New Jersey Devils star winger Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the NHL by retiring at age 30 with $77 million and 12 years left on the massive $100 million, 15 year contract he signed with New Jersey. Kovalchuk forfeits that money (though more on his finances in a moment). Kovalchuk’s retirement brings a strange and uneven tenure as a Devil and NHL player to an end. Originally drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk was a supremely talented scorer, twice scoring 52 goals for the Thrashers and notching 41, 42, and 43 in other seasons. Midway through the 2009-2010 season, with Kovalchuk set to become a free agent, the Thrashers found an unexpected suitor in the New Jersey Devils, who acquired the winger for a package of young players, including defenseman Johnny Oduya, and draft picks.
As a player with offensive flare but little regard for defense, Kovalchuk seemed like the perfect anti-Devil, and indeed he had trouble blending with the team. Still, after a prolonged flirtation in the offseason with the Los Angeles Kings, Kovalchuk signed with the Devils. That contract was cancelled by the NHL for abusing the salary cap system with a string of years at the end at $1 million a piece, designed to bring down his salary cap hit. The two sides then worked out Kovalchuk’s 15 year, $100 million deal.
After a mixed bag 2010-11 season, Kovalchuk came into his own the following year, playing better defense, working well with his linemates, and dazzling with his incredible skating and booming slapshot. He helped the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Kings.
The lockout shortened 2012-13 sowed the seeds for Kovalchuk’s retirement. He played in Russia while the player’s union negotiated with the NHL. He realized in that time that he wanted to play in Russia and live in the same country as the rest of his family. While Kovalchuk leaves one deal, he already has another lined up: reports are out already that he will sign a deal with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL. Contract details have not been revealed, but a major announcement is expected soon. Kovalchuk might not be leaving any money on the table after all.
As for the Devils, they lose their star winger, but they are gifted some needed money and cap space. Kovalchuk is a thrill to watch and offensively gifted, but he was entering his less productive years, and the Devils were set to pay a premium for them. This looks like a win-win.