Some Thoughts on Kovalchuk’s NHL Retirement.

Ilya Kovalchuk’s recent decision to retire from the NHL to join SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL stunned the hockey world.

I briefly commented on Kovalchuk’s decision and the subsequent fallout last weekin my “Headlines” section, but opted to allow the dust to settle before weighing in further on the matter.

First, my sympathies to New Jersey Devils fans. If the best player on my favorite team retired to play overseas, I’d be very upset. Kovalchuk’s departure leaves a gaping hole in their offense which won’t be easily filled.

I don’t have sympathy, however, for anyone calling Kovalchuk a “traitor” or “disloyal”. First of all, this ain’t war, ok? He didn’t sell you out to an enemy, so calling him a traitor is silly.

Disloyal? What century are you living in, Pollyanna? He’s a professional athlete. You want loyalty? Get a dog.

And don’t gimme this nonsense about how players were loyal back in the good ol’ days, because that’s bullshit.

Ilya Kovalchuk's NHL retirement to play in the KHL could prove beneficial for all involved.

Ilya Kovalchuk’s NHL retirement to play in the KHL could prove beneficial for all involved.

Up until 1968, NHL players were tied to their teams via the dreaded “C” form for the duration of their professional careers, or until management tired of them. Players were paid so poorly many had to take summer jobs to make ends meet.

When the WHA was in existence, NHL players could either jump to that league for better money or use the threat for leverage in negotiations with their NHL teams (sound familiar?). Once the WHA folded, however, players were stuck with a crooked free agent system until the current model came into existence in 1995.

Yes, it sucks for the Devils that Kovalchuk prefers playing in Russia than New Jersey, but his decision actually does them a favor.

His departure frees up over $6 million per season in average annual cap space, for a total of $77 million in actual dollars over the next dozen seasons.

Let’s be honest, Devils management (especially general manager Lou Lamoriello) was never happy having Kovalchuk under that lengthy, expensive contract. It’s widely assumed Lamoriello was pressured into that contract by Devils ownership desperate for the revenues they hoped Kovalchuk could bring them.

Perhaps if Kovalchuk were still capable of 40-50 goals per season, they’d be more resistant to letting him go to Russia.

Over the short term, the Devils will undoubtedly miss his offensive skills, but in two of his three full seasons in New Jersey, he wasn’t the scoring threat he’d been in his salad days with the Atlanta Thrashers.

In 2010-11, Kovalchuk managed only 31 goals and 60 points as the Devils missed the playoffs. He rebounded the following season under coach Peter DeBoer, with 37 goals and 83 points, good for fifth overall in league scoring.

He also acquitted himself well during the Devils surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final until a back injury slowed him down. Some narrow-minded twits suggested Kovalchuk was dogging it, advancing the stereotype of the “enigmatic Russian” caring more about dollars than the Stanley Cup. Few recanted after the extent of Kolvachuk’s injury was revealed, and in the wake of his NHL retirement, some are still pushing that idiotic agenda.

During the shortened 2012-13 season, Kovalchuk had 31 points in 37 games, hampered down the stretch by a shoulder injury which forced him to miss 11 games.

Kovalchuk is now in his early thirties, and as he ages the possibility of reach 40-50 goals and 80-90 points grows more remote with each passing season. At this stage in his NHL career, he’s still a very valuable asset, but also a depreciating one.

In a few seasons, when Kovalchuk’s inevitable decline accelerates, that lengthy contract with its supposedly “friendly” cap hit would become a millstone for the Devils, sucking up valuable cap space better invested in younger talent, providing fodder for the team’s critics.

No wonder Devils management didn’t fight Kovalchuk’s decision to retire from the NHL.

The timing of Kovachuk’s retirement also ensured the Devils would only face a salary cap recapture penalty of a mere $250K per season to 2025, when his contract was due to expire.

Several suspicious pundits and bloggers suggested Kovalchuk planned this for months with or without the Devils knowledge. A few believe the Devils coerced Kovalchuk into making this move to clear his burdensome contract from their books.

