In 2013, Ilya Kovalchuk “retired” from the NHL, leaving for the Kontinental Hockey League and helping to rescue the New Jersey Devils from a potential salary cap calamity thanks to the cap recapture clause, voiding the final 12 years and $77 million US of his contract
He’s now spent two seasons with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, scoring 137 points in 135 games and 12 more in 20 playoff games. Next season is the third year of his deal, which reportedly pays him as much as $15 million Euros annually “tax free” in Russia.
What’s the future hold for him? A source close to the situation tells Finland’s Iltalehti that Kovalchuk has had discussions with SKA management about returning to the NHL for the 2016-17 season, with one more year on his deal.
The story details some of the KHL’s financial issues that could impact Kovalchuk’s decision, as the collapse of the Ruble has affected the economic stability of several of the League’s teams. But the fact is that a return to the NHL in 2016 has been strongly hinted at before, from no less an authority than Kovalchuk’s own sister.
This is all well and good, save for one wrinkle: Kovalchuk can’t just waltz back into the NHL as an unrestricted free agent.
Since he filed voluntary retirement papers, he would require approval from all 30 NHL teams to get back into the League or else he would need to sit out of hockey for a full season and then get the Devils’ permission to return.
If he waited until he turned 35 in the 2018-19 season, he could return without any approval.
Provided his back holds up, Kovalchuk is a still a game-changing offensive talent. But desire to return to the NHL is one thing; the actual mechanics of that return are more complicated.
How would Gary Bettman lean on this one? Ask his member teams to rubber stamp an all-world player’s return to the League, or blackball someone that skirted his commitment and signed with a rival league?
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