Ah, 35, that wonderful age when the rules regarding contract status in the NHL magically change. Once a player hits his 35th birthday, any multi-year deal he signs counts towards the cap no matter what, even in the case of buyout or retirement. These deals can also be bonus-laden in a way that the deals of younger players cannot.
And, once Ilya Kovalchuk turns 35, he could, conceivably, return to the NHL without consequence or complication.
As we know, if Kovalchuk tries to return to the NHL within the next year, he'd need unanimous consent from the league. (He probably wouldn't get it.) And after that, if he tried to return within the next four years, he'd still need permission from his former employer, the New Jersey Devils.
But the moment Kovalchuk turns 35, everything changes. From the NY Post:
Ilya Kovalchuk will be removed from the “voluntary retired list” upon reaching his 35th birthday on April 15, 2018, and thereby would become an unrestricted free agent if the winger were to pursue a return to the NHL for the 2018-19 season.
This is according to Bylaw 8.5 (c) and confirmed by deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a series of emails with The Post yesterday in which the NHL clarified Kovalchuk’s status after the Devils voided the remaining 12 years of his contract on Wednesday so he could continue his hockey career in the KHL.
In other words, Kovalchuk's 35th birthday present is that he no longer has to get permission from anybody to do anything.
Considering the way he left, the assumption is that Kovalchuk is never coming back. But he wouldn't be the first star to spend some time in the KHL and then return. Jaromir Jagr did it after three years, and he was a marquee name in that league, like Kovalchuk is set to be.
Granted, Jagr came back to fanfare, and Kovalchuk would come back to grumbles, but it seems to me he probably doesn't care. And with no restrictions on where he can sign and, presumably, having made his money in the KHL -- again, $20 million a year is the report -- would it really be all that surprising for Kovalchuk to join an NHL contender late in his career in pursuit of a Stanley Cup ring and a few more bullet points on his Hall of Fame résumé?
UPDATE: According to Kovalchuk's sister, Arina, he does plan to return to the NHL to close out his career. "Naturally, he plans to return to America and perform in the NHL. But the next three years he will play in Russia," she said in a recent interview in Russia.
That would mean a 2016 return for Kovalchuk, which seems unlikely since he'd still have to get permissions. But this definitely adds fuel to the suggestion that he'll be back two years later.
I'm for it, and not just because it would drive Don Cherry and his ilk crazy. 2018 can't come soon enough.
We may not have seen the last of Ilya Kovalchuk.