Per Elliotte Friedman, Ilya Kovalchuk is considering his possible return to the NHL. The star Russian winger left New Jersey following the shortened 2012-13 season, officially retiring from the NHL. His contract had 12 years and $77 MM remaining, ending a contract which had caused a massive headache for both the league and the Devils franchise. The initial Kovalchuk contract was determined to be cap-circumventing, one of many deals prior to the new CBA that placed extended years onto a player’s contract in order to bring the average annual cap hit down for the team. The re-organized deal was largely guilty of the same machinations, although it was accepted by league – but not before the Devils franchise was punished by losing a first and third (the former being eventually re-awarded) round draft pick. When Kovalchuk decided to “retire” merely a year after New Jersey had made the Stanley Cup Final, the contract was essentially cancelled. This was beneficial to both Kovalchuk (who looked to earn more in the KHL) and the Devils ownership (who were struggling financially), although the move was unorthodox and generally maligned. In the post-Kovalchuk era, New Jersey’s team identity was essentially lost, accompanied by the previous loss of Zach Parise and subsequent departure of GM Lou Lamoriello.
If Kovalchuk were to return, the stigma of his faux retirement will likely linger in the minds of NHL owners. If you sign the forward to an extended contract, what guarantee is there that he will honor it? The KHL will always be looming over financial negotiations, an extra competing factor general managers would be happy to do without. Then there is the matter of Kovalchuk’s age – he is now 34, and not quite in the prime years he was when he left North America. In his last (nearly) full season, the winger amassed a ridiculous 37 goals and 43 assists – but that was 5 seasons ago.
Nonetheless, Kovalchuk has proven overseas that he is still a very effective, dynamic star. This past season with SKA St. Petersburg, he collected 32 goals and 46 assists in only 60 games, helping to lead the squad to a Gagarin Cup title. His speed has not significantly decreased, and he looks just as deadly leading a forecheck or driving the net as he did in the States. Kovalchuk, a former Atlanta Thrasher star, had been criticized early in his career for his one-dimensional offensive play. But his greater focus on the defensive aspects of his game helped carry his underdog Devils to the Finals shortly before his departure. Although the KHL admittedly plays a game tailored more to goal-scoring and creativity, Kovalchuk has seemingly maintained some of those good two-way habits.
Regardless of your feelings on Kovalchuk as a player, he would instantaneously be in the conversation for top-5 winger in the league were he to return at anywhere near the same level. Long-term contracts may prove to be a sticking point for owners, but this is the sort of player that could inspire a sweepstakes of bidding and negotiations. He is still a game-changer with incredible offensive flair and consistent production – nearly every general manager would be wise to consider making an inquiry.