Devils, NHL no worse for wear after sudden retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Let him go. Let it go. If Ilya Kovalchuk wants to retire from the NHL so he can return to Russia, where he can live at home and make even more money than he would have in New Jersey, kiss him good-bye. Wish him well. Sincerely.

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The Devils will be better off without him in the long term, even though they gave up so much to sign him – including a first-round pick, maybe even former captain Zach Parise – only to have him walk away three years into a 15-year commitment, leave a gaping hole in their roster and do it after the free-agent frenzy. They get out of paying him $77 million when their finances are shaky. They get hit with only a $250,000 cap penalty each of the next 12 years, according to, when it could have been worse.

The NHL will be fine without him, even though it can’t be happy to lose a star to the KHL. This might happen more often as the KHL expands, improves and courts (or pressures) homegrown players aggressively, but it won’t happen too often in the near future. For every Russian player who has chosen the KHL, far more have chosen the NHL. Big names like Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk have signed extensions recently with their NHL teams when they could have gone back to the motherland as heroes.

“I think it’s an extremely unique case,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an e-mail. “It does not concern me from a league perspective.”

Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday, and he is expected to sign with SKA St. Petersburg, the KHL club with which he played during the lockout – the KHL club with which he threatened to stay when the lockout ended in January, only to come back to the Devils eventually.

[Related: Ilya Kovalchuk retires from Devils in favor of Russia]

Though he left a lot on the table in New Jersey, he is expected to recoup it in Russia – and then some. He reportedly will command a bigger salary. He will be taxed at a lower rate than he would have been in the United States, and his team might even cover the tax. Not only that, whatever he makes will not be subject to escrow, as per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association. (A percentage of players’ pay is withheld to assure the revenue split between the owners and players. Players might not receive the face value of their contracts. The players received 57 percent of league revenues when Kovalchuk signed this contract; they receive 50 percent now. That means he might have ended up with less than he expected when he signed.)

The Devils could have fought it. They could have tolled his contract. Kovalchuk would not have been free to sign with anyone else anywhere – or had he tried, the NHL would have fought to prevent him from doing it based on international transfer agreements.

But the Devils didn’t fight it. They made the retirement announcement. They terminated the contract. In other words, they agreed to cut him loose, and because of that, Daly wrote, “the player would not have a conflicting contractual obligation and would be free to sign and play in another league.” (Should Kovalchuk want to return to the NHL, the Devils will control his rights for “an extended period of time,” Daly wrote. So he can’t, say, come back in a couple of years and join the Rangers.)

In a sense, general manager Lou Lamoriello should be furious. Devils fans should be furious. Lamoriello, likely at the urging of his owner, originally tried to sign Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million, back-diving contract in the summer of 2010. The NHL rejected the contract because it felt the deal circumvented the salary cap, and an arbitrator agreed. Lamoriello tried again by signing Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million, back-diving contract that didn’t back-dive quite as much. The NHL and the NHLPA amended the rules, and the deal went through. But the saga didn’t end.

The Devils forfeited a first-round pick as a penalty. They looked foolish shortly afterward when rookie head coach John MacLean made their $100 million man a healthy scratch, and they had to bring back old head coach Jacques Lemaire to get Kovalchuk to play more of a 200-foot game. The 2011-12 season went as the Devils envisioned, with Kovalchuk leading the team in scoring in the regular season and the playoffs as they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. At least they made that final. That should not be forgotten.

[Report: Kovalchuk will join KHL team, could earn $20 million per season]

It is debatable how Kovalchuk’s signing and retirement have affected the Devils. Last summer, they watched Parise sign a 13-year, $98 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. After missing the playoffs in 2013, they watched David Clarkson sign a seven-year, $36.75 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Had the Devils not given so much to Kovalchuk, could they have kept Parise? Or would Parise have left, anyway? Had Kovalchuk made this decision earlier, could they have kept Clarkson instead of throwing five years and $24.25 million at Ryane Clowe to replace him? Or would Clarkson have left, anyway?

Lamoriello was not caught off-guard. He said in his statement he had “many conversations with Ilya over the past year” about retirement from the NHL. Would more notice have helped him patch the hole, with more cap space at his disposal and more players in play as everyone manoeuvred the past couple of weeks? Or would it have hurt, from re-signing Patrick Elias, to trying to keep Clarkson, to attracting someone from the outside? Aren’t the Devils less attractive without Kovalchuk on the roster?

In another sense, Lamoriello should be relieved. So should Devils fans. The Devils have been mired in financial and ownership issues, and a 12-year, $77 million commitment is off their books. They don’t have to worry about cap problems, either.

From 2017-18 to 2020-21, Kovalchuk’s salary would have dropped from $10 million to $7 million to $4 million to $1 million while his cap charge remained $6.66 million (the devil’s number). Somewhere in there, Kovalchuk might have bolted. That would have resulted in stiff penalties because of the cap recapture rule in the new labor agreement, which was designed for just such a scenario. The NHL didn’t like teams tacking on phony years at the ends of contracts to lower the average salaries and the cap charges. Now the league can take back the cap advantage the team enjoyed during a player’s tenure if the player retires before the end of a long-term deal. Because Kovalchuk is leaving so early and the Devils got so little advantage, the penalty is light – again, only $250,000 each of the next dozen years. Had he left after, say, 2017-18, it would have been $3.7 million for each of the next seven years.

[Slideshow: Kovalchuk's NHL career]

Does Kovalchuk’s retirement to the KHL reflect a trend? Will it start one? Doubtful. Some Russian players prefer to play at home just because of the language, the larger ice surface and the style of play. Some can make more money at home because the KHL is funded by oil, gas and manufacturing, plus supported by the government. Some will even break NHL contracts, like Alexander Radulov once did with the Nashville Predators, against their wishes, as Kovalchuk is essentially doing now with the Devils, without their protest. The KHL presents a viable option for Russian players (see Burmistrov, Alexander), and because of that, it gives them leverage with NHL teams (see Bobrovsky, Sergei). But most Russian players who have the choice still prefer to play in the NHL (see Bobrovsky again, as well as Malkin, Datsyuk, et cetera), and even if some have second-thoughts in the future, other teams in other circumstances won’t be so quick to terminate contracts as the Devils were with Kovalchuk.

The KHL has immense ambitions. It keeps growing, raising the standard of play and raising the standard of living for its players. During the latest lockout, veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar said he noticed a vast improvement from when he played in Russia during the previous lockout, in 2004-05. Still, he signed a two-year, $10-million deal with the Dallas Stars recently. The NHL still has the best arenas and the best perks – especially in terms of the consistency city to city. It still offers the best pay for most players and the best level of play for everyone. It is still the best league in the world and will be for the foreseeable future. As Gonchar said in October in Moscow: “NHL is NHL.”

With or without Kovalchuk.

CSN video on whether Alex Ovechkin is next:

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