The New Jersey Devils today announced winger Ilya Kovalchuk has retired from the NHL.

Ilya Kovalchuk announces his retirement from the NHL.

Ilya Kovalchuk announces his retirement from the NHL.

 SPECTOR’S NOTE: This is indeed an unexpected development. In a statement, Kovalchuk based his decision on the time he spent last year in Russia during the lockout and of having his family there with him.

By retiring from the NHL, Kovalchuk walks away from the remaining 12 years and $77 million left on his contract with the Devils. It’s expected he’ll join SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, where he played during the lockout.

The announcement naturally surprised many around the NHL, with some critics calling him “selfish”, or considering his decision suspicious.  It must be remembered,  however, Kovalchuk was poised to cash in big on his NHL contract starting this season, as he would’ve earned the bulk of his $100K contract over the next six seasons.

Had he stayed, he would’ve earned over $11 million in real salary in each of the next four seasons, over $10 million in 2017-18, and $7 million in 2018-19. He would’ve earned $11 million last season but lost half of that due to the lockout, though he made up most, if  not all, of the difference in the KHL. He’s leaving a lot of money on the table just to return to Russia, where he’ll undoubtedly earn a lot of money in the short-term, but probably not as much over the long term as he would’ve with the Devils.

Furthermore, as NBC Sports’ Jason Brough noted, there are two silver linings to this for the Devils. First, injuries had reduced Kovalchuk’s effectiveness, as he was no longer the 50-goal scorer he once was, so this gets them off the hook from paying big bucks for a steadily depreciating asset. Second,the salary cap recapture penalty is estimated at only $250K per season through to 2024-25, which is miniscule compared to what it would’ve been had he retired, say, five years from now.

His retirement also frees up considerable cap space for the Devils. They now have over $10 million available for next season, and you can bet GM Lou Lamoriello won’t waste time using it to find a suitable replacement (or two) in what’s left in this summer’s free agent market.

Kovalchuk leaves the NHL a point-per-game player, with 816 regular season points in as many career games, and 27 points in in 32 playoff games. From 2002-03 to 2011-12, Kovalchuk was among the NHL’s top scorers, having his best seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. He twice scored 50-or-more goals, scored 40-or more goals three times, and four times exceeded the 30-goal mark. He won the Richard Trophy as the league’s top goalscorer in 2004.