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Ilya Kovalchuk Leaves the New Jersey Devils, Retires from the NHL

What's Next for the Devils?

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Ilya Kovalchuk Leaves the New Jersey Devils, Retires from the NHL
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Ilya Kovalchuk is now public enemy #1 in New Jersey.

COMMENTARY | Ilya Kovalchuk's stay in the NHL came to an abrupt end Thursday when the winger decided to retire from the NHL and head back to Russia. Kovalchuk's decision sent shock waves throughout the hockey world and leaves the New Jersey Devils with a huge hole to fill.

In the short term, this is a crushing blow for the Devils. For one, the Devils no longer have their best player. In addition, general manager Lou Lamoriello had made some big moves recently to shore up the roster for another run at a Stanley Cup championship. It was obviously assumed that new players such as Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe were brought in to help take some pressure off of Kovalchuk. Instead, everyone will have to step up and try and fill Kovalchuk's shoes.

On a different note, how much heartache can fans of the Devils take? Kovalchuk is now the third player in a year to leave the Devils to head back home. Former captain Zach Parise did the same thing last offseason when he left the Devils for the Minnesota Wild. David Clarkson also left to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs just one week ago. Both Parise and Clarkson were paid handsomely to leave but, still, the point remains. There is a bit of a dark cloud hanging over the Devils here. Hindsight is always 20/20 but one also has to wonder if re-signing Kovalchuk to a mammoth contract in 2010 actually cost the Devils their best shot at re-signing Parise, as well.

The Devils were penalized a first round pick for their first attempt at re-signing Kovalchuk in the summer of 2010. General manager Lou Lamoriello probably made a poor decision in not forfeiting the pick in 2012 when the team drafted #29 overall in the first round. With Kovalchuk deserting the team, there is a chance that next year's forfeited pick could be a high draft pick.

In the long run, I actually do not think this is bad for New Jersey. Kovalchuk would have been due a lot of money over the next several seasons while on the decline due to age. By retiring from the NHL, he actually did help the Devils in that his contract comes off the books. Besides, would a team really want to hang on to a player who basically has one foot out the door?

So, where do the Devils go from here? No one player on the team has ever been bigger than the New Jersey Devils and the team is going to have to take that into next season. It is time for the young forwards, such as Jacob Josefson, to step up and players like Travis Zajac to become leaders. Needless to say, making the playoffs next year would be the best cure for the Devils.

Days like today really make fans appreciate a player who wants to come to their favorite team or a player who stays with their favorite team. In sports today, the latter has become far too uncommon.

Michael Pellegrini has followed the New Jersey Devils since the mid to late 1990s when they had players like Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk in the later stages of their career.

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