The Devils portion of the Ilya Kovalchuk saga has ended. He will stay in Russia to play in the KHL for another year, meaning if he comes back to the NHL in 2018-19, he will be an unrestricted free agent and the Devils will get nothing for him no matter where he signs.
The news of Kovalchuk’s decision was made official by his agent Jay Grossman and confirmed to NHL.com writer Mike Morreale. Kovalchuk had reportedly narrowed his choice of teams to be moved to to Columbus, Toronto and the Rangers. Devils general manager Ray Shero was unable to come to an agreement to sign the winger and trade his rights to another NHL team.
Kovalchuk was drafted first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. On February 4, 2010, he was traded to the Devils along with Anssi Salmela and the Thrashers’ 2nd round pick in the 2010 draft (the pick that would become Jon Merrill – now a Vegas Golden Knight) for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and the Devils’ first round pick (traded to Chicago, they chose Kevin Hayes) and second round pick (also traded to the Blackhawks – they picked Justin Holl) in the 2010 draft.
He would help lead the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final (with a bad back), his deepest run in the NHL postseason to date after famously signing a 15-year, $100 million dollar free agent deal with New Jersey the offseason before.
The following summer, on July 11, 2013, he promptly retired from the Devils and the NHL. Four days later, he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. He has been in the KHL since and has conquered there, winning two Gagarin Cups as champions of the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg.
One reason floated for why he would have wanted to stay in Russia was the 2018 Winter Olympics. The NHL is not sending its pros to PyeongChang, South Korea. The KHL, however will more likely than not allow their players to represent their countries on the largest international stage. Kovalchuk has always held representing his country in international play dear to his heart and the Olympics, in particular, are a big deal for him.
Now, though, he will be coming back to the NHL as a 35-year-old player who will not command as much on the open market as a younger Kovalchuk would have gotten. Maybe the teams he wants will have him for his price. Maybe he will have to settle.
There is no doubt that Ilya Kovalchuk is a special player. He won the 2004 Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer (tying with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla with 41) and played in the 2004, 2008 and 2009 NHL All-Star Games. He made the 2001-02 NHL All-Rookie Team and took home 2004 second All-Star Team and 2012 first All-Star Team honors. He was also second in voting for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 2002.
But his legacy amongst Devils fans will always be a big “what if?” What if he had stuck around in order to finish the business of winning a Stanley Cup? How would his career have played out and how would it have affected the team today?
Most NHL owners would not have wanted to take on his unwieldy contract and incoming Devils owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer were no exceptions. There are many theories about how and why Kovalchuk “retired” back in 2013. We may never know the full details, but had things played out differently, could the Devils and Kovalchuk have continued to win together?
Despite all of those questions, one thing is certain: the Ilya Kovalchuk saga is over as far as the Devils are concerned and, even though the team could not squeeze a draft pick or a prospect or an NHL-ready player out of him, most are probably happy that this particular headache is done with.