The nightmarish NHL lockout, in which hockey Armageddon was narrowly avoided, will fade into the past once the deal is ratified by the NHLPA and teams are preparing to open an abbreviated training camp. In anticipation of a possible start to the season within the next 10 days, NHL players who were lucky enough to find work in Europe are returning to North America. The euphoria around the league is palpable, but in New Jersey, the optimistic feelings of relief at salvaging the season may be short lived.
On Tuesday, as players such as Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Zetterberg returned from Russia and Switzerland and NHL rinks were being hastily prepared, a story has begun to develop that could be devastating to a Devils team that already has a huge hole to fill with the loss of captain Zach Parise to free agency. According to multiple sources, New Jersey sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, playing in Russia’s KHL for SKA St. Petersburg, has not ruled out staying in his native Russia.
NHL.com and sport-express.ru correspondent Slava Malamud reported that Kovalchuk stated before SKA's 3-1 loss on Tuesday:
"'I will need to read the new agreement,' before he decides what to do next."
Two other NHL players on SKA, Sergei Bobrovsky and Vladimir Tarsenco, have already left the team and returned to North America to prepare for the start fo the NHL season.
This is not the first time Kovalchuk has raised the specter of not returning to the United States. In October, he followed fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin's lead and threatened to stay in the KHL if there were any reduction in player salaries resulting from the lockout, telling the media:
“Basically, I don’t rule out staying in Russia in the case of a reduction of our salaries in the NHL. I just don’t understand why they needed to sign such contracts. Or they were just hoping to cut the percentage later? I believe that the contracts must be respected and this is a fundamental question. There’s no way the head of the [NHL Players’] Association and the hockey players will agree on the wage reduction."
On the surface, Kovalchuk would appear to have no incentive, other than playing in his native land, to stay in Russia. Although he has had a solid season in the KHL (18 goals, 23 assists in 35 games, fourth in the league with 41 points) he is coming off an NHL season in which he dispelled many of the myths about him being a selfish player who couldn't win.
He led the Devils to within two wins of the Stanley Cup while coming into his own as a team leader down the stretch. The star winger also has one of the richest contracts in the NHL, signing a 15-year, $100 million contract in September 2010. He is still owed more than $83 million on the deal and stands to make approximately $6.4 million for this shortened NHL season. It's almost inconceivable that Kovalchuk would leave all that money on the table.
Additionally, the NHL and KHL have an agreement in place which stipulates that NHL contracts are honored by KHL teams, an agreement that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed to the Bergen Record is in place.
"The KHL has confirmed it will honor its agreement with us.”
So it appears the Kovalchuk controversy may be much ado about nothing, and he should be back in a Devils sweater when the puck drops later this month. Still, where there's smoke, there's fire, and after the pain of losing Zach Parise last summer, who could blame the New Jersey faithful for taking a "believe-it-when-I-see-it" attitude?