Report: Ilya Kovalchuk eyeing return to NHL

Ilya Kovalchuk. (Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/AP)

The 2016 NHL off-season could be an interesting one.

A report from Finland’s Iltalehti says Ilya Kovalchuk has expressed to his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, a desire to return to the NHL for the 2016-17 season. According to the KHL website, Kovalchuk’s contract with SKA expires on April 30, 2017.

The 31-year-old star has spent the past two seasons in the KHL after shocking the hockey world in July 2013 when he left the NHL. In order to facilitate the move back to his home country, the uber-talented winger had to officially retire from the NHL and in doing so, leave $77 million on the table three years into the 15-year, $100-million contract he signed with the New Jersey Devils in 2010.

If Kovalchuk does choose to return to the NHL in 2016, the move will need to be approved by all 30 NHL teams because Kovalchuk signed his voluntary retirement papers.

Otherwise he’d have to wait until the 2018-19 season to return to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent at age 35. It’s too early to say whether or not there would be a team or teams opposed to Kovalchuk returning, however, according to a 2013 report from Larry Brooks of the New York Post, if Kovalchuk sits out a full calendar year he can return to the NHL as a UFA prior to 2018-19 as long as he gets consent from the Devils.

Shortly after his decision to leave the Devils, Kovalchuk’s sister was quoted as saying her brother planned on returning to the NHL after spending at least three seasons in the KHL.

Kovalchuk responded to those claims by saying, "I am not going to Russia to start thinking about coming back to the NHL."

Kovalchuk was taken first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Draft. In 816 career NHL games he has 417 goals and 816 points. He ranks 18th in NHL history averaging .511 goals per game. Only Steven Stamkos (.565) and countryman Alex Ovechkin (.625) average more goals per game among active NHLers.