It’s a pain that any New Jersey Devils fan can relate to, and like every Devils fan, I remember the day that former Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk “retired” perfectly. I remember making macaroni and cheese in my kitchen, and hearing my phone vibrate in the living room. I went to go check to see what the message was, and saw it was a Twitter notification from the Devils’ PR Department. To this day, it is still ingrained in my memory.
— NJDevilsPR (@NJDevilsPR) July 11, 2013
My initial reaction was that the Devils PR account was hacked, and I took it with a grain of salt. Then my phone vibrated again. Former beat writer Tom Gulitti sent out a similar tweet. Then former beat writer Rich Chere sent out another tweet. And then I accepted it, and sunk down into the couch in utter shock and disbelief. He was supposed to be the face of the franchise, the future, the key building block for the franchise for the next 10 years or more. And now he “retired” to go play in Russia?
It seems that at least twice a year since his departure, reports have surfaced claiming that Kovalchuk regrets his decision to head to the KHL and would like to make a return to the NHL. At first, I was excited, and would glance over any loophole I could find to see how a pathway back to the NHL would be possible for Kovalchuk. Nothing ever came to fruition, and eventually I gave up all hope that he would ever return, and I was okay with that. What he did to the Devils organization and its fans is inexcusable for a professional that had a lengthy contract with a team. Whenever I saw a report after that, I would roll my eyes, and try to calm down the fans that got their hopes up over a potential Kovy return.
Yesterday, another report surfaced that Kovalchuk is seeking to return to the NHL in the summer of 2017.
And now Ilya Kovalchuk himself has said that he will look at NHL options this summer. Don't think we need to hear more.
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) November 9, 2016
Having never heard of the reporter, and knowing that it has been about 9 months since the last Kovalchuk return rumor, I blew off the report. Then I dug into Aivis’ background a bit more and saw that he is a credentialed beat writer in the KHL, and had just interviewed Kovalchuk. Then I saw this.
''We will see, everything is possible. Why couldn't I return to NHL? I'll have all options open that can benefit my career.'': Kovalchuk
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) November 9, 2016
This very well could just be Kovalchuk stirring the pot for the sake of a media frenzy. However, his contract in SKA St. Petersburg – his KHL team – does expire this summer so it is a little bit more conceivable that Kovy could make a bid to return to the NHL. That is much, much, much easier said than done, however.
In order to make an NHL return, Kovalchuk would have to gain approval from all 30 NHL teams, possibly 31 depending on the status of the Las Vegas NHL team when and if he attempts to make a comeback. The chances of all 30/31 teams approving him is slim at best, but there could be some quid pro quo involved. Kovalchuk remains one of the top scorers in the KHL (he is second in league scoring with 16 goals and 20 assists in 28 games with a +21 rating) and he would definitely add value to any team that he lands on in the future, whether in the KHL or NHL or some other league. He is also a big name player that could generate a decent amount of revenue for both the league at large and the team that he lands with, so from a purely fiscal perspective Kovalchuk may have some leverage if he pleads his case to get back in North America.
If all 30/31 general managers are to approve a return of somebody that committed treason in the hockey world, they would certainly seek more favors from him, perhaps more active social responsibility and community service projects. If Kovalchuk did go this route, and was somehow able to get approval from all 30/31 team representatives, then the Devils would still own his rights and would be the first to have the opportunity to negotiate a new contract with him. If the Devils approve his return but don’t want him, they can place him on waivers, or trade his rights for a draft pick or some kind of player (it’s hard to demand a top prospect or significant draft pick for a player that left the league mid-contract, however, so it would likely be for a mediocre player unless Ray Shero could pull some magic).
The 33-year-old Kovalchuk also has two other options if he wants to make an NHL return and is unable to get approval from the teams: he could wait until he turns 35 – when his name comes off the voluntary retired list – or he could take a year off from playing professional hockey (in any league), at which point he will be eligible to return to the NHL. In either of these cases, the Devils will not own his rights and he would come back to the league as a free agent.
I know many fans despise Kovalchuk for his actions and betrayal, and would not want him to return to the team. I know many fans would boo him for the first few games that he plays at the Prudential Center. The fact of the matter is, Kovy is a goal scorer and is very fun to watch on the ice, and would be an incredible asset for the Devils to get back. What he did was horrible, disrespectful, treasonous, and extremely hurtful, but the past is in the past and we’d have to look at what he can bring to the team both in the present and future if he tried to make a return. We’d have to let go of the past, which would be hard for some but worth it in the long run. That’s just my two cents and I know there will be a lot of push-back to that.
As a side note, Devils GM Ray Shero was asked about a potential Kovalchuk return back in February. He did not say that he was for the return or how he would vote if the Russian tried to make a comeback, but he did leave the door open and said “that would be up for the league and for me to speculate…”
I don’t want you to get your hopes up. The possibility of a Kovalchuk return is exciting, and it is fun to try to figure out a way that he could make an epic comeback and rejoin the Devils (just think of a Taylor Hall – Pavel Zacha/Travis Zajac – Ilya Kovalchuk line and the obliteration that it would bring to opponents), but at least for the next two years, a return to the NHL seems highly unlikely. Once he turns 35 in April of 2018, I wouldn’t rule out a return for the 2018-19 season, especially given how he has had tensions with his KHL team in the past, but I wouldn’t expect one either.
As always, we would leave to hear your thoughts on the matter. Is Kovalchuk plotting a long-shot bid to return to the NHL in 2017? If he is, would you welcome him back?
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