Is former New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk eyeing a return to the NHL?

ByDave Caldwell ESPN logo
Saturday, June 17, 2017

When formidable New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk said he was retiring from the NHL at age 30 to spend more time with his wife and three children in his native Russia, it seemed as if he was pretty much putting the North American portion of his career on ice -- forever.

It had been a difficult and costly decision: By walking away from the final 12 years of his 15-year contract with the Devils, Kovalchuk was forfeiting $77 million. When he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, it was for a good salary, but the contract was for only four years.

Well, those four years are up. Kovalchuk is still strong, tough and prolific -- and his NHL career is apparently not frozen solid anymore.

Kovalchuk scored 89 goals in 209 regular-season games and helped SKA St. Petersburg win the Gagarin Cup twice in the past three years. Even at 34, his KHL opponents say he is every bit the force that he was for 11 seasons in the NHL.

Kovalchuk has become a hot topic in North America again, because he has begun shopping for a new team -- and that team very well could turn out to be in the NHL. There has been no shortage of interest from NHL teams interested in signing the 230-pound winger.

"I think he looks the same," Matt Gilroy, a 32-year-old defenseman from Long Island who played for four NHL teams and is now a two-time KHL all-star with Spartak Moscow, said this week. "He's older, maybe, but he's still so dangerous when he has the puck, especially on the power play. He can score goals when he has an opportunity."

Gilroy, who also faced Kovalchuk when Gilroy was with the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators, said Kovalchuk still has a great shot.

"I know it's been four years, and people get older, but the way he plays is still the same," Gilroy said."He plays with an edge, and he's still a pretty aggressive guy. I really don't think transitioning back to the NHL would be an issue."

Getting Kovalchuk to return to the NHL would not be all that complicated, either. According to league bylaws, he is allowed to re-sign with the Devils when free agency opens July 1. Then, as an active roster player, he can be traded to another team.

Ray Shero, the Devils' general manager, declined to comment, as did Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman. But when Kovalchuk decided last summer to begin exploring a return to the NHL, he determined he preferred to play for a team that is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Kovalchuk does not have a Stanley Cup. The Devils lost to theLos Angeles Kingsin the 2012 Cup Final -- through which Kovalchuk played with a serious back injury -- but New Jersey has not made the playoffs since then. Even with Kovalchuk, the Devils would still be in rebuilding mode.

The Devils also have the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on June 23, and Shero could add significantly to his team's nucleus by acquiring a key player, or several players, in exchange for the rights to Kovalchuk.

Jaromir Jagr, then 36, left the Rangers in 2008 to play three seasons for Omsk Avangard in the KHL, then played a half-season for the team in his hometown, Kladno, Czech Republic, during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.

Jagr was widely regarded to be invigorated by his time playing overseas. Ice surfaces are bigger, so there is less punishing contact and a heavier emphasis on skating, one of Jagr's many strengths. He scored 16 goals in 45 games for theDallas Stars and Boston Bruinsafter the lockout ended, then played all 82 games for the Devils in 2013-14, scoring 24 goals.

Jagr has missed only five regular-season games in his last three NHL seasons. He is a free agent at 45 and wants to keep playing. Kovalchuk is a kid compared to Jagr. Kovalchuk scored 38 goals in 78 games, playoffs included, with SKA Saint Petersburg last season.

He also amassed 82 penalty minutes, which suggests that he's not avoiding hits.

Gilroy, who is also a free agent, played eight games against Kovalchuk over the past three seasons and said, "He is such an offensively gifted player that you've got to be aware of him. He can still be a top-six forward. I always thought he was such a great player, and it's still obvious that his talent level is still there."

Forward Alexander Radulov returned to the NHL last season after four years in the KHL, scoring 20 goals in 82 regular-season and playoff games for the Montreal Canadiens. Radulov had played twice for the Nashville Predators but was suspended in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs for breaking curfew and was not re-signed as a free agent.

Kovalchuk was highly regarded in New Jersey. He helped the Devils to the Cup Final even though he was obviously hurt. After playing for SKA St. Petersburg during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, he hesitated to leave his family to return to New Jersey but did so anyway, playing 37 games. He and then-GM Lou Lamoriello said they were sorry to see the relationship end.

He and his wife, Nicole, now have four children, two sons and two daughters, but the value of the Russian ruble has slipped in the past two years, so he stands to make more, comparatively, by returning to the NHL. He also can resume chasing his first Stanley Cup.

After he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, Kovalchuk played eight seasons for the Atlanta Thrashers -- who appeared in all of four playoff games during his time there. He returned to the playoffs in 2010 with the Devils, who were ousted in five games.

The 2012 playoffs still represent his only deep push into the spring in North America. So there is unfinished business. All he needs now is a contender ready to cut him a deal.