Kovalchuk’s Return to the NHL: One Year Later

With the Stanley Cup final coming to close, the end of the 2018-19 season is upon us. This past year might not have gone the way the New Jersey Devils have wanted, but there was one interesting storyline following them throughout this past season. The end of the 2018-19 season also means the end of the first year of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL.

Ilya Kovalchuk guided the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012. -Flickr.com

The Complicated Relationship

Kovalchuk is, without a doubt, the most hated former Devils’ player in team history. That distinction used to belong to Scott Gomez after he crossed the Hudson River to sign with the New York Rangers in free agency. After Gomez’s career began to suffer, and the fact he made a moderately successful return to the Devils in 2014, he’s mostly been forgiven. Devils’ fans also still hold anger toward Zack Parise’s decision to leave the team via free agency years ago. But that’s still not as bad as the Kovalchuk debacle.

Since day one, Ilya Kovalchuk was trouble for the Devils. The former NHL goal-scoring champion was acquired via trade from the Atlanta Thrashers and played four extremely successful seasons in New Jersey, culminating with a trip to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, his legacy in Jersey is more remembered for his disastrous contract, and his decision to “retire” from the NHL to sign a more lucrative contract in his home-country Russia in the KHL after the 2012-2013 season.

The Return

After over five years playing halfway around the world, the 36-year-old Kovalchuk made a highly anticipated NHL return by signing a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Coincidentally, this is the same team he lost to in his only NHL Stanley Cup final appearance. Ever since Kovalchuk left, various rumors stated that he would return to the Devils, and reports of the KHL’s financial hardships only seemed to ignite the rumors. All of this proved wishful thinking from suffering Devils’ fans as the franchise faltered after he left. It became clear that once he left in the summer of 2013, he wasn’t coming back.

The Kings’ Ilya Kovalchuk (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

In year one, Kovalchuk has far from received the successful homecoming he’d hope he’d have. His new team found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference amidst their franchise’s worst season in recent memory. The dominating team that Kovalchuk lost to in 2012 is a thing of the past as the aging Kings find themselves in need of a rebuild. Kovalchuk also personally suffered as he was only able to score 34 points in 64 games. This is not a terrible point totals for a player just returning to North America, but Kovalchuk was known as the type of player that could by depended upon for 80-plus points a season.

Many speculated that Kovalchuk wanted to come back and find the easiest pathway to a Stanley Cup. With the Kings destined for a lengthy rebuild, Kovalchuk looks farther from a cup than ever. To make matters worse, his contract along with his advanced age make him largely undesirable on the trade market.

Face-Offs With His Former Team

Kovalchuk’s Kings met his former team twice in the regular season. In their first match up – an away game for the Devils at Staples Center – Kovalchuk was out of the lineup with an injury. On February 5th, Kovalchuk faced the Devils for the first time since deserting them.

The Prudential Center was decently filled for a weeknight game against an underperforming out-of-conference team as fans packed the building ready to exact revenge. Signs calling Kovalchuk everything from a “traitor” to things that probably shouldn’t be written about on this family website filled the stands. Unfortunately for the fans that wanted to see their once superstar player leave with his tail between his legs, the Kings were victorious. To add insult to injury, Kovalchuk scored the game’s final goal.

Former forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk were once thought to be the long-term future of New Jersey Devils hockey. -Zimbio

An important thing worth noting is that even though the fans still hold their rightfully earned animosity of Kovalchuk, the Devils couldn’t care less. Andy Greene and Travis Zajac are the only Devils left from the 2012 Cup run. The rest of the roster, coaching staff, and personnel has completely turned over since Kovalchuk’s infamous departure. It is safe to say Ray Shero, John Hynes, and Nico Hischier are more worried about the future of the franchise than they are about the past.

Kovalchuk’s Status And Future

Then there’s the Los Angeles Kings. Although many of his now Kings’ teammates were his rivals a few years back, the Kings emerged victorious in that Stanley Cup Final, so they have little recollection or feelings about the situation. That, mixed with their subsequent 2014 cup victory against the New York Rangers, led Kovalchuk to be a rather non-factor with them. If anything, they should be hoping to find a way to rid themselves of his contract that looks worse and worse by the day.

Kovalchuk is still signed with the Kings for two more years, but who knows if he’ll last there for much longer. Little, if anything, went right for the Kings last season. And there’s no reason that the aging winger should be in their future plans. No team will ever hate Kovalchuk as much as the Devils, but it’s hard to imagine the Los Angeles Kings will ever even like him.

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