With so much speculation surrounding Ilya Kovalchuk and where he will decide to play this offseason, a obstacle has just appeared in the doorway.
Kovalchuk will be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason and will certainly command top dollar from whichever team decides to sign him.
But will he even stay in the NHL?
According to sportsnet, there have been offers from at least two KHL teams that will see the Russian sniper earn $30 million over three years. This offer far surpasses any offer that Kovalchuk would receive if he decided to stay in the NHL.
Of course, there have been reports that Kovalchuk turned down a deal that would have seen him make as much, if not more, than Alexander Ovechkin. Of course, if this was indeed offered by the Thrashers, Kovalchuk turned it down, which left team no other option but to trade the superstar.
The Kovalchuk experiment in New Jersey was a complete failure. Losing in the first round for the second straight year, the Devils face the more than certain possibility of seeing Kovalchuk walk. After seeing all that was given to acquire Kovalchuk, this could weaken the Devils team over the next few years.
Since being drafted first overall in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk has played eight seasons in the NHL. In his career Kovalchuk has 338 goals and 642 points in 621 NHL games. He has eclipsed the 40-goal plateau in his last six seasons and has scored a career high 52 goals twice. The first time during the 2005-06 season and then once again in 2007-08.
After coming off his entry level contract at the end of the 2003-04 season, Kovalchuk (like most NHL players that year) went to Russia to play in the Russian Super League during the lockout. While pretty much all of the players returned to the NHL after the lockout, there were still a few holdouts. Most notably were Alexei Morozov (who has since proved to be one of the best players outside of the NHL) and, to some extent, Ilya Kovalchuk himself.
Some say that Kovalchuk's ploy to not return to the NHL after the lockout was a bargaining tool to negotiate a new contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. He went further with his threat by starting off the following season with Mytishchi Khimik of the Russian Super League, playing 11 games there.
During that time it was reported that he was offered a one year contract that would see him make $8 million that season with the team. Kovalchuk eventually turned that contract down and returned to Atlanta where he signed a five-year $28 million contract. At that point it was the largest contract ever received by a player coming off of their entry-level phase. Of course he would later be eclipsed by Sidney Crosby and fellow Russians Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, but at that point it was a significant signing for him. It had officially made him one of the highest paid players in the league.
When a player decides to leave the NHL people always assume one thing: They just want the money.
As of now, the NHL is the only professional hockey league that has a salary cap. In essence players might be taking a pay cut in order to play in the best and most competitive league in the world. Most players are more than happy to do this to play in the NHL but there are always the few players who care more about the money than anything else. Ever since the NHL lockout Ilya Kovalchuk has been perceived as one of these players.
The first time Kovalchuk stayed in Russia, it was just a holdout until he was offered more money. He had every intention on returning the NHL.
Now when we look at the Kovalchuk situation a lot has changed. While Kovalchuk is still one of the elite players in the league, he is no longer among the top earners in the league.
Kovalchuk will be expecting at least $8 million a season from whatever team tries to sign him. Even that might not be enough to sign the Russian sniper. Kovalchuk will be expecting to earn at least as much (if not more) than fellow Russians Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. Malkin earns $8.7 million over the next four seasons and Ovechkin earns around $9.5 million over the next 11 years.
Those kind of contracts are very high and will more than likely not be the ones offered to Kovalchuk this offseason by any team in the NHL. Kovalchuk's basis for leaving the Thrashers was to go to a cup contender and have the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup in the coming years. If Kovalchuk does indeed look to receive around what Malkin and Ovechkin earn, there will be no cup contending teams in the league that can afford him.
Most Cup contending teams have on average $5-7 million to work with this offseason. Unless Kovalchuk wants to return to a team that may not see postseason action for the next few seasons, he will have to take a pay cut.
Kovalchuk has a big decision to make this offseason that can ultimately define what kind of hockey player he is. Is he someone that only cares about the money or is he a someone who wants to play in the best league in the world?
If all Kovalchuk cares about is the money, than the only real choice for him would be to return to a weaker NHL team or go to the KHL. If he wants to win and prove that he's one of the worlds best, than he will need to suck it up and take a pay cut.
Ultimately whatever decision Kovalchuk makes this offseason will shape how he is perceived throughout the rest of his hockey career.