Ilya Kovalchuk considered staying in Russia when the NHL lockout ended in January. Ultimately he returned to play the 2013 season with the New Jersey Devils.
But on Thursday, Kovalchuk made official what the Devils knew was a possibility since then.
The Devils announced that Kovalchuk was returning home and retiring from the NHL. The final 12 years and US$77 million of his contract were voided, and Kovalchuk is free to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“Though I decided to return this past season, (general manager Lou Lamoriello) was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me,” the 30-year-old said in a statement. “The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”
It was a move that stunned the hockey world, but not Lamoriello, who insisted nothing in the game surprises him, including Kovalchuk’s abrupt departure.
“This wasn’t a decision by the New Jersey Devils,” Lamoriello said on a conference call with reporters. “He will not be playing here at his desire.”
Kovalchuk played for SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout and made it clear several months ago that he would stay there if he could. Reports from Russian news agencies indicated he will officially sign with SKA on Friday.
“It’s sad,” said Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates, who spent two years as an assistant with the Devils. “It’s sad for our league. That’s one of our good players, we’re going to miss him.”
Kovalchuk’s retirement leaves a gaping hole on the Devils’ roster, though they do have almost $6.7 million more to use under the salary cap. They’ll be charged $250,000 each season through 2024-25 as a result of this move, but they won’t be responsible for paying Kovalchuk another penny.
Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Lamoriello wasn’t forthcoming about the details of Kovalchuk’s decision, declining to reveal what the final conversations were like with the superstar winger who signed with the Devils three years ago after being traded there from Atlanta during the 2009-10 season. At the time, the 17-year, $102-million contract Kovalchuk signed was ruled invalid as salary-cap circumvention because he would have been 44 by the end of the deal.
Even after revising the contract for 15 years and $100 million, the Devils must forfeit their 2014 first-round pick as punishment for the circumvention after they opted to keep their selections in 2012 and 2013.
Lamoriello did not want to discuss the possibility of reclaiming that pick with Kovalchuk gone. Nor did he want to address the questionable timing of Kovalchuk’s decision, six days after the start of free agency, after New Jersey lost winger David Clarkson to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Right now we jut have to take a step back to go forward and we’ll just re-evaluate what our options are and do the best we can, but we’ll be ready to play when September comes,” Lamoriello said.
Kovalchuk voided his contract with the Devils by signing his voluntary retirement papers according to Lamoriello, who said the NHL’s bylaws for players returning from that are “pretty tight.”
If he never returns to the NHL, Kovalchuk will finish his career with 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games over 11 seasons spent with the Thrashers and Devils. He was the first overall pick of the Thrashers in 2001 and was a face of that franchise before being traded to New Jersey in 2010.
Asked if he felt the Devils’ experience with Kovalchuk was a positive one, Lamoriello said, “I’ll let you answer that.” He did not bite when asked if he felt betrayed by the superstar’s retirement.
“I am looking forward,” Lamoriello said. “I’m not thinking of anything that’s just transpired. I’m not going to allow anything get in the way of what I have to do as far as distracting myself.”
Looking forward includes trying to replace Kovalchuk. New Jersey is roughly $10.6 million under the salary cap, though it’s uncertain what the payroll budget is for an organization that has been mired in financial woes for years.
Many top free agents have already signed, so Lamoriello and the Devils must figure out how to approach the rest of the summer in the wake of Kovalchuk’s surprising decision.
“If there’s something we can do, we’ll do it,” he said. “Certainly we’re going to put the best possible team we can on the ice. That’s the most important thing.”
In the short term, the Devils are in a difficult spot without Kovalchuk in what looks like an ultra-competitive division with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. He was New Jersey’s No. 2 scorer in 2013 behind Patrik Elias, recording 11 goals and 20 assists.
In the long term, not having to pay out the balance of Kovalchuk’s substantial contract could help the Devils. But Lamoriello wasn’t thinking about that hours after the decision became public.
“I don’t take any positives out of today right now,” he said. “I’m just looking at and addressing what transpired and going forward.”