Ilya Kovalchuk Retires from NHL: What It Means for the New Jersey Devils

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Ilya Kovalchuk Retires from NHL: What It Means for the New Jersey Devils
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

According to a press release from the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk has announced his retirement from the NHL at the age of 30 to return home to Russia.

Kovalchuk still had 12 years and $77 million left on his massive contract that he signed back in 2010. Cap Geek reports that New Jersey will take a $250,000 cap hit every season through 2024-25 due to the cap restructure penalty, a total of $2.75 million.

Here is a statement from Kovalchuk following his announcement:

“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”

Rumors of Kovalchuk leaving the NHL for Russia date back to the beginning of last year's lockout, as Kovalchuk noted his preference to play in the KHL and be with his family. However, Kovalchuk returned to the Devils for a shortened season after the lockout ended, scoring 11 goals and recording 31 points in 38 games.

 

 

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello also confirmed that he and Kovalchuk had spoken about the star forward returning home multiple times, but the decision to go forward with it happened today.

This is worst-case scenario for the Devils, and there's no other way to put it.

Kovalchuk scored 79 goals in three full seasons with New Jersey, which amounted to 15.8 percent of the total goals scored by the Devils in that span (79 of 497 since start of 2010-11). To put that into perspective, Rick Nash only amounted for 15.2 percent of the Blue Jacket's total goals in his final three seasons with the team (95 of 622).

His retirement comes weeks after New Jersey lost leading goal scorer David Clarkson to free agency and a year after they lost Zach Parise to free agency. In total, the Devils have lost 98 of the 216 goals they scored during their Stanley Cup run in 2011-12.

The timing of his retirement couldn't come at a worse time either. New Jersey traded the No. 9 overall pick in this year's draft to trade for goaltender Cory Schneider and won't have a first-round pick next year due to Kovalchuk's contract sanctions.

Being a week into free agency also means the market is bone dry, with 41-year old Jaromir Jagr one of the only big names left without a team. Jagr was rumored to be interested in playing with Patrik Elias in New Jersey, but that's all just speculation.

The Devils have a plethora of defensemen in the system that they could trade if they wanted to land a goal scorer, but I still don't believe they can get a quality forward like Kovalchuk without giving up a huge chunk of their future.

Thomas Vanek is available in Buffalo, and the Sabres do need defensive help as they try to rebuild their core, but New Jersey just traded them Henrik Tallinder for a prospect to clear space. However, if there is any team that has the pieces to make a move, it's the Devils.

And you can't forget about the power play. New Jersey will have their third power play coach in three years once they decide to bring someone in, and it's hard to introduce a new system with nobody to run the unit.

A lot of fans wondered why the Devils brought back Marek Zidlicky yesterday to a one-year deal. Perhaps the sense of losing Kovalchuk had something to do with that, especially because Lamoriello specifically pointed out his skill on the PP.

 

Lamoriello said he re-signed Zidlicky, "For what he brings to the power play. He’s a puck-moving defenseman and he fit in very well. "

The Devils did manage to add Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe this offseason to replace Clarkson and add scoring depth, but it now seems they are back to square one and actually lost any momentum they had.

New Jersey does have Reid Boucher in the AHL and Stefan Matteau with some NHL experience, but they are still a few years away, and neither of them come close to the abilities Kovalchuk brought to this team. The Devils will have to rely on guys like Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique to carry the load unless they make a move.

Lamoriello had a conference call shortly after the decision, and he made it clear that the Devils will be ready to play in September and that the move did not put the team in a significant hole.

The key move here is to not panic. Signing guys like Mikhail Grabovski would be a panic move, and I don't think the Devils pull the trigger on him considering the money they gave to Clowe.

For now, I think the Devils should focus on bringing in Jagr for a one-year deal and start working the league to see if they can make a trade. One thing is for sure: The team that you've seen the past two years is going to have a complete facelift by the start of 2013-14.

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