Looking at Ilya Kovalchuk’s complicated contract history

Colby Armstrong explains how Ilya Kovalchuk still wants to play after being placed on unconditional waivers.

The Los Angeles Kings placed Ilya Kovalchuk on unconditional waivers on Monday, making official their intentions to terminate the veteran forward’s contract after months of speculation.

The three-year, $18.75-million pact between L.A. and the Russian winger felt ill-fated from the beginning. Signing a 35-year-old to a deal paying $6.25 million a year seemed like an odd fit for a non-contending team that should be shedding big deals, not adding them.

Because Kovalchuk was 35 at the time of the signing in July 2018, that cap hit stays with the Kings this year and next despite it being terminated. Salary-wise, it’s a different story: the Kings just paid him his final $2.65 million bonus on Sunday, but otherwise owe him just $700,000 in salary. He was due to earn $4.25 million next season, but walks away from that, becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Regardless of whether he suits up again in the NHL, Kovalchuk will appear on the books of two different teams this season and next — he’s still on the Devils’ payroll for the next five years thanks to the massive contract he signed in 2010 and the Kings will have to figure out a way to navigate next season with his $6.25 cap hit.

If this was, in fact, his final NHL stop, Kovalchuk’s legacy will extend beyond his status as an elite goal-scorer and one of the most talented Russian players North American audiences have ever seen — it’ll also include his weird history of unique contract situations.

2010: 17-year deal with the Devils turned down by NHL

As the 2009-10 trade deadline neared, then-Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was quick to trade for Kovalchuk after the player turned down a 12-year, $101-million extension with the Atlanta Thrashers earlier in the year.

Kovalchuk was an instant fit in New Jersey, finishing the campaign at a point-per-game pace through 27 games as a Devil. It was enough for the Devils to negotiate a long-term deal with the star — like, really long-term — to the tune of 17 years and $102 million.

But the longest contract in league history lasted all of two days before the NHL swooped in and rejected it, citing that the front-loaded deal was in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. Between the lopsided earnings – the deal had him slated to earn $95 million over the first 10 years and just $7 million over the final seven years – and a term that projected Kovalchuk’s career to last well beyond the typical retirement age of the even the most well-conditioned NHLer, the contract was a not-so-subtle way of circumventing the CBA.

The 17-year deal would’ve seen Kovalchuk signed through 2026-27 — he’ll be 44 by then — with the salary varying from as much as $11.5 million a year from 2012 to 2017 down to $550,000 in each of the final five seasons:

2010-11: $6 million
2011-12: $6 million
2012-13: $11.5 million
2013-14: $11.5 million
2014-15: $11.5 million
2015-16: $11.5 million
2016-17: $11.5 million
2017-18: $10.5 million
2018-19: $8.5 million
2019-20: $6.5 million
2020-21: $3.5 million
2021-22: $750,000
2022-23: $550,000
2023-24: $550,000
2024-25: $550,000
2025-26: $550,000
2026-27: $550,000

An arbitrator later ruled in favour of the NHL’s decision to disallow the deal, and the Devils were forced to restructure it into a slightly shorter 15-year, $100-million contract with a fitting $6.66-million cap hit through 2024-25. The structure was similar to the one turned down, though with sightly less variance in salary:

2010-11: $6M
2011-12: $6M
2012-13: $11M
2013-14: $11.3M
2014-15: $11.3M
2015-16: $11.6M
2016-17: $11.8M
2017-18: $10M
2018-19: $7M
2019-20: $4M
2020-21: $1M
2021-22: $1M
2022-23: $1M
2023-24: $3M
2024-25: $4M

The Devils’ initial attempt to bend the rules didn’t go unpunished. The league announced in September 2010 that New Jersey was being fined $3 million and would have to forfeit two draft picks: a third-rounder in 2011 as well as a first-round pick in either 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014.

(Interesting note: Throughout negotiations with the Devils, Kovalchuk had also received pitches from the Kings and KHL club SKA St. Petersburg. He would go on to play for both.)

2013: Kovalchuk walks away

Just three years into his massive 15-year pact, Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world when he announced his retirement from the NHL in favour of returning home to Russia to play in the KHL. He left 12 years and $77 million behind and was placed on the NHL’s voluntary retirement list.

His contract was terminated, but he left a lasting impression on New Jersey’s cap: $250,000 per season in cap recapture penalties until 2024-25. (That troublesome long term helps the Devils, as the recapture could’ve been much higher if spread over fewer years.)

Kovalchuk then spent the next five seasons with the KHL’s St. Petersburg SKA — the team that wooed him as a free agent and for whom he played during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.

2014: NHL eases punishment

About a year after the termination of Kovalchuk’s deal with the Devils, the NHL reduced penalties for the club’s 2010 CBA-related wrongdoings. The Devils were set to give up their 2014 first-round pick, having opted to use the previous three, but the NHL decided instead that New Jersey would be entitled to the 30th overall pick in the 2014 draft (with which they took John Quenneville). They also cut the $3-million fine in half.

2017: Kovalchuk wants to return to NHL

The Devils still held his rights until age 35, giving New Jersey the possibility of an intriguing asset. Only, the then-34-year-old opted instead to wait another year in order to be an unrestricted free agent, staying in the KHL and leaving the Devils hanging again.

2018: Kovalchuk signs with Kings

The 36-year-old winger was a prolific scorer in Part 1 of his NHL career and then lit up the KHL before returning to North America but it’s been clear almost from the start that his role on the Kings simply wasn’t the right fit. Though his numbers last year were decent for a veteran scorer (16 goals and 34 points), he finished the campaign with a stretch of healthy scratches and this year didn’t start much better — he registered three goals and nine points through 17 games before being told on Nov. 12 that he’d be “out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.”

2019: Kings place Kovalchuk on waivers

Kovalchuk doesn’t believe his NHL days are over.

“The key thing to stress is he wants to play,” Sportsnet Chris Johnston said during Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, before the Kings announced they’d waived him. “He believes that he can help out a team offensively.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.