Remember Ilya Kovalchuk? Of course you do. The Russian forward “retired” from the National Hockey League in 2013 and headed to the KHL. He spent two seasons with SKA St. Petersburg and put up 137 points in 135 games. When next season gets underway, he’ll be in the third and final year of his contract.
Why does this matter? Kovalchuk is planning an NHL comeback.
Kovalchuk has told SKA St. Petersburg that he’s eyeballing an NHL return once his contract expires, which could theoretically put him back in the big league in the 2016-2017 season. All 30 teams in the NHL will have to approve his return, which includes the small detail of coming out of “retirement.” The only other option, should he not have league approval, is to wait until the 2018-2019 season where he can return as an unrestricted free agent at the ripe old age of 35.
Kovalchuk, now 31, had to voluntarily retire from the NHL. In doing so, he and the New Jersey Devils were able to void the last dozen years of his monstrous contract. That saved the Devils $77 million.
Kovalchuk’s current deal with the KHL pays him about 15 million Euros a year, tax free.
So why walk about from all that bank just to return to the NHL? There are a number of theories.
For one, the KHL has been going through some financial difficulties. The collapse of the Ruble hasn’t helped matters, with the fiscal stability of several franchises in jeopardy. If the KHL starts having trouble paying its players, its quality as a financial windfall for former and current NHLers looking to make a bundle may come to an end.
Kovalchuk’s sister also hinted at a possible NHL return shortly after he left in the first place, but he repudiated that claim in rather clear terms: “I am not going to Russia to start thinking about coming back to the NHL.”
Kovalchuk can obviously still rock the house. He can be a game-changing player and can put up serious numbers, so having him back in the NHL is good for the game. Some may question his attitude and hunger for the dollar, but that’s really his business and his alone as long as it doesn’t bubble over into his play on the ice.
It should be interesting to see how Gary Bettman reacts, too. He could have some issues with Kovalchuk having “rejected” his league to play in the KHL or he could do what’s best for business and put a quality player back on the ice. He could pressure his member teams one way or the other, which in turn will certainly impact whether or not Kovalchuk returns in 2016-2017.