about Kovalchuk’s possible arrival.
Kovlachuk helped lead SKA to its first Gagarin Cup in 2015 and was named MVP of the playoffs, but has taken a step back this season. He finished 12th overall in league scoring (16 goals, 33 assists) and was a minus player for the first time in his KHL career.
As for a potential return to North America, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed the issue when Kovalchuk retired in 2013.
“It would require unanimous consent at any point at which the player tries to return to the League without having been out of professional hockey [anywhere in the world] for a full calendar year,” Daly told the New York Post. “Once he sits out for a full calendar year, he can only come back with the Devils’ consent.”
A regular on Russia's international team, Kovalchuk was not named to his nation's initial 2016 World Cup of Hockey roster, which was announced Wednesday.