Regardless of the conspiracy theories, there’s nothing in the CBA preventing an NHL player from breaking his contract via retirement and heading overseas to play in a rival league, provided his NHL team doesn’t contest his decision.

Rest assured, had the Devils wanted Kovalchuk to stay, they – and the NHL – would’ve fought to prevent him playing overseas.

The Devils had no reason to do this, because the long-term financial gains outweighed the short-term pain for their roster.

Yes, they’re a weaker team with Kovalchuk gone, and replacing his skills won’t be easy. Given this summer’s poor free agent market and the reduced salary cap, it’s unlikely the Devils will find a comparable player before the new season begins.

It’s been suggested Kovalchuk screwed the Devils by not making his retirement announcement prior to the start of the free agent market, allowing management to pursue more notable players, or to re-sign David Clarkson.

Then again, if he had made that announcement earlier, perhaps the Devils don’t sign Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe. OK, maybe the Clowe signing isn’t the best example.

The point is, we don’t know if the Devils could’ve re-signed Clarkson, who had a hankering to return to Toronto and play for the Leafs, if Kovalchuk had retired sooner. Considering how weak this summers free agent market was, it’s no certainty Lamoriello would’ve won any bidding wars.

Over the long term, freeing up that $6.6 million annual cap space gives them room to be aggressive in next summer’s potentially deeper free agent market, plus provide extra dollars to re-sign a future star like Adam Henrique this summer.

Kovalchuk’s decision also sparked dire warnings of a possible flood of Russian and European NHL players following his example and bolting for the KHL.

Free agents have always been able to sign overseas, but those under contract can’t follow Kovalchuk’s example if their respective NHL teams are against it.

The KHL is expanding and the caliber of play has improved, but the NHL remains the top professional league in the world, offering job and financial security, the highest caliber of play, and first-class playing and living conditions.

Don’t forget Russian NHL stars Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk recently re-signed with their respective teams. Prior to re-signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, 2013 Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky used the threat of the KHL as leverage during contract negotiations.

More Russian or European NHL stars could bolt for the KHL in future. A North American star could do the same one day. Still, it’s unlikely we’ll see a significant exodus in the near future.

It’s also been suggested the NHL is now a weaker league because of Kovalchuk’s move to the KHL.

That nonsense was trotted out when Jaromir Jagr opted to sign with Avangard Omsk and Alexander Radulov left the Nashville Predators for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Their departures caused barely a ripple in the NHL talent pool, and Kovalchuk’s will have a similar effect.

That’s not to disparage Kovalchuk, but the simple fact is he’s not in the same class as Evgeni Malkin or Alexander Ovechkin. Their departures would be more keenly felt, especially if they did so while still in their playing prime.

With the NHL filled with great young stars, and more on their way, Kovalchuk’s absence will be scarcely felt by the league or most of its fans.

It’ll take more stars departing annually for the KHL to have any significant impact upon the NHL.

There was talk about the possibility of Kovalchuk returning in four years time once his contract with SKA St. Peterburg was expired, and whether or not he’d need the full approval of the NHL Board of Governors to do so.

That was apparently based on a comment made by his sister, claiming her brother would just do four years in Russia and then return to the NHL.

Kovalchuk, however, made it very clear he’s not thinking about an NHL return. While skeptics question the motivation behind his decision, he’s always maintained it was for family reasons.

Until Kovalchuk publicly says he’d consider an NHL return one day, we can’t make assumptions based on hearsay from a family member.

Ultimately, the Devils will put Kovalchuk’s departure behind them and rebuild. Kovalchuk will find happiness playing in his home country. The NHL will carry on without skipping a beat, while the KHL benefits from having a homegrown superstar playing out his final seasons in their arenas. One way or another, everyone will benefit.


