Tha Sports Junkies 101

Should Ilya Kovalchuk be Allowed to Return to the NHL?

Puckingopinion via


The Russian Star Abruptly Left the NHL in 2013 to Join the KHL

We have all heard this story before. Ilya Kovalchuk has once again opened the door to a potential NHL return, something he has done almost every offseason since his departure in 2013. Kovalchuk told KHL media this week that an NHL return is not out of the question and that he will look at NHL options this offseason.

Kovalchuk was drafted first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, becoming the first Russian to be drafted with the number 1 overall pick in NHL history. He spent 8 years with the Thrashers, scoring 30 or more goals in all but his rookie season (he scored 29). He became one of the NHL’s elite scoring wingers with the Thrashers, but after failing to reach a new contract he was traded to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Johnny Oduya, forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Comier, and a first round pick in 2010.

Kovalchuk became an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, after not reaching a contract with the Devils. After reciving offers from many teams, Kovalchuk and the Devils reached an agreement, signing a record breaking 17 year, $102 million dollar contract. The contract was blocked by the NHL, citing that the Devils were trying to work around the salary cap. A couple weeks later the Devils submitted another contract to the NHL, this time a 15 year, $100 million contract, which was approved by the NHL.

As a result of the 2012-13 NHL lockout, Kovalchuk went to play in the KHL, like many others, playing with SKA St. Petersburg. Criticism came his way after he decided to stay for the KHL all star game instead of returning to the Devils for training camp. He would finish the NHL season, but then retired at age 30, with 12 years and $77 million left on his contract.

Kovalchuk rejoined SKA St. Petersburg just a week after retiring from the NHL, signing a 4 year deal that is supposedly comparable to his deal with the Devils. He has continued his high level of play in the KHL, and every year the question arises whether he will find his way back to the NHL.

But the question shouldn’t be will he come back, but should he?

If Kovalchuk wants to return after this season, every NHL team, including the new Las Vegas franchise, would have to sign off on his return. If that happens, the Devils would still hold his rights, but would likely place him on waivers after being reinstated. But if he waits two more seasons, until he is 35 years old, he would be allowed to return as an unrestricted free agent, giving him the ability to choose any team who is interested in his services.

With his scoring still at a high level, as well as the success of former KHL stars like Jarmir Jagr, Alexander Radulov, and Artemi Panarin, teams would likely be very interested in adding Kovalchuk’s ability to their rosters. But should teams and the NHL allow him to return.

Kovalchuk walked away from a huge contract just 3 years in, which if not for the generosity of the NHL, would have cost the Devils a first round draft pick. While he cited wanting to be closer to his family as a reason to leave, its hard to question the idea that he didn’t like the direction the Devils were heading, with star winger Zach Parise and David Clarkson leaving town following a Stanley Cup loss, and goaltender Martin Broduer reaching the end of his career.

If the league allows Kovalchuk to return to the NHL, does that not show players they can get out of contracts by simply retiring, joining the KHL, which is a very respected league, then returning years later and starting fresh? What would keep a player from leaving a team he sees no future with if he can return a couple seasons later, potentially with an improved game, with no harm or punishment for retiring?

In my opinion, the league needs to punish players who “retire” from the NHL while under contract with a team to join a different league. Players should not be able to return to the NHL if they decide playing in another league, and that starts by keeping Kovalchuk away from the NHL for good.