The Devils’ acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010 set shockwaves throughout the NHL. So it is only fitting that his departure created seismic reverberations that were equally significant.
The long-term marriage between the single greatest talent in franchise history and the team ended shockingly and suddenly Thursday afternoon when Kovalchuk and the Devils announced the right wing’s retirement from the NHL in a joint statement.
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“This wasn’t a decision [made] by the New Jersey Devils,” chief executive officer, team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s his choice. [He] signed [the] voluntary retirement papers.”
Kovalchuk leaves the NHL having averaged exactly one point per game (417 goals and 399 assists) in his 816-game career with the Thrashers and Devils. Nine times in his 11 season career he scored at least 30 goals. His 52 goals in the 2005-06 and the 2007-08 seasons were career highs.
Acquired by Lamoriello from Atlanta on Feb. 4, 2010, Kovalchuk recorded 201 points (89 goals and 112 assists) in 222 regular-season games with the Devils. He had 25 points (10 goals and 15 assists) in 28 Stanley Cup playoff games as a Devil, and played a key role on the 2011-12 Eastern Conference championship-winning squad.
Following a summer-long saga that saw the NHL void a 17-year, $102 million contract between the Devils and Kovalchuk, the two sides agreed to a 15-year, $100 million unrestricted free agent deal prior to start of training camp in 2010. By retiring, he leaves 12 years and $77 million on the table.
It will cost the Devils financially as well as on the ice, as the team will have a cap hit of $250,000 through the 2024-25 season due to the cap benefit recapture clause in the new collective bargaining agreement.
“[We] can’t worry about [the] timing,” Lamoriello said. “It is what it is.”
Lamoriello and Kovalchuk said they held conversations prior to the start of the truncated season and following its conclusion in which the wing expressed his wish to return to his native Russia.
Kovalchuk played for the Kontinental Hockey League’s SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout and recorded 42 points (18 goals and 24 assists) in 36 games. In January, he told the Russian-language newspaper Sport-Express his “desire is to play in the KHL,” but he had “a contractual obligation to the NHL.” The newspaper reported yesterday that Kovalchuk will play for SKA St. Petersburg next season.
“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk said in the statement. “Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”
Kovalchuk’s retirement means the Devils will enter the 2013-14 season without two of their top three goal scorers from last season. David Clarkson led the Devils with 15 goals in 2013, and Kovalchuk was tied with Adam Henrique for third on the team with 11 goals. Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.750 million free agent deal with Toronto on July 5.
“We’re going to put the best possible team on the ice,” Lamoriello said.
The Devils have $54.995 million in player salary outlay for next season. The departures of Kovalchuk and Clarkson leave the team $10.604 million under the cap ceiling with Mikhail Grabovski, Jaromir Jagr and Daniel Cleary, among others, still available on the free agent market.
“We have to take a step back to go forward,” Lamoriello said. “There’s more [salary cap] room. If there’s something we can do, we will.”
Follow NHL writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.