  1. Good article. It’s refreshing to read something that’s not just a stereotypical knee-jerk reaction to the so-called greedy Russian players. I’m sure this was a complicated decision by Ilya and his wife. I wish them the best…. And let’s not forget that the NHL messed with his contract twice. First, they declared his original deal with NJ null and void and punished the Devils. Next, the owners locked-out all NHL players (including) Kovalchuk depriving him of 1/2 year’s salary… despite the fact the NHL owners had contracts with hundreds of NHL players. The NHL simply decided it was in their best interest to lock-out players and renegotiate… something entirely allowable under the CBA. Perhaps Ilya Kovalchuck tired of the repeated disrespect for his contract by the NHL and opted to retire… something entirely allowable under the CBA. I also find it quite curious that he chose this specific year to retire… when the cap recapture penalty is at it’s lowest. Suppose he waited 4 years…collected all that money… then retired. The cap recapture penalty would have been debilitating for years. Perhaps Mr. Kovalchuck gave this some thought and decided now was the best time to retire for the sake of both the NJ Devils and for he and his wife. It bother’s me that the players are always called greedy and disloyal, while the NHL can do whatever it wants. It wasn’t long ago that I remember the players taking a 24% pay cut from their EXISTING CONTRACTS after a long lock-out. My gut tells me that among many reasons, Ilya Kovalchuck just tired of the NHL shenanigans with respect to his contract.

  2. I wouldn’t call him “traitor” or “disloyal”, but I do believe there is in issue with signing a contract to say that you will play for that team (or be traded within the league) for 15 years and only completing 3 years before going back on your word and deciding you no longer wish to honour your contract.

  3. In the end a man (and woman) only has his word to fall back on and he broke his word. Did I mis something?
    He is not a man of his word. Is this not important anymore?

  4. “Retired” is not the correct word. Kovalchuk RESIGNED and took a job with another employer. “Retiring” would mean he was no longer playing hockey for any team.

  5. Here’s the part I don’t like. NJ signed Kovalchuk for what I can only describe as a stupid salary. Now when the move does not return the expected popularity they had anticapated. So there’s a loophole that permits them to walk away without penalty and free up a lot of money. Frankly you screw up you suffer the consequence, Luo good old Luo get a free go past gaol card. The only league capable of offering contracts is the KHL and then only to returning hero’s. No other nationality would (A) want to go if they’re a star quality player (B) they would not be offered contracts such as Kovalchuk has agreed to. So it’s weighted syste. Kovalchuk gets what he wants, Luo and the Devils get want what they want and the rest of the NHL has to stand and watch. Think of Lecavlier or Luongo they have contracts both parties would like to get out of……what do you think their chnace are…..nada, zilch, nothing. IMO the NHL looks foolish and if I was another GM I’d be upset big time

  6. New Jersey ought to do much better this year without Kovi. Kovi was an overrated NHLer and his team had to INFLATE his playing time just so he could score enough points to appear to be a mediocre player. Kovi averaged a whopping 24:44 per game and still had only 31 points. EPSN has a “productivity” statistic that calculates how many minutes it takes a player to score a point. Granted there are several players at the beginning of the statistic that should not be there, but that statistic correctly places Kovi in the MEDIOCRE category at 216th place amongst forwards far behind Patrick Elias, Blake Wheeler, Michael Ryder, Nazem Kadri and Matt Anderson. In one third of the games Kovi played he had NO points and in 2/3 of the games he was in, Kovi was a zero or negative plus/minus. Kovi was not the solution, but the reason for New Jersey’s anaemic offence.

  7. i wonder if the Devils would have traded there 1st round pick this year if they knew he was leaving considering they loose next years pick as well. this makes it harder to rebuild

  8. Never mind Kovalchuk or NJ…they’ve both been handed on a platter what they want. It works for them because Kovalchuk is a Russian hero that’s worth a lot of prestige back in his home land. The same “out” does not work for NA players or teams with similar contract on their roster. Burdening salaries that were screwed by the new CBA rules. The other 29 teams have to live with a financial disater buying out players. NJ walks away free from what was a stupid contract. Remember Luongo ” this contract sucks” here was another player that wanted to go home and start new. His problem was his home was Florida, so the retirement option wouldn’t work for him. What did the NHL do….yeah Luo suck it up son…maybe finding a new wife and family would be your best option. The NHL caught out again, look dumb and amateurish. Think of Tampa Bay and Lecavlier…. that would be nice if he could have retired and signed to another team.

    This whole thing stinks and I’m surprised it has received such little attention by the media