According to a news post on NJ.com by Charles Curtis, who cited Finnish website Iltalehti.fi and Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski, Ilya Kovalchuk could return to the NHL by 2016-17 at the earliest should he act on his desire to come back to North America.
Kovalchuk retired from the Devils and the NHL in 2013 only to resurface in the Kontinental Hockey League with SKA St. Petersburg almost immediately. All of this after he had signed a huge 15-year $100 million contract, itself a pared-down version of the 17-year $100 million-plus contract that got the Devils in trouble for circumnavigating the salary cap and violating the then-current collective bargaining agreement due to the contract being extremely front-loaded at the expense of the later years of his deal, when he would be a lot older and less effective.
This deal came after the Devils spent a lot to acquire Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers at the 2010 trading deadline. The Devils gave up Johnny Oduya, now a member of the Chicago Blackhawks – he won a Cup there in 2013, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and the Devils’ 1st and 2nd round choices in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They also received Anssi Salmela and Atlanta’s 2nd round pick in 2010 (Jon Merrill) in addition to Kovalchuk.
Now, per the report, Kovalchuk could be on his way back to the NHL. Stan Fischler, in a segment during the Devils-Islanders game on Saturday alluded to this as well. According to the Finnish site, a source close to Kovalchuk says that he “has had discussions with SKA management about returning to the NHL for the 2016-17 season, with one more year on his (KHL) deal.”
Should Kovalchuk try to return for that season, he would require approval from all 30 NHL clubs (which, of course includes the Devils) because he officially filed retirement papers with the league. Should he not receive permission from all 30 teams, he would have to sit out a year and then get the Devils permission to come back into the NHL. His other option is to wait until 2018-19 (at which point he will be 35 years old), when he could return to the NHL without the approval of the other teams (including the Devils).
If the Devils were to bring him back, he would certainly help the team’s scoring up front. There is no question that the Devils with Kovalchuk are much better than the Devils without Kovalchuk. The problem not only lies in the red tape that it would require for him to come back, but in whether the Devils would even want him back with the headaches that his contract caused and the lurch they were left in when he retired from the team.
It was clear at the time the Devils initially signed him to his 17-year contract that this was a decision made by then-owner Jeff Vanderbeek with less input from General Manager Lou Lamoriello. Add new ownership to this equation and the fact that he may have “burned bridges” in New Jersey and the chances of Kovalchuk returning to the Devils seems rather slim.
On the other hand, this is a business where the ultimate goal is to win games and the Devils have been having problems putting pucks in the net. They have missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons (and it is looking more and more like that will be upped to four times in the last five seasons) and, if he is the same Kovalchuk – and his numbers in the KHL (137 points in 135 games and 12 points in 20 playoff games according to Wyshynski) certainly say that he is – then he is certainly someone the Devils could use.
Kovalchuk’s current SKA St. Petersburg deal is going into its third year and he is set to make about 15 million Euros, which are “tax free” (according to Puck Daddy) in Russia.
The question is: do the Devils feel they are desperate enough to bring Kovalchuk back. Also, what would the fan reaction be? Would he return a conquering hero, or be booed mercilessly at the Prudential Center? He did help the team reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, helping to defeat the Flyers and Rangers along the way. He did seem to be suffering from back issues late in those playoffs, which is part of the speculation as to why he bolted to the KHL (a bigger ice surface and less physical play). But he will be coming back older and with more wear and tear on his body.
One thing is very certain, though. If Kovalchuk were to return to the NHL, there is no way a team will be willing to pay him the ridiculous contract that the Devils initially gave him and that he walked away from.