One of the biggest stories of the 2017 NHL offseason is that of the long running status of Ilya Kovalchuk and his desire to return to the league. After spending the first several seasons of his career with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk was acquired by the New Jersey Devils in February of 2010 due to his propensity for goal scoring and his status as an elite forward. At the time, he was considered a highly valued asset around the NHL and one that the Thrashers knew they could not keep once it was understood that Kovalchuk would most definitely test the free agent market in the summer of 2010. His unique skillset and goal scoring acumen ultimately led the Devils to re-sign him to a 15 year contract extension valued at $100 million. However, such a massive extension would soon begin to cause problems for the Devils organization that would continue to snowball over time.
Almost immediately upon approval of the contract, the NHL determined that the Devils had participated in salary cap circumvention and would be subject to several penalties. Indeed, the Devils would be forced to forfeit $3 million (later forgiven in part), a 3rd round draft pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and their 1st round draft pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (though the Devils were later allowed to draft 30th overall that year). More importantly though, Kovalchuk’s behemoth contract would also play a role in the Devils eventually being unable to re-sign star Winger Zach Parise in the summer of 2012.
Upon captaining the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals during the 2011-12 NHL season, Parise had unquestionably cemented his value to the organization and his re-signing would be paramount to the Devil’s continued success. Upon his departure to the Minnesota Wild in the summer of 2012, Parise cited a desire to return to the area in which he had grown up, but also indicated that he had indeed engaged in discussions to remain in New Jersey before choosing to join the Wild. It can be reasonably inferred from here that had New Jersey not signed Ilya Kovalchuk, or at least managed to negotiate a lesser contract with him, the difference in allocated dollars may have been enough that the Devils may have been able to make an even higher offer to retain Parise’s services. Though all of the details surrounding the contract negotiations between Zach Parise and the Devils may never be known, the Kovalchuk contract has to be considered to have played at least a minor role in why the Devils may not have been more adamant on retaining their superstar Captain.
Following Parise’s departure from the Devils, the state of the organization would only continue to worsen. Kovalchuk’s contract, which began in the 2010-11 season, would never even come close to being fulfilled as Kovalchuk would end up “retiring” from the NHL following the lockout shortened 2012-13 season in order to return to his native Russia to play for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. At the time of his departure, Kovalchuk had scored at exactly a point-per-game pace throughout his NHL career (816 points in 816 games).
In the years following his departure from the Devils, Kovalchuk has undeniably retained his status as one of the best Left Wingers in professional hockey by surpassing his same point-per-game pace while in the KHL (222 points in 209 games with SKA St. Petersburg), while also helping lead his team to Gagarin Cup victories in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 KHL seasons. On the other hand, the Devils have not fared nearly as well after losing two bonafide superstars in Kovalchuk and Parise and have continually slipped further down the NHL standings since the 2012-13 season.
For several years, rumors of Kovalchuk’s desire to return to the NHL would circulate and were eventually confirmed following the conclusion of the 2016-17 regular season. Kovalchuk’s NHL rights, still held by the New Jersey Devils, would dictate that his return would have to be coordinated by the Devils and current GM Ray Shero. Sounds simple enough, but the execution of such a task would be wrought with several difficulties and complications. For starters, Kovalchuk’s previous 15 year contract could not be honored per the CBA and thus he would have to negotiate a new deal with the New Jersey Devils before a return would be possible. The next issue would then be that Kovalchuk’s market value would undoubtedly have dropped in the 4 years since he last played in the NHL. At age 34, the notion of Kovalchuk returning to the NHL would definitely not be farfetched, but would certainly be resisted if it were to come at a similar $6.66 million AAV that he was signed at before he turned 30. Further complicating matters was the strong possibility that the Devils would not be looking to bring back the Russian native based off the perception of him as someone who may put himself before his team. Add this fact to the amount of player personnel and front office changes that had occurred in the Devils organization over the previous 4 years and it was obvious that the team preferred to take a pass on the former NHL All-Star.
The next complexity surrounding Kovalchuk would be that while he would be allowed to negotiate the terms of a new contract with any NHL franchise, he would also still be at the mercy of the New Jersey Devils. Indeed, the Russian superstar would have to sign any new contract with New Jersey but only if the Devils were to receive compensation they deemed adequate from any team agreeing to trade for Kovalchuk. To that end, it would then beg the question of what would be considered appropriate compensation for the 3x NHL All-Star and former “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner who hadn’t played in the NHL in 4 years. A package of NHL players and prospects? A collection of mid-round draft picks? A combination of picks and prospects? A first round pick? You could debate these answers until the end of time and still not have a thorough consensus as to what the return for Kovalchuk would be. On some level, progress on contract and/or trade negotiations was apparently made as the Columbus Blue Jackets were reportedly the front-runner to acquire Kovalchuk’s services and bring him back to the NHL.
When everything was ultimately said and done, it was reported that Kovalchuk would not be returning to the NHL and would instead be staying in the KHL for at least one more season before becoming a free agent in the summer of 2018. It is currently unknown whether Kovalchuk’s return was obstructed due to failed contract negotiations, disagreements regarding trade compensation for the Devils, or a combination of the two. Though anything could still happen between now and the beginning of the 2017-18 NHL season, it seems as though the Devils now stand to receive no compensation if Kovalchuk later returns to the NHL in 2018.
Although this is a tale that has not yet reached its full conclusion, the ongoing situation regarding Ilya Kovalchuk’s NHL status can only be described as nothing short of a debacle on so many levels for both the NHL and the New Jersey Devils. In the end, several questions still remain such as if another situation of this direction and magnitude will ever again occur in the NHL and what other measures could be taken by the league in the future to prevent similar situations from occurring again.