Although this conversation seems to happen every summer, this might finally be the year Ilya Kovalchuk returns to the NHL. Devils GM Ray Shero will reportedly reach out to Kovalchuk’s agent in the coming weeks, as his contract with SKA St. Petersburg has expired.
The Russian star has been playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL full-time since the 2013-14 season, after playing the first half of the 2012-13 season there, as the NHL was locked out. This past season, Kovalchuk tallied 32 goals and 46 assists in 60 games on the way to a second Gargarin Cup championship in three seasons.
Kovalchuk left the NHL after the lockout shortened season five years into a record 17-year, $102M deal with the New Jersey Devils. Although he claimed to be returning to Russia to be closer to his family, it was heavily speculated that Kovalchuk was leaving the NHL to make more money in his native country.
Since leaving the NHL, Kovalchuk has been placed on the NHL’s Voluntary Retirement list. His rights remain with the Devils, who would be free to resign him if he did choose to return to North America. In order to play for another franchise, he would need to receive approval from the other 30 teams in the league. A sign and trade is also possible, and may be the most beneficial for the Devils in an attempt to rebuild their franchise.
Kovalchuk was selected 1st overall in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers (😭). In 2010, after reportedly turning down contract offers rumored at 12-years, $101M and seven-years, $70M, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils. Atlanta received Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, and New Jersey’s first and second-round picks in the 2010 draft in return for Kovalchuk, Anssi Salmela, and Atlanta’s second-round pick in 2010.
In 816 games in the NHL over the course of 11 seasons, Kovalchuk scored 417 goals and 816 points. He sits at fifth all-time in overtime goals scored (14), and 18th all-time in goals per game average (.511), and is the seventh highest scoring Russian in league history. In Russia, Kovalchuk has scored 107 goals and 157 assists in 245 over four and a half seasons, including the first half of the 2012-13 NHL lockout season.
I’m officially starting the “Kovalchuk to Vegas” bandwagon. Although he would most likely not want to return to the NHL for a team that is not a Cup-contender, Vegas would be a perfect fit in my opinion. An expansion franchise with an established superstar would make them exciting to watch right from the start. They will almost definitely have the cap room to sign him, and he would be a big name to draw fans in their first season in the league.